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Understanding Your Relationship with Money: 09/15/2018

Packrat or hoarder?

Recently a friend who needed help called me. The home she grew up in, where her mother still lives, is being taken over by mountains of “stuff.” It’s difficult even to walk from room to room. Her two younger sisters, both in their 20s, still live with her mom. While mom was on vacation, my friend went to visit her sisters and couldn’t believe the overwhelmed interior with accumulated furniture, piles of old clothes filling bedrooms, stacks of paper on the dining table and countertops, and garbage everywhere. The living situation had always been cluttered, but now was at an all-time high. She was deeply concerned about how out-of-control living conditions had become. She felt it was unsafe and depressing for everyone.

I’ve known her mom for years, but I thought she was just a packrat; she saved everything that people would give her while she raised three children on her own. Her husband had passed away young from cancer. The accumulation of stuff had worsened.

According to Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D., writing in a Psychology Today article, “It can be difficult to determine whether someone is a hoarder or just a packrat, someone who just likes to hang on to things. The main determiner between just a personal preference and a disorder usually has to do with whether or not, and how much, that behavior has begun to negatively impact daily functioning.”

Here are generally recognized symptoms of hoarding from the Mayo Clinic:

Cluttered living spaces

Inability to discard items

Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines, or junk mail

Moving items from one pile to another without discarding anything

Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, including trash

Difficulty managing daily activities, procrastinating, and trouble making decisions

Difficulty organizing items


Excessive attachment to possessions; discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions

Limited or no social interactions

When looking at a hoarder’s relationship with money, it’s not surprising to see difficulty in saving money or planning for future security. There’s chaos in paying bills on time or paying them at all. Financially, there’s no sense of organization or system in place to ensure utilities stay turned on. This causes family members anxiety and fear of what might come next, which leads to isolation and keeping secrets. If this is the role model, then these behaviors impact the children and their relationship with money.

I began to research how these behaviors impact children being raised by hoarders. Suzanne A. Chabaud, Ph.D., wrote The Hidden Lives of Children of Hoarders for Psychiatric Times. “A person’s value becomes secondary to a ‘good deal,’” she explains. As family members struggle, hoarders often feel criticized and rejected so they turn to objects for safety and fulfillment through misguided beliefs or values.

As the disorder intensifies, family members feel devalued, broken-hearted, angry, helpless, and exhausted. Psychological risks abound as the hoarder needs to control and restrict the home. Children abandon their needs and learn to accept the unacceptable. When nothing else works, children hide what is too painful to acknowledge. Helplessness and hopelessness replace celebrations of life’s journey.

Let’s compare my friend’s relationship with money versus her siblings’. The two are very different. My friend is the oldest; she moved out of her mother’s home early to escape the chaos. She went to college, is successfully employed, and living on her own. She displays more of the Warrior money type in reaction to her mom’s irresponsible behaviors. Being the oldest, she also has the tendency to take on more responsibility toward the family’s well-being, rescuing by paying some of mom’s bills. This is the Martyr money type. She’s working on creating stronger boundaries and effective communication.

Her younger siblings have a harder time launching themselves into the world. They have difficulty making decisions about their life and work; when they do, the outcome is short-lived. This is the Innocent money type. They are financially dependent on their mom by living at home and have a tendency to use drugs or alcohol to ineffectively deal with their feelings of anger and helplessness, which represents the Victim money type. Big sister keeps her sights on jobs and other opportunities to help them launch.

In looking at solutions, there are therapeutic and financial choices. Chabaud shares some therapeutic solutions. “Family therapy starts the process to help adult children address the effects of hoarding…when possible, devise a plan to involve parents and siblings in therapy. Other mental disorders associated with hoarding can be addressed with medication. Professional organizers experienced with hoarders help with in-home interventions. Professional help can be less traumatizing to families when compassionate, coordinated, and effective resources guide them into a safer life.”

In helping my friend with emotional/financial solutions, we reevaluated her tendency to rescue, created a cash flow statement to discover whether she could afford to rescue, and developed effective communications with her mom and siblings.

Good news! Her mom agreed to accept help from her daughters and they set a start date to begin clearing some rooms. They were respectful and compassionate; they also found ways to laugh, lightening the mood. This is just the beginning but it puts the hardest step behind them.

To learn more about your relationship with money, visit and take the complimentary “Money Type Quiz.” Only you will see the results. Or contact me at

Donna Colfer has worked in financial management since 1987. As a Financial Counselor and a Certified Money Coach, she blends her financial expertise with spiritual counseling in her private practice in Sonoma. A Valley resident since 1981, Donna and her husband, Randy, reside in Kenwood.

© 2020 Donna Colfer


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