Help! Could I Have Bag Lady Syndrome?

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2007-03-1316

I found out that I actually have a few things in common with these women: Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine, Katie Couric, and even the wife of Charles Schwab and Company’s ex-CEO! It may not be what you think, as we don’t share the same fortunes; what it is, in fact, is that we all share money anxieties. These women all admitted to having “bag lady syndrome.” And I’m afraid I might actually have a touch of it as well.

What is “bag lady syndrome” exactly? It’s this irrational fear of not having enough money. That maybe one day we’ll wake up and we won’t have quite enough to feed, clothe ourselves or put something over our heads. Maybe we’ll find ourselves holing up in our cars or even just loitering the streets. I’ll admit I feel this way only sometimes, but why do I feel it at all?

Let’s take a closer look at this somewhat unusual but not uncommon condition. Do any of this sound familiar?

bag lady

Characteristics of Bag Lady Syndrome

  1. It’s not a real medical or psychological condition but a set of specific fears surrounding money. Phew! I’m relieved that the kind that I have is nothing too serious. I hope.
  2. Only women have it.
    Men apparently do not display parallel anxieties such as Bowery Bum fears. The reason is because men, who are traditionally breadwinners, are groomed to be providers and managers of their money, while women traditionally being the dependent sex, may be more groomed to be consumers and spenders. Women may thus feel less confident with handling finances and may feel less in control of their financial destiny. From the source article:

    “No, men don’t have bowery bum fears,” says Mellan. “They have fears that are more rational and related to their provider burden: being injured, dying young, being laid off, things like that. Whereas bag-lady syndrome is more global, a magical, nameless thing like free-floating anxiety.”

    Hmmm….that sounds somewhat weird though — when I feel anxiety, I am usually certain where it’s coming from and it’s from something concrete. So when is it magical and nameless? But supposedly there are genuinely debilitating cases of this that have caused serious depression in some women.

  3. It is rooted in basic insecurity.
    According to the article, “being single costs 80% that of a couple, and women are seven times more likely to be single and live six years longer. Given a 50% divorce rate and that the average age of widowhood is 56, there’s probably good reason to be concerned.”
  4. Any woman can exhibit signs of having the syndrome, regardless of her financial standing.

    Some signs include:

    • feeling paralyzed about what to do with one’s finances so nothing is done
    • being overly conservative with one’s investments due to an unfounded fear of loss
    • feeling the need to avoid money altogether or anything that smacks of finances thus leaving the responsibility to men and exacerbating the problem
    • needing to hoard money

    In my case, I show tiny signs of the 2nd and 4th behaviors. Eeek! I guess I used to be called Hetty Green for a reason. So this got me thinking about those stories of people who died almost like paupers and left massive estates behind.

  5. Beat it by taking action.
    For some, it’s by thinking more of others and less of themselves, which can take away the self focus that is inherent in insecurities. For others, it is to seek assistance from experts or mentors in order to gain better control of their finances and hopefully allay their lack of confidence over handling money.

I Don’t Really Have This, Or Do I?

I’ll admit that I’m a bit neurotic.

I don’t think I necessarily have a pronounced case of this, although I am certain that my frugal habits stem from the need to store up, like a squirrel does its nuts, before the winter season hits. What I discovered though, was that despite making fairly good progress with our household’s financial plans and goals, any concerns I was harboring regarding having a “lack of resources” at any point in time may be due to my tendency to anticipate the future a little too dramatically. Because I try to ground myself in reality too much and realize how future changes in our lives can impact our current lifestyle and financial standing, I end up acting like the proverbial hoarding marsupial and have made this a way of life. I also have this terrible habit of catastrophizing too much thus leading myself to adapt certain behaviors that have been both good and bad for our plight. Good, in the sense that our conservative fiscal habits have earned us a stable foundation today, but bad, in the sense that unpleasant and sometimes irrational fears can cloud our decisions and just plain make us miserable.

In the end, it’s all about achieving balance as always. And that’s something I’ve got to work on in order to enjoy life and what’s left of it that we have, regardless of the number of figures displayed in our bank accounts.

< Credit: Do You Suffer Bag Lady Syndrome? by MSN Money and Dream In Miniature Dolls >

Copyright © 2007 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

ispf March 13, 2007 at 9:35 am

being overly conservative with one’s investments due to an unfounded fear of loss” & “needing to horde money

That sums up how ‘the better half’ thinks of money! Are you sure “only women have it” ? I have living, breating proof to the contrary πŸ™‚

Silicon Valley Blogger March 13, 2007 at 4:46 pm


First of all, thanks for bringing up the question: don’t men have this issue as well? I went ahead and updated the post to reflect some points that address this matter.

Now let me try to respond to your thoughts: according to studies, men aren’t supposed to have this — the reason I think is that men may display the same “signs” but the cause for their doing so could be different. But of course, that is what the “literature” may say but in the end it’s all probably the same thing.

You know how it goes — for women, the reason for hording and paralysis is the fear of loss and becoming a bag lady. For men, it’s all about power and needing to be in control of things….

I’m also having an issue with how the “expert” is saying that men’s anxiety is rooted in concrete and rational scenarios, whereas women’s money anxieties along the lines of the bag lady syndrome are “magical” and “nameless”. Feminists would have a field day with that!

So either: the symptoms may be similar but the causes could be different. Or men and women do have the same thing but the authorities would like to make gender differences. At least, I’m trying to explain what the “studies” are saying. But yeah, I think it’s all just about plain insecurity!

frugal zeitgeist March 13, 2007 at 6:44 pm

I totally have this. I’m not really a doom-and-gloom kind of person, but I treat my finances as a worst-case scenario As the Chinese fortune cookie says, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” If I screw it up, the cavalry’s not coming. . . so I won’t.

Love your blog. Keep it up.

Eric Galvin March 13, 2007 at 10:09 pm

u have a great website.

yes, i admit sometimes I have this feeling in fact almost all you mentioned I feel I have it. i think partly as i continue to mature more pressure comes in most specially we coming from a Chinese or in general Asian culture business is generation to generation thing.

the hard part though is that what if you steer the business not really well. what I normally do to avoid as a man, is to continually explore things in which I feel will make me financially independent – on look out for new business opportunities, etc. And I know as I continually explore the right formula in achieving the financial go is not far from reach.

really nice blog!

boomie March 21, 2007 at 11:47 am

if you squeeze a bar of soap in your hand it will be forced out of your clutch and fall to the ground. if you leave your palm open, the bar of soap will stay.

such is life. leave your palm open and the money will stay.

you become what you envision. envision yourself a bag lady on the streets and there you will find yourself one day.

envision yourself to be contented, with all one needs in life and that is how you will be.

Graham May 4, 2007 at 5:06 pm

I know at least one man who suffers from exactly this kind of anxiety in relation to money. Me. I’m starting to deal with it by forcing myself to go into a bank at least once a day. I don’t believe it stems from power and needing to be in control. In my opinion it stems from society grooming men to bear responsibility. But if I had complete insight, I wouldn’t suffer from this anxiety.

Quatinn September 22, 2009 at 10:25 am

It can’t be all bad. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been with the completely insane. πŸ™‚

mark gil anthony plaza January 12, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Some people have an irrational fear of not having enough money. This is something we need to control!

blah blah March 12, 2011 at 8:16 am

Well, I can understand why some folks would have a RATIONAL fear of not having enough money. Folks living in the now and not planning ahead haven’t mapped out how much money they really need to live the rest of their supposed “average” life-span of 78 years. They don’t realize that the average senior spends $250,000 on medical expenses alone (!). They don’t realize that while $40k/yr was quite a lot of money to live off of when your parents retired, when you retire that’s going to probably be borderline poverty level.

Some have always been successful about landing jobs or having people around them bail them out in bad situations. But some folks are on their own. They’re not good at job hopping, even if they’re really good at their job. They don’t have friends and family, so any time they’ve lost a job for an extended period of time, the amount of money it took to survive burned into their mind. So, they constantly strive to keep a reserve with that amount of money and then some just to be safe. And that’s money just sitting there, always solvent/liquid, not being invested. It’s basically money stuffed into a mattress, even though it’s probably in a savings account or money market…it’s easily accessible and not being leveraged. Then these people find themselves wanting to do something splurgish, like maybe buy a new car since their old car is dying, but they wonder if they’re going to lose their job any time soon, or have a major medical issue that could wipe out large sums of money, etc, etc.. you get paralyzed with financial fears. After dating a while, you get used by others that just want you to blow money on them taking them out to eat and movies and drinks and trips, so that becomes this stereotype…that if you want love in your life you’re going to have to shell out a lot of your money and become a wallet for them. So that paralyzes them from relationships. It gets complicated. But I see where this comes from, for both men and women.

Sandra May 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Frankly, as long as a person doesn’t hurt others, it isn’t anyone’s business whether I am too frugal, have bag lady syndrome, or whatever it is, or whatever.

The problem is that too many people want to get into your business, and in my case, that includes family.

Silicon Valley Blogger May 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Agree with you completely. Unfortunately, people tend to be nosy and love to give their unsolicited opinions and advice (plus more). But I always go by the credo: to each his/her own. I just wish that more people would think this way too.

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