Money Stories: Understanding the Roots of Your Financial Behavior

Money Stories

I have heard many financial advisors over the years say they got into this industry because they were good at math and liked the stock market.  But what you quickly learn as a financial planner is that math has very little to do with how people manage their money.  I can run all the calculations I like and explain until I am blue in the face about optimal tax strategies, but it’s mostly a waste of time.  You see, money isn’t a number on a spreadsheet.  It’s a concept and that concept is deeply tied with our emotions whether we realize it or not.

The way we think about and interact with our money has very little to do with the number in an account or the goods and services we can trade it for.  Rather, it is based on our money stories.  And our money stories are shaped by a lifetime of experience and attitudes that have been passed down to us by our parents and their parents before them.  And in fact, if there was money trauma in your past, or your parents past it is likely affecting how you think about and interact with your money now.

Defining Your Money Story

Have you ever thought about your money story?  If not, I suggest spending some time thinking about it.  As a starting point, think about your earliest memory of money.  Or how money was discussed (or not) in your household growing up.  Did you ever experience a sudden influx or unexpected outflow of a large amount of money?  Were you taught that money was dirty?  Or that money was not something to be discussed?  Or did you grow up with “enough” such that you had everything you needed and didn’t think much about it?

For me, my parents divorced when I was five.  I don’t remember much before that time, but I know that after that money was tight for a number of years as my parents worked to reestablish their own finances.  One of my first real memories of money is standing in a Target with my mom and brother.  My brother wanted something and our mom told him we couldn’t afford it.  My brother lost it.  He did not like being told that he couldn’t afford something he wanted.  Fast forward thirty years and this is still true for him.  He started working as soon as he could as a teenager and hasn’t stopped since.  He likes to be able to afford what he wants, when he wants it, and he doesn’t want anyone to tell him otherwise.

Another early memory I have is of my father sitting at the kitchen table “doing” his bills.  He owned a construction business and did all of the bookkeeping for it in the evenings in our kitchen.  From this I learned about things like balancing a checkbook and keeping your financial records organized.  I don’t remember there being any particular feeling of scarcity or abundance around this process, it was just a very methodical process (done with a handheld calculator and a legal pad because home computers weren’t a thing yet).

Another interesting exercise is to think about what socio-economic class you were in during elementary or middle school.  How did you know?  For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t have social media showing us how the ultra-wealthy live.  If you are like me, you likely had a frame of reference that didn’t extend much beyond your school or town.  While there may have been different levels of wealth in those environments, it was likely not that many degrees of difference.  It wasn’t until college and beyond that I really understood how varied the wealth levels of different people are.

Identifying Patterns and Beliefs

As you start to think about these early experiences, do you see any patterns in your life now that you can connect?  Did you grow up with little money, and now that you earn your own money you can’t stop spending on everything you want?  Or is it just the opposite and you hoard money, fearing to spend any in case it all goes away?  Or maybe you think that finances and investing aren’t something you can understand because you were never taught about them, or you received messaging that women can’t (or shouldn’t) handle the money.

There is no one way that a past experience will express itself in your current behavior.  If you have siblings, you can easily see this.  Although you may have had very similar experiences growing up, I am willing to bet that you and your brothers or sisters interact differently with money now.  The key is to understand what you experienced and what patterns you see in your attitudes and behaviors now that you can connect back to those experiences.

Unpacking Limiting Money Beliefs

As you start to understand your money story, you can also start to see what limiting beliefs might be tied to your story.  Perhaps culturally, you learned that wealth is equal to success and so you feel that you aren’t successful unless you have a high-earning job even if that job is making you miserable.  Alternatively, maybe you grew up hearing negative comments when someone in the neighborhood bought an expensive new car and so you think that external displays of wealth are a bad thing.

Regardless of what beliefs you have, identifying them is the first step.  Then you can decide if they are serving you now or not.  It is not a fact that driving a nice car makes you a bad person if that is what makes you happy (and you are financially able to afford it).  Just as it is not a fact that you can’t be successful unless you earn a lot of money.  You get to define what makes you feel successful and if that is being a partner in a fancy law firm working 80 hours a week then that’s great.  But if it’s working for a non-profit where you get to see the positive impact of your work on the lives of others every day (but aren’t earning oodles of money) then that is success too.

Creating a New Money Narrative

Once you understand more about your money story and the beliefs resulting from that story, you can start to create a new narrative.  What role do you want money to play in your life?  For me, I want to be able to use it as a tool to achieve the life I want including more time with family, good health and the freedom of running my own business.  I don’t need fancy cars or expensive handbags.  I have had those things in the past and have found that they don’t bring me joy.  I am much happier when I am able to use my money in alignment with my values.

And don’t be afraid to get professional guidance if needed.  If you never learned about managing your finances and have been hampered by the belief that you “can’t”, consider investing in a personal finance course.  Or perhaps your money issues run deeper or there was real financial trauma in your past.  Consult with a financial therapist or coach.  They will help you with strategies to move past the issues and into a more positive space.  You have the power to change your relationship with money and do things differently in the future.

Money Stories in Action

Money stories are incredibly powerful in shaping our behavior, but most people aren’t aware of them.  Understanding your money story, and the patterns and beliefs that story has created in your life, is a great first step.  Once you know why you behave in a certain way, you can more easily change that behavior if you desire. 

If you find this topic as interesting as I do, there are a number of ways to learn more.  One is through the 50 Fires podcast with financial planner Carl Richards.  He delves into money memories and money stories with his guests in a very open and honest way.  It’s a great way to understand more about how emotions (many of them subconscious) have so much more to do with your money than numbers do.

Sara Zuckerman, CFP®, CDFA® is the founder of Reset Financial Planning located Scottsdale, AZ and serving women across the country with a focus on helping women who find themselves suddenly single in mid-life, align their financial resources with their values to plan for the next chapter of their lives.

 

If you are interested in learning about how I can help you take charge of your finances as a newly single woman, please contact me at  or schedule a free 20-minute consultation.

 

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Disclaimer: This article is provided for educational, general information, and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. We encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Reset Financial Planning, LLC, and all rights are reserved.