My Money Story

Growing up, I’m surprised at how little we talked about money in our family, particularly given the fact that my dad is an accounting professor. I never knew how much he made at his job, and there wasn’t much discussion about what we as a family were spending or saving. I suppose that because we had enough, there just wasn’t a need to.

Luckily, my parents did attempt to instill some good financial habits in me in as a kid. I had a savings account at a very young age, they cosigned with me on a low-limit credit card when I was a teenager so I could start building credit, and they generally encouraged me to “save my pennies for a rainy day.” Because of these experiences, I grew up believing that money was important, but definitely not something that people talked about.

This narrative about how I view personal finance and the role that money plays in my life can be considered my “money story.” You see, everyone has a money story, a set of beliefs and experiences that have shaped their current views on spending and saving.

We Are Shaped By Our Culture and Past Experiences

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a wonderful book by Sarah Newcomb called “Loaded: Money, Psychology, and How to Get Ahead Without Leaving Your Values Behind.” She spends a great deal of time in the first half of the book explaining money stories and the ways in which our parents and families impact our views and shape our behaviors.

Newcomb also notes the great extent to which money messages are also prevalent in movies, music, religion, and popular culture. How many times have you seen narratives about a rich person corrupted by money? Think of Mr. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, even Mr. Krabs in Spongebob Squarepants. Now think of all the times that poverty is glorified as a way of keeping people humble, driven, and connected to their roots: Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the title character in the musical Annie.

As a society, we’re also taught to love the rags-to-riches story. We love seeing people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Other societal money messages teach us that the rich or entrepreneurial enjoy the fruits of their labor, while those in poverty are lazy or unmotivated. We’ve even got a plethora of casual proverbs and idioms about money: Money doesn’t grow on trees. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Money is the root of all evil. A fool and his money are soon parted.

In short, we are being constantly bombarded with money messages—and between what we see in the media, and what our parents teach us, we each build our unique money stories over time.

Money Stories Shape Our Financial Behaviors

So why is this such a big deal? Well, turns out our money stories, and our resulting financial beliefs, have a major impact on our behavior. Consider the following hypothetical examples:

Hypothetical Money Story Behavioral Implications
Sarah grows up in a lower income household, where her parents are constantly lecturing her about the importance of frugal spending and saving. She grows up feeling like her financial decisions are her own responsibility. Sarah feels confident in her ability to take control of her finances at a young age. Because she is empowered to make her own financial decisions, she enjoys seeing the rewards of her hard work.
Jamison comes from a religious family and believes that the events in his life, including his financial situation, are part of a greater plan. Jamison believes that God intended him to be poor, and that any attempt to rise above his means would be denying the path that God set out for him. As a result, he makes no attempt to build a financially sound future.
Javier comes from a long line of doctors and lawyers, who are proud when he accepts admission to a first-rate college. The expectation is that he, too, is on the way to a high-powered career. Because of his background, Javier is terrified to tell his parents that he has decided to pursue an art major instead of “something practical” like business or pre-law. He feels guilty about following his passion instead of pursuing money.
Amanda comes from a wealthy family and is taught that talking about money is tacky, much like discussing religion or politics. She assumes that she will be well provided for in adulthood as she was in childhood. Because Amanda isn’t taught the importance of spending, she frequently finds herself in a situation of overspending. She learns the hard way that credit cards don’t pay themselves, and is forced to file for bankruptcy.

The above situations are purely hypothetical, but they hit at two important lessons:

  1. Our relationships to money aren’t always related to how much we have. People in situations of poverty can build positive or negative relationships with money, as can those who grow up in prosperous environments.
  2. Our money stories can help us or hurt us. We might takeaway good habits from our experiences, or engage in acts of self-sabotage because of our views on how money impacts us.

Discovering Your Money Story

In her book, Newcomb offers up a simple exercise to help you discover your own money story, as well as figure out the implications that your beliefs have on your current behaviors. She recommends you ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who have been the two or three most influential people in your life, financially, and how did/do each of them view money?
  • If money were a character in your life’s story, up to this point would you say it has been a friend or an enemy?
  • What kinds of money messages did you receive growing up? Did the people around you see money as good or evil, sacred or profane? How did your views influence your own perspective?
  • What words come to mind to finish the sentence, “Money is…” or, “In my life, money has been…”
  • What emotions do you strongly associate with money?

Once you’ve thought about those questions, take some time and write out your own money story. I would also encourage you to think about the ways in which your money story has resulted in good or bad financial habits, as well as the narratives you tell yourself to support those habits.

The bottom line is this: if you’ve been struggling with your relationship with money, or you’ve got bad financial habits that you just can’t crack, it’s worth taking the time to run through this exercise. Understanding your own money story could be the secret to deprogramming some damaging mindsets and rebuilding healthier financial habits.

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