“Until you can manage your emotions, don’t expect to manage money.” — Warren Buffet
How would you describe your emotions about money?
a. Money is bad
b. Money is good
c. I try not to think about money because when I do, I feel bad
In the new era of social media sharing, we can talk about all kinds of things. But money is still a taboo subject for most of us. And it’s frequently a source of uncomfortable emotions.
Why is that?
In my experience, how we feel about money arises from the beliefs we have about it. Most of our beliefs are learned as children, from listening to how our parents talked about money, what they said about people who did or didn’t have money, and watching how they handled the family’s finances. These beliefs or ‘money scripts’ typically stay below our conscious awareness, and most of us don’t usually think to re-examine them as adults to determine if they are still serving us well.
Two psychologists, Ted and Brad Klontz, are pioneers in combining the fields of psychotherapy and financial planning. They have identified several common money scripts that get in the way of having a healthy relationship with money.
Common Money Scripts
Do any of the following statements sound familiar?
1. More money will make everything better. This is a very common script — it’s why people line up for Powerball tickets. But research has shown that once people have enough money to reach a certain level of emotional wellbeing — about $75,000 to $86,000 currently depending on where you live (in North America) — having more money is not associated with being happier.
Once your basic needs are met with something left over to spend as you please, more money can provide more satisfaction, but not necessarily more happiness. People who are already unhappy at one income level will probably still be unhappy even if they move to a higher income level. More money can also bring more stress. Just look at all the lottery winners who declare bankruptcy within three to five years after receiving their windfall.
2. Money is bad. This is a powerful and negative belief that can sabotage someone’s financial stability when it remains unconscious. It’s often associated with the idea that people who are rich got that way by taking advantage of others. Who wants to do that if it means being a bad person? But money isn’t good or bad — it’s just a tool that we can use wisely and skillfully to live the life we want.
3. I don’t deserve money. This script is sometimes found among people who inherited money or feel guilty for some reason about their good fortune. If others are less fortunate, that casts a shadow over any enjoyment or pleasure that might be had as a result of spending money. An alternate version is I can’t ask people to pay me $X for what I do — it’s too much. This is a common script among people in the helping professions and often leads to underemployment or undervaluing their services.
4. I deserve to spend money. Like many money scripts, there is an element of truth to this one. Of course, we all deserve to spend money. It becomes problematic when people consistently spend beyond their means without having enough to meet basic needs or handle a simple financial emergency.
5. There will never be enough money. People with this belief may have struggled with poverty, either their own or a family member’s, and learned to be hypervigilant about it. No matter how much money they actually earn or have, they are afraid of losing it, and so no amount will ever be enough to feel emotionally secure. This belief creates a lot of anxiety and gets in the way of being able to enjoy what money can provide.
6. If I’m good, the universe will take care of me. This belief is sometimes seen in people who come from wealthy families, who have always had their needs and wants to be met without any effort on their part. It is also sometimes found among those in the helping professions. If they do everything right, for the right reasons, then the universe will provide, again, without effort. This belief allows people to avoid taking an active role in managing their personal finances.
How to Change an Unconscious Money Script
What makes these beliefs so challenging to change are the emotions that can be attached to them. People who know what they need to do to improve their financial situation, but are consistently unable to take action, are likely to have outdated money scripts. Hint: any statements or beliefs that include “Always” or “Never” are likely to be part of an unconscious money script.
The good news is that it is possible to change dysfunctional money scripts, and bringing them into conscious awareness is a necessary first step. The key is finding a way to process the associated emotions attached to the belief. Then it becomes possible to change behaviors. Sometimes, simply becoming aware of the belief is sufficient. In other cases, professional counseling or therapy may be needed.
Were your parents savers or spenders when you were growing up? How did growing up in your family affect your beliefs about money? With the new year rapidly approaching, now is a good time to start thinking about a money belief and behavior you might like to change in 2022.
By Martha Menard, PhD. Martha is a behavioral scientist and serves as the Director of Financial Coaching for Questis. She is a member of the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education and the Financial Therapy Association.