By Marjorie L. Rand, CPA, CFP®, RICP®
Emotions are powerful. Our financial situations can easily elicit an emotional response from us—but should they? As hard as we try, it’s not always easy to view our finances without triggering an emotional response.
The reason? Our money habits form at a very young age. For instance, someone who knows deep down they should save instead of spend can still have a tough time veering off script because they have an emotional connection to spending (it makes them feel good) even though they understand it can be a destructive habit (they are not saving enough).
Let’s take a deeper look into how we develop our money habits, and what we can do to change them to remove emotions from the script.
The Money Script
Do you sometimes feel like the discipline to make rational and well-thought-out financial decisions must be too good to be true? Because no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to stick to it? Well, I am sure there are others that feel the same way. These feelings are not uncommon and are most likely due to the emotional and psychological baggage we all carry around relating to our money, otherwise known as our money scripts. And, as with most of the baggage we’ve lugged into our adult lives, these scripts usually start forming at a very young age.
Even though we may not be aware of it, we spend our childhood picking up on how our parents and other significant role models relate to and handle money, and over time, our brains are subconsciously trained to respond in similar ways. If your parents were confident in their ability to make wise investments, you will likely face investing with confidence as well. Contrarily, if you experienced your parents scrounging to get by and often quarreling over expenses, you may experience some pretty strong feelings of guilt when making certain purchases.
The seeds of money scripts are planted in childhood, watered by observation, and eventually grow to influence your emotional beliefs about finances as an adult. For this reason, it is vital to be intentional and diligent in talking to your kids about money and modeling healthy financial behaviors. It is just as important to take the time to examine yourself and understand your money scripts and how they influence your financial behavior.
The Negative Side of Money Scripts
To be fair, not all money scripts are bad. Some behaviors we learn plant seeds for beneficial emotions about finances. However, other behaviors, such as money avoidance, focus on financial status, or the idolization and even worship of money, can be flat-out detrimental. Unhealthy emotions and belief patterns can lead to all kinds of financial problems, such as financial infidelity, compulsive buying, pathological gambling, and financial dependence. Certain money scripts have been tied to lower levels of net worth, lower income, and higher amounts of revolving credit.
Those may sound extreme, but have you ever let panic during a market downturn take your focus off of your long-term investing plan? Have you ever been unable to make a decision because you were paralyzed with worry and anxiety about the future? Have you ever wreaked havoc on your budget for the momentary high of acquiring something you really wanted? All of these behaviors stem from your personal money script.
Money Scripts Can Be Changed
We often think that if we had more money, we wouldn’t have any problems. But we have money problems because of how we approach money, not necessarily because we don’t have enough. This is good news! We might not be able to drastically increase our income, but we can learn to control our attitudes and perceptions. Our money scripts may be ingrained from childhood, but they are not permanent. With a focused and concerted effort, they can be changed.
The first step you must take in overcoming your money scripts is to identify them. To do this, you must become aware of your emotional responses to common financial situations. Begin to stop and notice your emotional responses to these common experiences:
- Earning money
- Buying things
- Saving for the future
- Budgeting and tracking expenses
- Making financial decisions
- Volatile markets
- Healthy markets
- Meeting with a financial professional
- Thinking about your financial future
How do these things make you feel? Anything that elicits strong emotions warrants further reflection. Keep in mind that negative emotions are not the only ones that can harm your financial life. Some positive emotions, like optimism and self-confidence, can bring about negative results if unwarranted and left unchecked.
How to Manage Emotional Money Decisions
The key to changing your money scripts and developing healthier money habits is learning to control your emotions. You can also build some new, healthy habits that protect you financially and incorporate them into your life. Habits and disciplines such as taking advantage of automatic savings, investing through your bank or employer’s retirement plan, scheduling regular family budget meetings, and enlisting the help of someone reliable to keep you accountable are great places to start. Eventually, you will learn how you respond to emotional triggers and you can then take steps, like mandating a “cooling off” period for yourself, before making any decisions.
Finally, you need to be willing to forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Leave the past in the past and move forward with the new knowledge you have gained. Choosing to forgive yourself for past mistakes frees you up to be more effective with your new tools. As you begin to collect victories, both big and small, you will likely find it even easier to extend forgiveness.
Your Financial Partner
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Marjorie Rand is founder and financial advisor at Rand Financial Planning, a comprehensive, fee-only, fiduciary financial planning firm. Marge specializes in helping her clients plan for a secure retirement and navigate life’s many transitions through customized, tax-efficient retirement planning. She is passionate about empowering her clients to make the best financial decisions for their life and being by their side no matter what life throws at them. Marjorie spent many years as a CPA before founding Rand Financial Planning so she could be a go-to source for all her clients’ financial needs and help them avoid costly mistakes. She has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Rutgers University and a Master of Science in Taxation from Fairleigh Dickinson University, along with the Retirement Income Certified Professional® (RICP®) and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certifications. When she’s not working, Marge enjoys boating, horseback riding, traveling, and hiking with her husband and her dog, Rangeley. To learn more about Marjorie, connect with her on LinkedIn.