Try to remember your earliest experience with money. Maybe you cringe as you recall your parents arguing about the budget while you tried to focus on your homework. Or maybe it’s the feeling of accomplishment you had the first time you saved up enough of your allowance to buy yourself a treat. Good or bad, that scenario—and all the emotions associated with it—is likely telling of how you handle money as an adult.
“Most of us have money narratives from our childhood years, which color our present financial behaviors,” says Christine Luken, certified financial coach and author of Money is Emotional. “As young children, we tend to internalize everything our parents tell us as the truth and this includes what they say about money.”
And what they do with their money, too. Whether you mean to or not, you’ll often adopt financial habits you witnessed from your parents, Luken explains. So, for example, if your parents never talked about money and racked up credit card debt, you might unwittingly follow suit. When you reach adulthood, these practices become so ingrained that you might not even think to question them: You just accept you’re a bad saver or impulsive spender without considering why that might be.
“As young children, we tend to internalize everything our parents tell us as the truth and this includes what they say about money.”
Jean Marie Dillon, a Certified Financial Planner®, adds that your upbringing could also have the opposite effect: Instead of mimicking your parents, you may observe their behaviors, recognize them as harmful, and choose to avoid them altogether. If your parents were always scrimping and saving, for example, you might have a negative association with money. Thinking that all things dealing with dollars and cents are “bad,” you could avoid budgeting, negotiating, or spending any mental energy at all on your finances. Obviously, these aren’t exactly healthy habits.
“The true masters are balancers,” Dillon says. “They dance around their parents as needed, rejecting or tolerating parental money management knowledge as required, either to preserve family peace or exercise financial independence.” But this isn’t easy: “It takes some emotional intelligence for balancers to summarily pick out the good and bad of their parents’ financial upbringing,” Dillon says.
Like breaking any bad habit, learning to let go of unhealthy financial tendencies requires awareness.
Changing ingrained behaviors is difficult, but not impossible. Like breaking any bad habit, learning to let go of unhealthy financial tendencies requires awareness. Luken says you can start by paying attention to the words you use when you talk about money. “I advise that my clients carry around an index card with them for a week and write down any negative thoughts or words they’re saying about money,” she says. “Then, I ask them to tell me about their parents’ actions and attitudes about personal finance. Do they recall a particularly strong money memory from their childhood? Once we identify an unhealthy money memory or attitude, we can examine it objectively to see if it’s serving or harming my client’s current situation.”
For the final step in her exercise, Luken asks her clients to replace the negative words they’ve written on their card with positive statements they can use as daily money affirmations. If you’ve written that talking about money only causes stress, you might remind yourself that these difficult conversations are worth having by adding something like, “I bring value to the table in my work and deserve to be paid accordingly.”
This simple change in perspective could give you the courage to ask for a raise or the strength to stick to a budget. You can’t go back and erase every fight about the mortgage you overheard your parents have, but by identifying your associations with money, you can flip the script for yourself.
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