Beliefs

How often have you told yourself that managing your finances is “just too complicated”? Or, “I don’t have enough money to budget”? These are beliefs that you tell yourself because of any number of reasons, most of which usually have to do with a) being told or taught them by others and so you believe them too, and b) fear of the unknown. Beliefs are powerful. They do a better job of motivating or restraining a person than any physical incentive or deterrent. It’s like the animal that only knows its cage and then when it suddenly has an opportunity for freedom, doesn’t know how to take advantage of it and instead sits right where it always has, expecting the keeper to show up with the slop bucket every other Friday at a quarter to noon.

At the beginning of one semester, I had just finished the intro class where we review the students’ assignments and activities – which for this course included budgeting for two months, pulling their credit report, tracing family financial habits and attitudes through the generations, and developing effective goal plans. As the students were packing up their things to leave and chatting with each other, I overheard one of them say “Well, I guess we have to grow up sometime.” These were masters level students, mostly in their 20s and 30s, budding professionals who in a few months would have their licenses to practice. While they would be going into various fields, some of them would need to talk with clients about their finances (and some already had done so). Yet, here they were without their own house in order and knowing not where to start. And they really did see it as “growing up”.

In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (p.153) mentioned how some artists infantilize themselves, in terms of handling their financial affairs. She may not be a financial professional, but she is spot on. Heck, I was that person until my early 30’s. We tell ourselves we can’t be worried about mundane financial concerns and so we leave it to someone else, to support us, pay our bills, fund our retirement accounts, change our diapers. Except when you do that, you’re giving all your power to someone else. If you’re lucky, it might be a trusted spouse who genuinely has your best interests at heart (but I guarantee, doesn’t hold the same life aspirations). Or you’re leaving your power to a corporation or institution that frankly, only gives you benefits because of union wins back in the day and is now slowly delegating more and more financial and decision-making responsibility onto employees’ shoulders in order to trim ever-thinning operating expenses. (In other words, you are infantilizing yourself to an entity that doesn’t care about you. Sounds depressing, when we put it that way, no?)

In a way, we enable this infantilization by employing behavioral economics informed hacks, such as making retirement plan enrollment upon starting a job an opt out task, where the best decision – to save a portion of our earnings for retirement – is made for us automatically. It makes things easier, sets us up for better financial positioning in the future, but it doesn’t actually help us build the maturity muscles we need to consciously direct our personal finances. Plenty of my co-workers had the same 403(b) accounts, but no clue what was in there, what their retirement horizon looked like, and never spoke with the account representative whenever he rolled into to town every few months. They were still afraid to read the reality.

As I started writing this chapter, a friend of mine shared how when she gets overwhelmed, she shuts down. It’s like she knows the rules but doesn’t want to apply them, like an 8 year-old kid who’s self-discipline is still developing. Yet, in so many other domains of life, she’s got total command and rocking it. What gives? Why is it?

On the one hand, the excuse many people give is that it’s too complicated. And they’re not wrong. The financial industry is incredibly convoluted – by design – that you have to hire a professional to manage money for you (and so they can make money off you). The regulations and tax code imposed by government don’t help clarify things either. But on the other hand, there are a few basic principles that can help make things much more simple. The Richest Man in Babylon (which is now in the public domain – plenty of free PDF versions abound) presents a series of principles and has helped many over the past century. More recently, The Index Card, by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack, also distills personal finance into a few, easy to digest, morsels.

But how often do you read a self-help book, think “OK, it’s not so hard, is it?” and then still find that 8-year old self whining at the grocery as you pass by the chocolate aisle? Part of the reason is because these beliefs – that it’s too hard, too complicated, don’t have enough, too overwhelming – are nested DEEP. I’m talking generations deep. So don’t be shaming yourself up because you can’t put the chocolate down.

An exercise I do with the occasional client, and my students, is called MoneyHabitudesTM (online version here). The person responds to a series of statements and determines what type of habits and attitudes they hold toward money. It’s good for getting a baseline assessment of how you tick, how you think about money, which then helps inform how to go about the behavior change. A lot of the unconscious stuff comes out here. (I find this is a bit better and more scientifically sound, and useful, than many of those money personality quizzes you find in a pop magazine.) As we debrief the exercise, I ask if they had a parent or significantly influential figure in their life who exhibited the same money habits and attitudes? I’ll almost always (80% of the time, perhaps) find that their parent was almost exactly the same as they now are. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; they replicate what they know.

It turns out that there’s even some research behind this. Your parents have a profound impact on the ways you think and act on personal finance decisions. After all, they’re your first model that shapes your perception of the world. Perhaps dad made all the decisions and mom went along with it. Or mom made the decisions and dad simply bankrolled the family. Perhaps there was close consultation in everything they did and thus they had joint decisions, joint accounts, one united front. Or everything was split 50:50-ish. Were they frugal? Did they invest? Did they believe in showing a good time and being generous? Was money frequently tight due to an inability to meet the needs, after the wants were obtained? Did they set you on a regular budget, or give whenever you asked? Did they save for goals? Hoard with a scarcity mindset? Give generously? Spend spontaneously? Buy to impress others? Chances are you’re repeating the pattern. It’s not your fault; it’s what you know.

But the great news is that change is possible. The research went on to look at the influence of a romantic partner, and then one’s own personal experiences and determined that while your parents and partners do play an important role in shaping what you know about financial topics, it’s your personal interactions and experiences that have the most important impact on your financial — and overall — life. Let’s think about this for a second. Where does the most meaningful learning of a swim lesson take place? When you’re sitting on the bench watching someone else waving their arms? Or is is when you yourself get in the pool and start practicing? Experiential learning is profound. Experiential learning with conscious awareness and reflection can be transformative. When the human spirit harnesses conscious, determined action, that’s when those old patterns of belief and behavior are overcome, discarded, and replaced by those new habits that serve your best self. You achieve a new level of spiritual maturation.

This book is a work in progress and we’ll all benefit from your input and collaboration. In the “Leave a Reply” below, please post examples, comments, questions, and needed edits. By posting, you grant permission for inclusion of any content to become part of the book, now or in the future, in whatever form it may take. I’ll give attributions to the extent possible. I know sharing about our financial lives can be sensitive, so if you want to share anonymously, please use the contact form instead and I’ll honor your request.

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