Understanding Our Relationship With Money
As someone that has been in the financial services industry for over ten years, I have witnessed numerous cases of people who know how to manage their money yet still run into financial trouble.
For example. I once had a client(who I’ll call “Rivka”) who needed help with mounting debt. Rivka completely understood the concept of not spending more money than you make. Yet, time and time again, she struggled to make her money last until her next paycheck.
I always wondered why people understood sound financial practices, yet couldn’t implement them in their own lives. That was until I stumbled upon Dr. Brad Klontz, Psy.D., CFP®, co-founder of Your Mental Wealth™ and the Financial Psychology Institute, who shed some light on my question.
His answer — money scripts. Put simply, money scripts are a set of beliefs about money which guide how we think about money as adults. There are four common “scripts” that people relate to money that can lead to financial trouble– Money Avoidance, Money Worship, Money Status and Money Vigilance.
Here’s an example of how some view money that many of us can relate to:
As a child, Tova’s father, Chaim, worked on commission in real estate. Every few months, he would get a windfall paycheck from a real estate sale. Both him and his wife, Hadassah, would often spend the money within a few weeks. The sheer excitement of the huge amount of money all at once would lead them to “extra” purchases such as a new suit or a dinner out at a high-end restaurant.
Tova and her brothers loved the luxury purchases, but then the money ran out, sometimes too quickly. Chaim and Hadassah would then spend the next few weeks, or sometimes months, panicking about having no money, the tuition payments that were due, and the debt they were falling into.
Chaim and Hadassah would resolve to get things under control for the next paycheck and maybe even meet with a financial advisor. However, they’d never get to it and the situation would repeat itself, over and over again.
As Tova entered adulthood, she became more and more anxious when it came to money. Eventually, she stopped opening her bank statements and would often pay her bills days, if not weeks, late because she simply couldn’t face her finances.
So how did Tova relate to money? She saw money as something that was both good and bad. Yes, it allowed her to have what she wanted and needed, but it was also a source of frustration. Therefore, it didn’t matter what Tova knew about money such as how to create a budget, she would still get into financial trouble because of how she viewed it– as a source of anxiety. And in order to avoid anxiety, she simply avoided dealing with her finances.
Financial denial, a classic defense mechanism, occurs when we minimize our financial problems or even avoid thinking about them in hopes of not having to face reality. Oftentimes, financial denial stems from confusing messages that we receive in childhood. Case in point- Tova. Tova learned that money helped her get things that she wanted and needed. In fact, it was a great source of happiness when she went out to the luxury restaurants with her parents.
However, she also picked up the contradictory message that money also meant stress (“When is the next windfall paycheck going to come?”), anxiety (“Can we pay the tuition bill this month?”), anger (“Why does this always happen to us?!”), discomfort, shame (“People think we’re rich but we can’t pay my tuition right now.”) and fear (“Will we have money for food?”). Tova was never shown how to be responsible with money, and she seemingly absorbed her parents’ emotions towards money. She ultimately experienced the same emotions towards money as her parents- confusing and contradictory.
This roller coaster of emotions that developed around money led to an emergence of an avoidant behavior. Opening bank statements and paying bills were emotionally-charged experiences, often leading her to a life of paying late fees and growing debt. Tova’s financial philosophy eventually became- “Better to be disconnected then deal with money.”
Here’s my challenge to you– consider uncovering your own money script in order to understand how they attribute to financial trouble you might have, and then rewrite, so to speak, the unhealthy aspect of your relationship with money.
Let’s take a look at the other money scripts, and well as small, easy things we can do to keep our finances in check.
The next category of money scripts is called Money Worship. People that worship money are convinced that money is magical– it is the key to happiness and the solution to all their problems.
One of the most common ways in which money worship is seen is through overspending or spending excessively. Through spending, money worshippers hope to achieve feelings of safety, comfort, and affection. They attribute attaining happiness with material things– the more you have, the happier you can potentially become. Of course, they never reach this, but they spend their life attempting to (also known as “Keeping up with the Schwartz’s”).
Let’s take Pinchas, an immigrant who came to the country with his family and “nothing but the clothes on their backs.” Pinchas vividly remembers going into stores and being told by his parents that they clearly couldn’t afford the things he wanted such as the trendy glasses that all his friends in yeshiva had. At some point, Pinchas remembers telling himself that when he had his own money, he would buy whatever he wanted.
As Pinchas grew into adulthood and watched his bank account grow, he became an over-spender. He couldn’t say “no” to himself due to his constant emotional longing for happiness and his perception that money would magically solve all his problems.
Even though Pinchas had the money to support his overspending habits, some money worshippers don’t. They buy material possessions, and realize a few days later that they are close to maxing out their credit card. Anxiety and stress mounts, and in an effort to minimize those feelings and achieve happiness, they’ll spend even more that they don’t have. Another continuous cycle.
The most obvious answer for over-spenders is to create and use a budget. That’s step one. In fact, as a financial advisor, I would advise some over-spenders to tie-up loose change as much as possible (investing it as opposed to keeping it in a bank account that’s easily accessible).
Credit cards can be quite dangerous for chronic money worshippers. Note: If you need to build your credit but abuse credit cards, consider a secured card which you can find at your bank. It acts as a debit card, but still allows you to build credit.
But that doesn’t completely solve the problem, right? Because ultimately money-worshippers view money as a means to happiness. In order to go deeper, a money worshipper needs to re-write their money script.
A third type of money script is referred to as Money Status. People with a Money Status mindset will equate net worth with self-worth. Here’s an example of how this script might play out:
Chani lived in a wealthy community. While she and her husband Reuven had a lower income and net worth than the average family in the area, she attempted to give the impression that they were financially successful. Her son’s bar mitzvah was an all-out gala affair with the best catering, decorations, and held at the top hall. She cleaned out the bank account to fund the simcha.
Reuven was unaware of the massive bill that Chani created, as some of the money was borrowed from relatives. Chani wanted to feel apart of the community and on equal footing as her more wealthy neighbors who made similar type of simchas. Unfortunately, her neighbors technically had the money to spend. She didn’t.
Even though Chani wanted to fit in to her community, she recklessly used up the family savings account to do so.
While women may tend to use Money Status to fit in with their peers, men may it to feel “better than.” For example, take Avumi.
Avrumi was excited to marry Gitty and move to her wealthy community. Avrumi came from more “humble beginnings” and was excited by the bigger houses and sleeker suits. Avrumi had a small printing business that brought in a decent income, but just enough to pay the bills.
One day, Avrumi met Mordechai, a wealthy real estate developer and was taken by everything from his classic leather shoes to his luxury car. Soon enough, Gitty started noticing Avrumi’s custom-made suits, silver cuff links, and other luxury items . Avrumi felt big- bigger than his friends from “back home” and even a lot of the other guys in his shul.
While Chani’s Money Status script was used to develop relationships, characteristic of a female mentality, Avrumi wanted the power. According to Pamela York Klainer, financial consultant and author of How Much Is Enough?, men generally use money to differentiate themselves from others. They use money to show their power– sometimes by buying expensive gifts or, as in Avrumi’s case, dressing wealthy. Men also tend to create social and political hierarchies and draw their power from these fiscal disparities.
Once again, we see money used without boundaries and the absence of a plan in place to ensure that the monthly income equals or exceeds the monthly expenses.
But what else do I see? If Chani and Avrumi were my clients, I would probably make sure that they had clear financial goals– like saving up for retirement, having an emergency fund, and having a savings account. Then, I would help them figure out a rock-solid plan for achieving those objectives.
Perhaps having a plan in place would mitigate the risks of using up all their cash in order to attain a certain level of status in their social circle, but what else could they do to help themselves get on better financial footing? Read on.
To tell you the truth, this is the mindset that I like the best because it refers to very frugal people, and frugality is your best chance at wealth. But yet, there are downsides to it as you will see from Yaffa’s story.
Yaffa was lucky. When it came to the finances, she was organized and responsible. She felt money shouldn’t be kept secret with a spouse and thus insisted that her husband Yitzi sit and review the finances with her once a month.
When the kids moved out, she insisted on slowly cutting off the money stream to their accounts which left her and Yitzi with a sizable savings account. Even though her house started to show its wear and her clothes were in style– 20 years ago– she was very careful about every dime she spent.
Her children scratched their heads– all this money and the guest bathroom doesn’t work so well, the paint is chipping, and the car window doesn’t work– why not just spend the cash?!
According to Dr. Brad Klontz and Dr. Sonya Britt, the money vigilant tend to be alert, watchful and concerned about their financial welfare. Their financial beliefs include: the importance of saving and working for money, not spending more than you make, and that credit should be avoided. To their benefit, the vigilant tend to have higher incomes and higher net worths. They also tend to have anxiety about money matters and keep their financial status secret to those around them.
While money vigilance could seem like “the best” money script to have, it can be a significant struggle for loved ones of the money vigilant. The vigilant might display excessive wariness or anxiety that can prevent them from enjoying their money and the security that their bank account can provide.
Their wariness or “stinginess” can sometimes lead to sub-par or even irrational financial choices. For example, even though they pay their bills on-time, a money vigilant person might avoid credit cards altogether in order to avoid any possibility of financial irresponsibility. Or, they might appear to be “super savers” but in reality are just too stingy to spend. Unfortunately, children of a money vigilant parent or spouses may find the situation to be intolerable at times.
What’s your relationship with money? Do you harbor any unhealthy views of money? What is your money script?
Today Is The Day To Take Control
Completely correcting our unhealthy relationship with money is not impossible, but it’s also something that requires effort and sometimes a little outside guidance.
Nevertheless, don’t delay dealing with your unhealthy financial mindsets. If you don’t know how to dig yourself out of financial trouble, enlist the help of a wise friend, family member, or financial advisor.
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