When I was in seventh grade, I went shopping with a friend and her brother. They were from an affluent family and encouraged me to buy a pair of Guess jeans even though the Guess jeans were much more money than anything my family normally bought.
I had been earning my own money as the most-sought-after neighborhood babysitter, so I had enough money to buy the jeans. Upon returning home, I proudly shared my purchase, to which my mom took one look at the price tag and made it clear that she thought I had paid way too much for them. I immediately felt ashamed. I took the jeans back, but the memory of them remains.
I talk often about the importance of our personal money stories. These stories aren’t just made up of one event, they are created from numerous experiences, some of which can seem contradictory. I think of this Guess experience as being one of the first moments that taught me spending and how I felt about it. My parents and grandfather would become additional contributors to my money story – teaching me about saving, borrowing, and working for money.
Sharing Your Story
Sharing your money story with relevant individuals means you’ve taken the time to identify and understand those influences within your life. Let me continue to share mine to help you understand where you may have been influenced throughout your life.
As I indicated previously, the experience of spending came early on in seventh grade. Truly understanding the principle of saving came when I was sixteen working for Marshall Field’s. It was my first W-2-type job. Not long after I started work, my grandfather said, “If you save money into an IRA, I will match whatever you put in.” My grandpa loved chatting about money. He worked for a utility line, but he was frugal and loved talking about his ability to save. This was taboo in my family where money wasn’t discussed much.
Which leads me to the influence of my parents. They were incredibly hardworking – a value that was instilled in myself and my sister. My dad worked several jobs to earn extra for our family and my mother worked as well. Education was a priority to them, which is why my parents paid to put me and my sister through Catholic school. They made sacrifices in other areas to do it. One example was the beater cars my father would drive around in order to save money. I remember as a teenager asking him to drop me off a block away from school, so my friends wouldn’t see his latest cost-saving vehicle.
When I chose an out-of-state college, my parents took a loan from my grandpa to pay for it. This struck me as odd because I knew they didn’t like my grandfather’s readiness to talk about money. The loan caused tension in the house because my parents didn’t want to talk about money, but my grandpa did, and the loan tied them together financially. My grandpa also had his opinions about how my parents should spend their money, which they didn’t like either.
These four specific incidences constitute as my money story – framing my views on spending and saving: (1) buying and then returning the Guess jeans (spending), (2) watching my dad track every dollar that went into and out of the house (spending), (3) investing in an IRA with my grandpa (saving), and (4) watching what happened when my parents took a loan from my grandpa (lending).
Understanding the Stories of Others
Understanding the stories of those closest to you, namely your spouse or partner, is just as important as identifying and sharing your own. Despite the need to share and talk about finances, we don’t do it. A survey conducted by Wells Fargo in 2014 revealed that Americans find talking about finances much more difficult than death, politics, religion, taxes or personal health. In addition to us avoiding the topic, the survey indicated for nearly 40% of respondents reported money was the biggest cause of stress in their lives.
Consider the correlation of the amount of stress one area of life is causing and our inability to feel like we can talk about it with those around us. It’s time to embrace our financial stories and be encouraging, as well as empathetic to those who share theirs.
A fairly recent article in the New York Times addressed the very problem with not talking about finances:
We’re discouraged from talking about money at every turn, but if you want to fix your financial situation, talking about it is necessary…Even setting aside that social taboo of discussing money, there are practical hurdles in your way to getting better at money: Learning about money is intimidating, and there’s no structural system in place to teach us. Further still, we look at poor money skills as something to be ashamed and embarrassed of, which can keep us from being honest about money and seeking out the right kind of help… All of these forces — the social taboo, the intimidation factor, embarrassment — conspire to keep us from talking about money and improving our circumstances.
Study after study confirms that money is a leading stress and cause of divorce– and it comes down to either couples not talking about money at all, or not talking about it in a productive way. It’s for this reason that identifying our personal money stories is so essential and that we then invite that same introspective dialogue to occur with our partners. Even if you are 100 percent in touch with your own values and money story, if you’re sharing a life with someone, you need to understand how that person views money as well. If you don’t, compromising and achieving joint financial goals will be challenging, if not impossible.
Each and every story is unique, which makes each individual’s approach to finance vastly different. Your set of experiences will be influenced by a number of factors, just as I shared from my life. If your relationship with money is complicated, your spouse’s will be as well. On top of that, it’s not uncommon for partners to have polar-opposite money stories – which is crucial for both of you to know, understand, accept, and work with those varying priorities and emotions.
A Washington Post article published a couple of years ago cited a “Love & Money” survey conducted by TD Bank which found, “…couples of all ages are happier when they talk about money. Seventy-eight percent of couples who talk weekly about money say they are happy as opposed to 60 percent of couples who talk every few months and 50 percent who talk even less frequently.”
There is happiness found in sharing our stories with each other and continuing to communicate with one another on such a significant topic. The reason being, how we deal with and feel about finances will impact every other aspect of life.
How These Stories Influence Financial Decisions
When we take the time to understand why we feel certain ways about money and are open to sharing that with relevant individuals (e.g. spouses), we can better understand how these experiences influence the choices we make.
Each of us have moments that have contributed to a personal “money story” – helped shape how we view and spend money. No matter what these stories are, they will affect how you spend, save, and invest. By understanding your own money story, you can also recognize the emotional components that drive each of your financial decisions.
Emotions are a powerful force in everyday decision-making, which includes decisions that involve money and spending. When we understand the powerful influence, these emotions can have over our spending decisions, we can practice greater control over our choices in those moments of emotional weakness or temptation.
Through the process of identifying your money story, you’ll inevitably recognize emotions that you associate with those experiences. It’s those emotions that will continue to influence how you feel in financial situations. The following are four common emotional states that tend to influence decisions:
- Fear – This emotion stifles our ability to consider the long term. It can paralyze us to move forward, and it can cloud our judgment and cause us to make decisions out of perceived necessity rather than choice.
- Responsibility – People can feel heightened responsibility for their finances when they are forced to be accountable or aware of money at a young age. Or perhaps someone grew up in an environment where financial prudence was discussed, practiced and required.
- Excitement – When money begins to accumulate, and you have expendable income, there are several things that can be done with it: you can save it, spend it, share it, or invest it. Some people get excited by the prospect of spending money and end up overspending. They don’t just overspend on frivolous purchases; they sometimes overspend on seemingly practical investments. While excitement causes some to overspend, it causes others to over-save. Some people love watching their hard-earned dollars accumulate and grow. However, this can also lead to poor financial choices.
- Sadness – Sadness due to money problems can be debilitating. Sadness from other sources can impact financial decision making as well. It can prevent individuals from making any decisions whatsoever about their financial future. Grief can also cause people to make illogical financial decisions. Sadness frequently affects financial decisions during difficult life transitions such as divorce or death.
Seek to Understand to be Successful
There are many indicators for success in life; however, many would argue that financial security is an important component of feeling successful. Perhaps that success isn’t measured in terms of whether you are wealthy or rich, but it can be measured on how secure, safe and confident you feel.
As I’ve mentioned before, uncovering our stories, emotions and motivations that contribute to the relationship we have with money will be critical for personal financial success. Identifying these experiences will help you understand your worldview and the view of your spouse (and others).
I previously shared the experience of buying my first pair of expensive Guess jeans in seventh grade, only to return them out of shame for paying too much. All these years later, those Guess jeans still resonate with me – it’s part of my complex relationship with money. Your money story is the history of financial decisions and financial influences that define how you view finance today.
As an adult, I continue to mirror behaviors I discussed in the Guess jeans story. I make my own money because I value financial independence, and I buy designer brands for the allure of them and also for their fashion. However, the Guess jeans experience taught me to be very conscious of the relationship between value and price.
While your money story might be affected by bigger life transitions such as an inheritance or a job loss, more benign experiences like my Guess jeans will also impact your relationship with money. These experiences big and small contribute to the complex relationships you and everyone around you have with money. Make the decision to address your personal feelings about money and address it with those you love, in particular, the person you share your life with – it’s too important of a topic not to.
To understand how to better recognize the stories, emotions, and motivations that contribute to your relationship with money, get your own copy of Flourish Financially: Values, Transitions, and Big Conversations here.