Our parents are our first and, for better or or worse, most influential teachers. They instill in us our values, expose us to their ideas and politics, and shape who we become.
And as many of your letters and comments made clear, they can also really mess up our relationship with money. Whether they are savers who pinch every penny, or spenders who can never seem to put enough away for a rainy day, their relationship to money becomes ours – and if it’s not a healthy one, it can be tough to break. Here’s how to end the cycle if you grew up in a home with less-than-ideal financial habits:
Ask Tough Questions
If you’re reading this, congrats! You’ve already started your process, which is acknowledging that your thought patterns and habits are unhealthy and need to change. Alexander Lowry, professor of finance at Gordon College, says the first step to changing your money habits is to change your thinking. You need to free yourself from your money mindset.
“Instead of living on assumptions you made in childhood about what is possible and impossible, let yourself question your own habits and mindsets,” says Lowry, who is also the director of the school’s Master of Science in Financial Analysis program. “It’s uncomfortable, which is why it can be so difficult to do, but it’s ultimately freeing.”
Questioning the very foundations of your relationship to money will allow you to start over.
“Normally I’d start with identifying the behaviour that you inherited from your parents, or more importantly, I would ask myself how this behaviour is negatively affecting my life and where I want to be,” says Karen Lee, a Georgia-based Certified Financial Planner. “I would also write a list of the ways it no longer serves me.”
For example, is it making me struggle with debt? Is it impacting a relationship? Is it preventing me from moving ahead in life in some way?
“It might even be simply that it causes you to live check to check, and not be able to build up and emergency fund,” says Lee.
If it’s starting to sound like therapy, Lee says that’s the point. “Undoing habits learned in childhood is extremely hard and will take some soul-searching,” she says.
(If you want to dive deeper, I recommend the first season of comedian Gaby Dunn’s podcast, Bad With Money, in which she works out how her parents messed up her relationship with money.)
Find a Money Mentor
“Now that you understand the problems that habit is causing you, ask yourself what one step you could take toward making a change,” says Lee.
And that one change should mean finding a more positive money role model. Lowry says the next step is to pinpoint someone you can emulate.
“The learning curve when it comes to finances can be awfully steep, and realising just how little you know when you are working to change your thinking can be enough to overwhelm you,” he says. “You’ll need a mentor to help you get your financial house in order.”
That could mean joining a Reddit community, a site like The Debt Movement, or following an expert whose advice you respect, like Liz Weston. Maybe you have a friend who’s good with money, and you can set up periodic times to talk through your problems or encourage one another.
You could also learn from your spouse or significant other, who likely don’t have the same money hangups as you. “I’ve found that the best opportunity to change presents itself when a long-term relationship develops, as the child becomes forced to accommodate another person’s money habits and preferences,” says Kevin Mahoney, the CEO of Illumint, a fee-only financial advisory firm for young couples. “To take advantage of this opportunity, financial communication with the partner needs to remain civil and [you] need to be receptive to new financial approaches.”
If you’re really serious about getting it together, you could see a financial planner. “Money is often a taboo subject in polite conversation,” says Lowry, but “professionals generally love to talk about their field of expertise, and asking questions of loan officers, insurance adjustors, financial planners, and entrepreneurs is a great way to learn.”
They will also hold you accountable for the changes you are trying to make.
“Most poor financial decisions are reactive, rather than proactive,” says Lowry. “The reactive response means that money will be wasted and stress levels will go up.”
So build up your emergency fund. You’ve heard this advice one million times before, but it will be a godsend when you’re getting your finances in order because you’ll inevitably mess up a few times. Prioritising building up your emergency fund will give you breathing room to make mistakes, and once you’ve done it, subsequent money goals will feel more easily-attainable.
But, this can be difficult to do if your money mindset isn’t in the right place. “If you’ve grown up with a mindset of scarcity, you may feel as though your every dollar is accounted for, and that any extra cash you have needs to be spent right away or else it will ‘disappear,’” says Lowry. “If you’ve grown up with parents who taught you to live beyond your means, it can be next to impossible to turn off the spending habit, since you feel as though you deserve all the material things you want.”
So start small. Automate savings of $20 per paycheck, and slowly build it up as you get more accustomed to living without it.
And know that there will be unexpected challenges. “Some parents may exert some pressure if they disapprove of the changes, which the child will need to be willing to defend or ignore,” says Mahoney.
And finally, forgive your parents, and yourself. “Take it seriously and be patient with yourself,” says Laura Boedges, a wealth advisor at HighTower St. Louis. “Recreating your relationship with money doesn’t happen overnight. You may have to work at it, but you’ll get there.”
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