How Past Money Memories Affect Current Finance Behavior

Throughout my life, I’ve often reflected on money memories from childhood and how they have impacted me as an adult. My first money memory is thinking my family was rich after my dad showed me a $100 bill. I loved seeing that bill, and still love seeing one today! Another memory I associate with that experience is the importance of saving money. Since both of my parents grew up during the Depression, they practically encoded conservation into my DNA, along with the idea that we all have an unlimited savings capacity.  Expressions programmed into my young mind include “money doesn’t grow on trees,” “a fool and his money are soon parted,” and “a penny saved is a penny earned.” To this day, my savings DNA still makes it hard for me to part with a $100 bill!

I believe we all have a complicated relationship with money, and I wonder how much of the worry stems from what we learned in childhood?  How much of what we picked up as children is still valid today? And how do these things hold us back from the life we crave?

Recently, it occurred to me that I actually became a financial planner at around age 10. I knew that my dad had been the breadwinner in my parents’ marriage, so after my parents’ divorce, I started secretly scouring my mother’s bank statements to ensure that there was enough money to pay the mortgage, to know that it was being paid, and to be assured that the bank balance was high enough that I felt we were safe. Maybe because of this disempowerment that I felt worrying about my mother (and me) is why I now have such a special affinity for empowering women to make smart choices with their dollars.

When I worked in a corporate career, I saw more people affected by money memories. I had a client who was in her 80s, still teaching at a prestigious university, and receiving a sizable pension as well as Social Security. The client stated that she was afraid of running out of money. There was no way in the world this client could run out of money. Yet I knew, because of her age, that she had grown up during the Depression, and that deep-seated scarcity fears were still driving her behavior today — and not allowing her to enjoy the abundance that she had worked so hard to earn.

In Mind Over Money, Drs. Brad and Ted Klontz claim that just about everyone believes the “Big Lie” about personal finance — that is, that your financial troubles are your fault and they stem from you being “lazy, crazy, greedy, or stupid.” The Drs. Klontz believe that self-defeating financial behavior isn’t driven by our rational, thinking minds. Rather, such behavior comes from “psychological forces that lie well outside our conscious awareness, and their roots run deep, deep, into our past.”

Thus, it can be incredibly helpful to take inventory of memories, messages, and incidents from our childhood, and compare them to present-day behavior. How are you not nourishing yourself financially?  Some common examples include overspending and racking up debt, not having enough cash in the bank to feel safe, living paycheck to paycheck, hoarding, keeping money secrets, giving resources away to others in a way that depletes us, and financially winging it because we have our heads in the sand. Are you financially sabotaging yourself?  If so, such “symptoms” can be clues to trace your behavior to a root cause from long ago.

I spoke with Ruth Lane-Wierzba, a Denver-area money coach and owner of SeeMoreMoney. She recommends a simple exercise to attain a better awareness of old memories: In a quiet place without distractions, think about your very earliest money memory.  She suggests writing out the details on paper because writing slows the brain down and helps more memories and details to surface. When you think about the memory, try to connect it to your current experience with money.  Are you behaving in a way with money that is a similar pattern — or perhaps the opposite of what you learned? For another simple — and maybe even fun — money memory exercise from Lane-Wierzba, visit my website.

There are many ways to access this “programming” that drives our money behavior. A money coach, financial therapist, or financial planner who listens and asks about your history with money can be invaluable and a good place to start. Although financial planning can be very powerful, it’s only part of the solution. Without exploring the inner drivers of behavior, all the planning in the world won’t give you a sense of financial peace.

Addie McHale is a member of the DailyWorth Connect Program. Read more about the program here.