Dr. GoodCents: Personal Beliefs and Childhood Lessons about Money

Written By:


shutterstock_128056871A clinical psychologist with nearly 30 years of experience, Dr. Shapiro is ready to answer questions, offer advice and share strategies to help you alleviate the mental stresses of money management. Send your question to GoodCentsDr@gmail.com and it may be answered in an upcoming column!

Here’s a question for you: Why do you think what you think about money and material possessions?

It’s not an easy question because it’s multi-layered. You probably have logical reasons for your money-related beliefs, but with emotionally potent issues like this one, logic might be just the tip of the iceberg. The deeper layers usually evolve from past experiences with money and material things, especially during childhood. Frequently these meanings are partly unconscious—but we can become aware of the deeper layers if we do some self-exploration.

The way to learn about the origin of meanings is to wonder about them in a free-floating, exploratory way, be patient and curious, and follow our memories, associations, and feelings where they lead.

[Check Your Credit: Don’t Guess. Know.® Get your free credit report and score. No credit card required.

Here are some questions it might be interesting to think about:

  • What are your first memories related to money and material things? A piggybank? An allowance? Asking your parents for money? Saving up to buy something?
  • Did you feel you received enough, or did you feel deprived during your childhood and adolescence?

Your answer to this second question might have a particularly strong influence on your current, adult attitudes toward money and material things. However, this influence is not necessarily simple and predictable; it can go in different directions.

Some children who grow up poor or felt deprived become over-spenders as adults because, no matter how much they buy, they never feel they have enough. Other children who grow up feeling poor or deprived become adults who are frightened to spend money, so they take frugality to a maladaptive extreme. There are no rules for things like this, but that doesn’t mean self-exploration is a hopelessly confusing process, because we can each learn about the unique ways in which our experiences have influenced the development of our beliefs and attitudes.

Here are some more questions to think about.

  • How did your parents and family members deal with their own money and possessions? What were their feelings, beliefs, and behaviors? Were there conflicts? If yes, for whom did you feel sympathy?
  • What did your parents and family members say to you about money and possessions? Were there values or principles they wanted to teach you?

Past experiences do not directly affect today’s behavior, but the lessons learned from past experiences do travel through time to influence how we feel and what we do today, no matter how long ago the learning occurred. It is enlightening to identify the life lessons we brought from childhood into our current life.

Parental Influences

Our parents influence the development of our money-related emotions and behavior in many ways. It is within parent-child relationships that we first develop a sense of whether life offers plenty, scarcity, or something in between; whether we are deserving or undeserving of nice possessions and fun activities; and what we must do to acquire the good things in life: Work hard? Obey authority? Be patient and save? Just be ourselves?

As we internalize our parents, aspects of our relationships with them crystallize into aspects of our selves. In this way, what began as an interaction between two people becomes an internal dynamic within a single person.

Two Aspects of Self: Desiring and Deciding

The example of internalization most relevant to us here is the way parental giving and withholding—the way parents respond to our needs and requests—becomes internalized as the relationship between what we might call our Desiring Self and our Deciding Self. Interactions between these two self-components comprise much of what goes on in our minds, consciously or unconsciously, during those moments of decision about spending versus saving.

A healthy balance between these two aspects of self is like a healthy parent-child relationship: There is a wise, kind, firm Deciding Self, and a Desiring Self that likes to have fun but can take no for an answer because of faith that important needs will be met at the right time, in the right way. This is the type of dialogue with ourselves that makes thrift comfortable.

Connections between Your Past and Present

Not everyone is lucky enough to have this type of smooth, effective relationship between their desires and their judgment. Many different factors can throw off the balance between the Desiring Self and the Deciding Self, which will cause problems in money-related feelings and behavior, whether self-deprivation, over-spending, a combination of the two, or other difficulties.

Do you see connections between the lessons about money and material things you learned in the past and your financial emotions and behavior in the present? If these connections support money-related functioning you like, there is nothing to do but appreciate your self-knowledge. If the legacy of your past has caused problems for you, there are constructive steps you can take to address these problems. Stay tuned to our next column to learn how to move from self-understanding to self-change.

[Check Your Credit: Don’t Guess. Know.® Get your free credit report and score. No credit card required.