Dr. GoodCents: Revising Our Attitudes about Money

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shutterstock_99925838A 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!

In our last column, we time-travelled back to childhood to identify early lessons about the meanings of money and material things, and we looked at connections between those lessons and the way we handle money as adults. If you see such links, and you are not happy with their effects on your current financial life, it is time to make the move from self-exploration to self-change. (If you didn’t read the last column, you might want to look at it now.)

Here’s the first question:

When you take a new look at those old experiences and lessons, what do you think? Specifically, do those lessons seem as true now as they did then, or do you think they could use some revision?

This is not an either/or question. Usually, the messages, meanings, and lessons we learned growing up are neither completely true nor completely false. Childhood lessons usually represent partial truths that capture some aspects of reality while leaving out or distorting others.

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For example, a boy might observe that his mother seems happier with his father when he gives her presents than at any other time, and he might deduce that material things are the key to winning a woman’s heart. What he cannot realize at the time is that there are other wives who value non-financial generosity more than the material type, and there are even wives who get mad at their husbands for buying presents they can’t afford.

A New Look at Old Lessons

As adults, we can re-evaluate these lessons using capabilities much greater than those we had when the learning first occurred. Now we have more reasoning ability than we had as kids; we can gather information from a larger array of sources including personal observation, discussion with friends, reading and the media; and because we are more self-sufficient and less emotionally vulnerable than we were as children, we are capable of more objectivity.

Our information and observations are more representative of the world than was the case when we were children growing up in one particular setting. Young people receive most of their emotionally potent information from the tiny slice of the world consisting of their family, neighborhood, and peer group. They derive their emotional lessons from this miniscule sample of reality, which might provide misleading information about other families, neighborhoods, and peer groups, and then they apply what they learned to life in general.

For example, a child who sees her parents cringe with shame when they say no to her request for an expensive toy might learn that an inability to afford the fulfillment of every wish is a mark of failure. As an adult, this person might encounter friends, colleagues, and personal finance columns expressing the alternative view that forgoing purchases is a common necessity and a mark of self-control. The adult learning does not eliminate the childhood learning, but the adult gains a different way of looking at the issue, and now she has a choice of views.

Revising Old Maps to Fit New Terrain

As adults, we can fill gaps in the picture of the world we acquired from our childhood families and peer groups. We can get to know different types of people, make a wide range of observations, and investigate issues of interest by reading about them and using other media. We can bring our mature thinking abilities to bear on this improved dataset to develop a more realistic picture of the aspect of life we misunderstood as a youth. The little slice of the world we encountered while growing up need no longer dominate our understanding of how things work.

For instance, consider a teen who witnessed his parents’ anguish as they lost most of the money they invested in real estate during the crash of 2008. With only a fragmentary understanding of what happened, the teen might conclude that saving and investing money is a foolish gamble, and spending what you have while you have it is a much better idea.

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With the knowledge and sophistication of an adult now at your disposal, you are in a position to re-evaluate the money-related lessons and meanings you acquired during childhood. Now, you can separate the wheat from the chaff. You can critically evaluate the old impressions and messages, and assess what is fully true, partly true, and not true at all. You can decide what to keep, what to revise, and what to toss.

Here are some more questions to consider:

  • Looking back on my childhood, in what ways do I now agree with my family’s views about money and material things? (Of course this might be different for different family members.) In what ways do I disagree?
  • What principles, values, or meanings did they leave out?
  • What principles, values, or meanings did they get carried away with and take too far?

Answering these questions will help you revisit some old, automatic ideas and habits, which you developed long ago and might not have re-evaluated since. Now you can decide whether you want to revise these beliefs and practices in light of new information, observations and thinking you have done as an adult. Revising your views of money and material things in this way will equip you with a firm, flexible foundation for planning your money-related behavior in the future.