Before you even had money, your parents determined how you'd handle it with their comments about finances. Decode your "money script" and rewrite it here. By Sandy M. Fernandez, REDBOOK.
What's your I've always remembered the advice my father gave me when I was a bookish middle schooler, considering writing as a career. "Do what you love," he would tell me. "The money will follow." This was remarkably generous: My family had recently arrived from Central America, cash was tight, and my dad was, of all things, an economist. He didn't take money matters lightly, and while his words were meant to be freeing, they came with a tricky subtext: If money simply "followed," then I really didn't need to worry about it. That message became part of my "money script"--a term financial therapists use for phrases that reveal our core beliefs about earning, saving, and spending. "Your money personality can be directly related to the things your parents said," says New York-based psychotherapist Kachina Myers, who specializes in helping clients with money issues. Myers says that many children who get talks similar to the one my dad gave me adopt a financially careless attitude ("If money isn't important, why know anything about it?"). I grew up to earn a nice income as a writer and editor, but I saved very little and didn't bother to think about investing or retirement until my late 30s. Then the recession hit. I can't help but wish I'd put even a third of the money I blew on happy hours and beach vacations into a savings account. Then I'd be guaranteed mojitos during retirement, right? "It's never too late to change how you think about money," says Myers. In my case, she suggests I start by reading all my bank statements. "Money isn't the most important thing in life, but your cash needs to be working for you, and that won't happen if you ignore it," she says. While shaking off deep-rooted ideas about money won't be easy, pinpointing the language that has you operating at less than your full financial potential is exactly where you should start. Get a new take on the most familiar money lines below.
THEY SAID: "We can't afford it."
YOU HEARD: "We have no control over what we can buy."
YOU MAY BE... in major debt.
Among all the unintentionally harmful money messages, "this phrase is the biggest offender," says Liz Weston, author of There Are No Dumb Questions About Money. "It implies there's some greater power dictating what the family can and can't buy, rather than presenting money decisions as choices." If your parents said this often, you're less likely to use budgets as an adult, so you're either the type to charge big-ticket items without a plan for how to pay for them ("What the hell, I can't afford anything anyway"), or you go to the other extreme--paralysis--like refusing to use your dishwasher ("Think of what that'll do to our water bill!"). To take back control, Weston suggests you change your inner dialogue. "Instead of thinking, I can't afford it, you can say, 'I'm choosing not to buy that right now so I can purchase something else that's more important to me.' Once you frame purchases as options, you'll feel empowered."
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THEY SAID: "Ask your father."
YOU HEARD: "Men are better with money."
YOU MAY BE... dangerously checked out of your financial life.
"This is especially toxic for a daughter to hear," says Myers. "Not only does it imply that men are in charge, but it says women can't set financial limits. A woman who absorbs this message might grow up thinking she's not entitled to take a stand, so she's less likely to negotiate with her spouse, her credit card company, or her boss when she deserves a raise." If you're the type to punt all the money decisions over to your guy, set regular once-a-month dates to review your family's finances, and make sure you know where your accounts are and how to access them. Then, talk to women you admire about how they handle their money. Forget "Go ask Dad"--instead, ask everybody.
THEY SAID: "Bad mood? Let's hit the mall!"
YOU HEARD: "Buying is a comfort."
YOU MAY BE... a retail-therapy junkie.
There's no better way to create an emotional spender than to link feelings of happiness or disappointment to the ring of a cash register. "This kind of talk replaces emotions with objects, and it can become a strategy people use to soothe themselves when they get older," says Atlanta--based financial therapist Mary Gresham. Not only will this attitude strain your budget, it also can block you from effectively coping with the highs and lows of daily life. A better way to boost your mood: Compile a list of free activities that make you happy, like taking a bike ride or having a friend over for coffee, and try one when you need a fix. If denying yourself those feel-better new earrings seems too punishing at first, Gresham suggests telling yourself to wait a month. When the time's up, your emotions probably will have leveled out, and you'll be over the urge to buy your way through a low point.
THEY SAID: "Okay, but don't tell Mom/Dad."
YOU HEARD: "Money secrets are fine."
YOU MAY BE... sneaky with cash.
If your dad slipped you the funds for that prom limo but demanded a mafia-level code of silence, he may have unknowingly set you on the road to an adulthood of financial infidelity. "Asking a child to keep a secret like this sends the message that money is something we trick each other about," says Olivia Mellan, a Washington, DC, psychotherapist and finance coach. If you never saw your parents hash out money decisions in a constructive way, you may feel like it's normal to sneak shopping bags into the house or tuck a little cash away in a secret bank account. Myers warns that this is a particularly hard pattern to break: "People who do this have little incentive to stop--they get to buy what they want, and they never have to do the work of setting up a system with their partner." But coming clean, even if it's just from this day forward, is worth it. "Don't wait to get busted," Myers says. "You can't buy back the shattered trust in a relationship."
THEY SAID: "How will we pay for this?"
YOU HEARD: "The sky is falling!"
YOU MAY BE... a money hoarder.
When times are tough, it's appropriate for parents to tell kids that a little belt-tightening is in order, but hearing how crushed Mom and Pop feel by their credit card debt or how afraid they are that they could lose the house incites panic. "This sets up a fear-based relationship with money," says Rapid City, SD, financial planner Rick Kahler. "These kids can grow up to be workaholics or scrimpers, feeling like no matter how much money they have, financial ruin is always right around the corner." To get a more realistic view, Kahler says you should consciously challenge your own thinking. There's nothing wrong with playing it safe in this economy, but do you ever let yourself enjoy all that money you're busy amassing? Occasionally treat yourself to mini luxuries, like pedicures or a fun night out with friends, and you'll begin to see that spending a little isn't going to bankrupt you.
THEY SAID: "That's for rich people--not us."
YOU HEARD: "People who have it flaunt it."
YOU MAY BE... a Real (broke) Housewife.
"Kids internalize this kind of talk as envy: 'They get to have nice things--we don't,'" says Louisville, KY, financial advisor Susan K. Taylor, who runs workshops to teach parents how to talk to kids about money. What's worse, children will assume that having flashy stuff means you can afford it--when, as the Real Housewives franchise has amply shown, sometimes it just means you've gone deep into debt. "Real wealth is net worth, not an expensive car or a family vacation," says Taylor. If you're spending into the red just to "keep up," Taylor recommends volunteering to help those who have less--it's a great way to remind yourself what truly matters. Chances are, you have a lot to be grateful for.
THEY SAID: Nothing.
YOU HEARD: "It's rude to discuss money."
YOU MAY BE... financially clueless.
"Saying nothing drapes a shroud of secrecy over all financial matters," says Susan Beacham, head of the kid-oriented education firm Money Savvy Generation. If you grew up in a household where money was only discussed in hushed whispers behind closed doors, you tend to avoid asking for financial help from professionals or friends. So even if you do a decent job of handling your bills, you're probably not maximizing your cash flow. This money mind-set is what keeps you from knowing if you're vastly underpaid, for instance, or that there's a great new mortgage structure that could save you thousands. "To make sure you're earning and saving as much as you can, you need information," says Myers. "If you don't feel comfortable approaching someone, start by reading personal finance blogs, like Suze Orman's. You'll slowly realize that money skills are like any other skill: They can be taught and learned if you put your mind to it."
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