How Money Scripts Influence Financial Behavior—and How to Change Them
Having a healthy relationship with money isn’t all about how we manage dollars and cents. Beliefs, assumptions, and feelings make up substantial parts of our relationship with money. Our money-related behaviors and the factors that influence them are referred to as the psychology of money.
A helpful way to visualize the psychology of money is to see it as an iceberg. Financial actions and choices form the part that is above the water. Our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about finances make up the part below the water. As we know, the part of the iceberg that is below the water is a lot larger than the part above the water.
Part of our psychology of money is made up of money scripts. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have them. These scripts are often lessons we learned growing up about money, personal finance and wealth. Life events, societal influences, and cultural factors also play a role in the formation of money scripts. Together, they form the “shoulds” about money that are passed down from generation to generation—“rules” that we expect of ourselves, of others, and of the world. When we don’t follow our rules, we can feel guilty. When others don’t follow them, we can get upset.
When intense, emotional experiences connected to money occur early in life, they can leave indelible marks on our thinking about money, as Brad Klontz and Ted Klontz write in Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health. Known as “financial flashpoints,” these powerful emotional experiences create a blueprint about money and its impact on our lives that follows us into adulthood and add to our money scripts.
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Money scripts formed during childhood are based on a child’s interpretation of the world. They are explanations that helped make sense of the world, and fit a particular context. While these scripts may have made sense at the time they were developed and solidified, they may no longer be logical or valid now that the context has changed and you don’t see the world through a child’s eyes.
Money scripts are powerful and tenacious stories that we have turned into beliefs that consciously—and even unconsciously—guide what we do with money as adults. Left unexamined, the scripts can cause us to engage in self-sabotaging financial behaviors that impact our financial security.
THE FOUR MONEY SCRIPTS
Money scripts fall into four categories: Money Avoidance, Money Worship, Money Status, and Money Vigilance. Each category has unique beliefs associated with them that inform our financial behavior both positively and negatively. They are tendencies and characteristics that we all have that influence our financial behaviors. It is not uncommon to hold multiple scripts from different categories.
“I don’t deserve money, especially when others have less than me” or “Good people should not care about money” are examples of Money Avoidance scripts. People who have these scripts view money as being bad in some way; money is a force that causes distress like anxiety, fear, or disdain. A person with money avoidant scripts may not balance their checkbook, open bills, save money, or even have a bank account.
Let’s take career choice and beliefs about money as an example. If someone believes “all rich people are greedy and they only look out for themselves,” why would they choose a high-earning career or be motivated to save or invest? This belief is a limitation that can affect their long-term financial security.
Money Worship scripts place the key to happiness in one basket—the money basket, and specifically how much money you can fit in it. For those who worship money, they believe happiness depends upon how much money they have AND that they can never have enough, one is never quite satisfied with the amount of money they have. “Money would solve all of my problems” and “I’ll be truly happy when I have more money” are common worshipping beliefs. They can sometimes be helpful, though not necessarily for the right reasons, as having money saved can alleviate worries, stress, and distress.
However, depending upon wealth for ALL of ones’ happiness can trigger unhealthy habits and make someone vulnerable when unexpected things happen such as job loss or a medical emergency. Habitual overspending, chronic debt, and unhealthy work-life balance are ways this script manifests in people. The dark side of Money Worship scripts includes high-risk behaviors like gambling, impulsive investing, and spending paychecks or bonuses before they are received.
Believing that your net worth determines your personal worth and social status is a Money Status script. The culture we live in easily reinforces this script. Wanting to be financially successful is not a negative thing; in fact it’s a healthy desire and goal to have.
However, tying your self-worth to how much money you have and the perceived power it instills creates vulnerability. A financial setback that leaves someone without any savings could lead to lower self-esteem. It is hard to get out of a financial hole and even harder when your Money Status script triggers a deep depression.
Examples of Money Status scripts include: “Money gives life meaning,” “If something isn’t considered the best, it’s not worth buying,” and “People notice you and take you seriously when you have high-end, expensive things.” Associated behaviors include hiding spending from friends and family members, overspending to buy top of the line products, frequent arguments with a partner about your spending, having difficulty sticking to a budget, and excessive-gambling.
Money Status is similar to Money Worship but there are some subtle differences. Money Status seekers believe money is power and one’s identity is dependent upon what money allows them to have, whether that be goods, experiences, or even social connections. Money Worship beliefs connect happiness with the accumulation of wealth and eliminate a myriad of other ways happiness can be created, like spending time with friends and family, going on a hike, gardening, or taking long motorcycle rides. Both manifest in different ways: workaholism and not pursuing other things that make you happy for Money Worship, and needing expensive things to prop you up and feel good about yourself for Money Status.
On the other end of the spectrum are Money Vigilance scripts. These are, in general, very positive. They help protect us from getting into financial trouble and contribute to our future financial security. People who hold Money Vigilance scripts believe it’s important to save and that people need to earn their money and not expect financial handouts.
But there can be a point where the vigilance gets excessive. Beliefs in this category include “Money should be saved and not spent,” “You should always find the best deal even if it takes more time,” and “You should not tell others how much money you have or how much you make.” These scripts can manifest by never buying things on credit, searching for bargains no matter how long it takes, not spending money on things that could make your easier and more enjoyable even though you have ample savings, and workaholism. The pursuit of financial security can, if taken too far, cause a sense of wariness about money and the future that can cause worry and anxiety.
HOW TO REWRITE YOUR MONEY SCRIPTS
Our beliefs influence how we feel and our feelings influence what we do. We all have money scripts that inform our behaviors that lead to a healthy or unhealthy relationship with money. Money scripts are deeply embedded but can be recognized and relearned or even replaced. Just because we have our own set of scripts doesn’t mean we’re stuck with them.
The first step in that process is to recognize the ones you have. What assumptions do you have about money and wealth? Ask yourself, “What did I learn about money from my parents?” Just talking about money is a step in changing your relationship with money. Ask your partner, friend, or even your parent the same questions and then talk about it. The more we talk about money, the less power it holds over us.
Consider how your scripts are helping or hindering you right now in your life. It is not unusual that our money scripts hold partial truths or are no longer valid. Ask yourself, “Am I 100% certain that my belief is true?” or “Are there other outcomes that are possible than the one I am imagining?” Keeping track of thoughts that pop-up in a financial situation is a helpful way to connect your money scripts to situational triggers and your behaviors. Knowing your money story is the key to understanding your money mindset. Once you know them, you can begin to rewrite your scripts and improve your financial and psychological health.
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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of VSECU.
About Jennifer Calder
Jennifer Calder is a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years’ experience. Jennifer is certified in financial psychology and behavioral finance and specializes in financial therapy. She works with clients throughout the State of Vermont. Jennifer grew up in Vermont, is married and has two kids. She enjoys the Green Mountains however she can, depending on the season. She enjoys spending time with family and friends and playing Scrabble and cribbage.