By second grade, you’d probably learned how to tie your shoes, ride a bike...and spend money. That’s right—research suggests that by age 7, most of our financial habits are firmly entrenched. If you’re lucky, you witnessed family members saving wisely and making thoughtful purchases. But many of us developed harmful patterns that carried into adulthood.
“Because money is such a taboo topic, you [aren’t] exposed to many opportunities to become aware of negative beliefs and challenge them,” says Certified Financial Planner Brad Klontz, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute.
As you can imagine, it’s not easy to do a 180 on deeply ingrained beliefs—but it’s not impossible. Here are some common money messages that can undermine you, and how to rewrite the script.
From Scrooge to Madoff, we’re often conditioned to link being rich with being greedy. But viewing money as the culprit doesn’t do us any favors—nor is it really accurate.
“You hear that money changes people, but money doesn’t change you,” Tony Robbins, author of the bestseller “Money: Master the Game,” told us in an earlier interview. “It makes you more of who you are.”
Change your mind: “Uncover the root of the belief, identify its limitations, then shift the thought to make it accurate,” says Klontz. Not sure where you learned this message? Talk to your family, since it’s often passed down. You can also seek out examples of those who are rich and doing good. (Hello, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett!)
Money isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s what you do with it that matters. So focus on how you could use cash to help others. Identify a reasonable amount of your income to donate, then calculate how much more you could give with a higher paycheck. Use that motivation to ask for a raise.
Financial therapists frequently see this attitude in people with privileged childhoods. “They are aware that their family has more and feel guilty about the discrepancy,” Klontz says. “They subconsciously reject money in order to fit in.” You might also feel undeserving if you received an insurance settlement or inheritance or married into a wealthy family.
As a result, you risk becoming too frugal. “You keep your life small, never buy anything self-gratifying and have a tendency to spend money on others in a disproportionate way,” says L.A.-based financial therapist Amanda Clayman.
Change your mind: Find a healthier headspace by “using money as fuel to grow,” Clayman says. “Challenge yourself to put 5 percent of your income into goals that nurture your body and spirit.” (Think: a monthly massage or relaxing vacation.) Repeating affirmations have also been proven to boost self-worth.
Research says that people who equate their self-worth and net worth are more likely to have grown up with a lower socioeconomic status.
Although the desire to keep up with the Joneses is natural—a study found that income relative to one’s social group determines self-satisfaction more than actual income—it encourages lifestyle inflation and higher debt. People who hinge their cachet on cash flow also have rocky relationships; it’s associated with financial infidelity and other risky behaviors.
Change your mind: Give yourself a reality check. A recent study found that 38 percent of Americans spend their entire income; 18 percent spend more than their take-home pay. Chances are, many of those you see with beamers and McMansions are living above their means. In comparison, 70 percent of multimillionaires say it’s more satisfying to save and invest than spend.
And be choosier about your tribe. Hanging with grounded friends will ease the pressure to flaunt your wealth.
Our consumer culture bombards us with the message that more stuff brings more bliss. And while most of us have felt a thrill after swiping plastic for a fun treat, that boost is fleeting—which can lead to a cycle of compulsive buying.
It’s a zero-sum game: “Once you reach a certain threshold of average wealth, there is no correlation between money and happiness,” Klontz says. (That threshold seems to be around a $75,000 income, according to a Nobel Prize-winning economist.) “If anything, overspending leads to distress and guilt.”
Change your mind: You’ve heard that experiences, not stuff, lead to happiness, yet research shows this is hard to wrap our heads around. So try writing down your favorite memories: They probably took place during a trip or new adventure, rather than while using a gadget. Or keep a gratitude journal to pinpoint your true values—and quell the “buy now!” urge.
A pervasive sense of scarcity is prevalent in people who grew up in poverty or had a sudden loss of wealth. “Whether you were the victim of crime or went to bed hungry at night, your survival was threatened,” Klontz says.
This could lead to becoming a workaholic money hoarder, or—on the opposite end of the spectrum—what Klontz calls “learned helplessness.” If you’ll never have enough, why try? You might depend on others for financial support and immediately spend whatever you get.
Change your mind: If you tend toward workaholism, allow yourself to regularly splurge on an indulgent experience, like a facial or date night. (Just consult your budget first.) Over time, you’ll get more comfortable with enjoying the moment.
If you’re on the opposite end, visualize your goals if you did have enough money. “To shift from the live-for-today mentality to a pattern of delayed gratification, you have to get so excited about the future that it supersedes the good feeling spending gives you,” Klontz says.