How to learn your money story

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You have a story you tell yourself about your relationship to money, and becoming aware of this money story is the first step to changing it.

Our finances are such an everyday part of life that we may not feel like there’s much to say about it. It just is. It’s just something you deal with.

But every one of us has our own internal money story, a kind of script for how we view and interact with money. This script can often be invisible, in that we are working off of it, but we may not even know that we are doing it.

But becoming aware of and understanding our money story can be very beneficial, especially if, as it can turn out, that your story may not be serving you very well.

Invisible story, visible effects

Your money story is the full relationship you have to your money, the beliefs, the experiences, the history, the feelings, the whole thing. And just like a story has characters, plot, and movement, so does your money story. It—just like you—is a work in progress.

But our money story can be buried in plain sight, hard to see, because it’s such a part of us. How do we understand what we can’t notice?

Like so much good work, the solution is to work on it obliquely, from the side, as it were.

Probing questions

For example, if you had to write a paragraph with a few sentences, how would you complete this?

Money is _____________________________________________.
It ___________________________________________________
I’ve always thought that ________________________________.
Money makes me feel __________________________________.

Here’s a sample solution:

Money is a tool that allows for choices and opportunities. It can affect and infiltrate every aspect of one’s life, including one’s relationship to others, one’s job prospects, and even one’s self-perception. I’ve always thought that money is a scarce resource, that I’ve needed to claw my way up the mountain in order to hold onto everything I can, that if I let go, I’ll never be able to make money again. Money makes me feel anxious, when I don’t feel like I have enough, as well as relief, as when I have some squared away for emergencies.

Here’s another, very different one:

Money is a giant pain. It stresses me out, and I try not to think about it too much. I’ve always thought that if there was just a way that I could remove money from my life, I’d be so much happier. Money makes me feel stupid, in that I feel like I’m missing something, that I should understand or like it more than I do.

And this one is even shorter:

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Money is power. It allows me to do things I would never otherwise do. I’ve always thought that money is a way that I can control my life better. Money makes me feel powerful.

I know that if you were to really take time with this exercise that you would understand a little bit of where you are now.

But while this is a good way to start, if you really want to understand your money story, you have to go back further.

More probing questions

Whoever said “knowing is half the battle” was an idiot.

Here are some other really good prompts. As you read them, I want you to hold onto the very first thing that comes into your mind, no matter how strange or unexpected. Think without judgment.

  • What was the first experience you can recall that had to do with money?
  • How did your parents deal with money? What do you remember them doing or saying? What did they fight about?
  • Did your parents teach you anything (explicitly or not) about money? What was it?
  • What is the most common money fight that you’ve had? What were you arguing for (or against)?
  • What do you believe is true about yourself as it relates to money?

Not all of these questions may resonate with you. That’s okay.

But I bet some of them will bring some things up for you. Doing this work is important, in that we can very easily operate on scripts that we are not aware of. And if you’re trying to do one thing while your money story tells you another, you are going to find yourself stymied and wondering why you’re not making progress.

  • For example, if your story is that you’re poor and will always be that way, you may find yourself finding ways to sabotage your efforts to make or hold on to money. Maybe you won’t be as vocal about asking for a raise, or maybe you will spend all of your money rather saving some of it.
  • If your story involves money being used as a weapon (being used to show or withhold love), you might find yourself seeing someone else’s reticence with money as evidence that they are someone you don’t feel like you can be vulnerable with.
  • If your story involves terror, you will find terror. If your story involves avoidance, you will find avoidance. If your story involves anger, you will find anger.

It’s not enough to know what you need to do to become financially secure and even financially free. We all know that. I’ve written about it for years. An uncountable number of websites can all agree on what you need to do.

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But whoever said “knowing is half the battle” was an idiot. I think it’s more like 20%, max. Not nearly enough.

You can change the script

It doesn’t matter what you “know” to be true if you actively believe other things that get in the way. You may want to be wealthy or at least wealthy enough, but if you don’t believe it’s possible, will you really do what it takes? I don’t think so.

So understanding your money story is such an important task. It is the first step to changing it. You may think that such an ingrained aspect of your life is unchangeable, but that’s not true. People can change their personal narrative. It just takes concerted effort.

It can help to find someone to talk it over with, be it a friend or a partner, or even a therapist.

I am here to talk too. Understanding your money story is just some of the work I do as a financial coach.

Once you know your money story, you are on the first step to changing it.

Isn’t that worth knowing? I say it is.

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