Can We Change Our Childhood Perspectives on Money?

There's no aging-out of a scarcity mentality

Changing Childhood Financial Habits

My husband David and I grew up about seven minutes apart, in reasonably similar neighborhoods. We went to the same schools, we have the same profoundly economically depressed hometown cooked into our bones. We even share a huge number of lifelong friends. That means that in many aspects of our life we have a similar approach to things, and an unstated understanding about our life outlook.

Except money. For us, that seven-minute drive might as well be an uncrossable chasm when it comes to money.

You get $100. Do you spend it or not?

David grew up with two professional working parents, and enough money to cover things without worrying much. Because of that, his fundamental belief about money is, “There will probably always be enough to go around.” It’s not an outlandish or unusual take on things. He doesn’t expect that there will always be a bathtub full of money, and he always wants to shop around for the best deal. Given where he grew up he’s very aware of the financial realities of the world. But when all’s said and done, if you hand him a $100 bill, he’ll probably go buy something nice, because he figures that it won’t be the last money he sees.

Just a few miles away, I grew up in a household that was always getting by on one not terribly huge salary. My parents were super financially responsible, but my mom would cry if the car needed to be repaired (and our twenty-year-old cars were always breaking down), and I was aware that our twice a year trip to McDonalds for a Happy Meal was a pretty big deal. As a result, my fundamental belief about money is, “There will never be enough. We are always one car repair away from disaster.” If you hand me a $100 bill, I will carefully put it in a drawer, and never spend it, just in case. (True story, we recently reached into the “hide-things-away” tin and found… a hundred dollar bill. I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten it from.)

I tend not to think of either of our financial outlooks as being better than the other. In fact, the more realistic outlook is probably somewhere in the middle. And we do a pretty good job of balancing each other out. I’d never spend the $100, and David would spend the $100 right away, and between the two of us we’ll often decide to spend $50 on dinner, and save the other $50. Perfect.

Can I match my financial Habits to my financial outlook? Ever?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve hoped that my approach to finances would slowly change into something a little less… stressful. That I’d learn to match my economic outlook to my economic circumstances. That maybe someday, I’d be able to think about money like the (many many) people I know who grew up not thinking about money much at all. But I’ve recently realized that this might never be the case.

Over ten years with David, and quite a few years living in not-actually-economically-dire circumstances, I have finally learned to make small splurges. Like when we bought the West Elm nightstands instead of the half priced knock-offs that I kind of hated. But when it comes to the big things? I often feel like I’ve made no progress at all.

Just how much my childhood perspective on money shapes how I look at every dollar became clear a few years ago when David decided to once and for all get to the bottom of it. I don’t remember the actual dollar amounts he threw at me, but the conversation went something like this.

D: So if we had $25,000 in the bank, would you feel secure?
M: No.
D: If we had $100,000 in the bank, would you feel secure?
M: No.
D: If we had $500,000 in the bank would you feel secure?
M: No.
D: If we had ten million dollars in the bank, would you feel secure?
M: (exasperated) Look, you hear all the time about how people make millions and then make stupid mistakes and don’t know how to manage their money and end up with no money at all.
D: Well. So, is there a number…
M: THERE IS NO NUMBER.

We sort of laughed about it at the time, “Ha, I’m so anxious about money that there is no way to change it, how amusing!” But in the years since, I’ve realized that outlook shapes everything. It means I make radically different financial decisions than friends in similar circumstances that grew up differently. I can’t casually buy a house without a zillion dollars down, because what about the financial apocalypse? (We just lived through that one, and writing research about it from the front line of an investment bank didn’t really help my anxiety there.) I have made sure I don’t have regular access to our saving accounts, because once the amount saved passed my “wildest dreams” amount (hint: that amount wasn’t actually that high), I stopped being able to emotionally cope with it.

We spent a few years sort of running in place, financially, before I realized that the second I’d crossed the invisible savings line of “the most I could imagine my parents possibly having in the bank during my childhood,” I’d started self-sabotaging in small ways. As someone who’d spent her life combating the anxiety of not having money, this seemed illogical. How could having some money make you anxious? But when I looked at my childhood friends’ financial habits, I realized this wasn’t an unusual pattern. It seems that for many of us, having more resources than our parents had is scary. That figuring out how to save money if your parents had never had complex investments, or a retirement account, or a savings account, or sometimes even a checking account, was overwhelming. That we know how to manage what we’ve lived, not what we haven’t.

How do I keep the gratitude, and leave the anxiety?

In many ways, I’m super grateful to my financial background. It was easy for me to take risks and make sacrifices in my twenties, to figure out what kind of (creative) career I wanted to build for myself. I was used to being unable to buy a new pair of jeans, or worrying about paying the rent, or being in not super safe neighborhoods, and all that made it easier for me to go out on a limb, even without much of a financial safety net. It’s nice to live in a world where you’re pretty much always outperforming the financial expectations you set for yourself, or where spending $250 on a nightstand is a crazy splurge that will make you feel like you bought a Ferrari every time you look at it.

But there are other ways where I know that my financial anxiety is causing me to make tiny self-sabotaging choices, over and over. While it’s easy for me to take emotional and creative risks with my career, I’m not very good at taking financial risks—while I notice that people raised with plenty of money take them (and have the chance for the payoff) nearly constantly. There are ways I’d love to change, but can’t seem to get myself there.

Which brings me to you. How did your upbringings shape your fundamental outlook on money? How has that been good for you? How has it been painful? And has anyone found a way to slowly (slowly) change the way they think about money?

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