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Problematic Money Behaviors Make Sense: Understanding Money Scripts

Do you have behaviors that don't make much sense to you when it comes to money? Do you know what you should be doing with money but can't seem to get yourself to do it? Do you wonder why you can't get yourself to change? 

I have good news. It's not your fault.

money scripts

Money Scripts

Our money behaviors are a result of our money scripts. A money script is a rule that we've learned about money, and we learn these early in our lives. Sometimes these are lessons we were told and other times we had to learn them ourselves. When we're young we try to make sense of the world around us, and that includes finances. We interpret what we see and we absorb a lot about money discussions we see or don't see. We learn from those who raised us, mostly our family, but it could be cultural influences, or influences from our religious organizations. 

You've heard of scripts before in other areas. Think about a script for a movie or a play. These are lines that are written that have to be followed word for word. Another version of a script is something we call a recipe. If you are familiar with computer programming, you'll recognize that a computer script is a computer program or an algorithm that the computer follows line by line.

When we need to make financial decisions, our brains rely on our money scripts to guide us. 

Behind the Scenes

When our brains write these scripts, it happens without our conscious brains knowing about it. As far as we know, these scripts don't exist. Since they operate unconsciously we are never really able to evaluate them, learn from them, or see if they still make sense. We go years, many of us our whole lifetimes, without knowing that we are making financial decisions based on these money scripts running in the background.

Financial Trauma

Many times money scripts are born out of a traumatic event around money. This traumatic event is called a financial flashpoint and money scripts are created to help us deal with the emotions that were created when the event happened. Here are two examples of financial trauma leading to destructive money scripts.


A girl (we'll call her Sally) had taken a home economics class back in high school and they were learning about balancing checkbooks, how money comes in, and how it goes out. Curious by this, she went home and asked her mother how much her father made. Her mother slapped her in the face and told her "we do NOT talk about money."

A boy (we'll call him Tommy) was taught how to save in his piggy bank. He would take a portion of his allowance and save it and once a month he would get to go to the bank and deposit the money. He enjoyed seeing the account balance grow in his passbook (does anyone still remember passbooks?). One month he went to the bank to deposit his money and the teller told him the account was empty. Confused, he asked his father what happened. His dad laughed and said, "that's my money." 

Sally grew up with a money script that told her it was wrong to talk about money. She never took the time to talk about her husband about budgeting or household finances. She never negotiated for raises at work. She never visited or had any say with their financial planner. 

Tommy grew up with a spending problem, spending any money that came his way before it could be taken from him. He never saved for his retirement or any other goals. He couldn't get rid of his money fast enough. He didn't trust anyone with money matters. 

These are extreme examples, to be sure, but I hope they illustrate how these events can impact our money scripts and ultimately our money behaviors. 

Sometimes They Work

These money scripts that our brains write for us worked when we wrote the script. If they were told to us explicitly by our parents, we followed the rules. If we learned by watching, it's because the rule we made up made sense when it happened. 

If you learned that the way to achieve financial success was to keep working harder and harder, that script probably got your a lot of praise, raises, and promotions at your job. The scripts work. But what if you went out and started your own company. Now all of a sudden working harder and longer doesn't always work. 

If you were taken advantage of by a wealthy person you might hold onto a script that tells you rich people got that way by screwing people over. That's only partially true. Of course there are dirty people out there, but there are also people who got rich because they invested in themselves and took risks with their money; there are people who got rich by capitalizing on their talents and ideas; there are people who got rich by buying a lottery ticket at the right gas station; and there are people who got rich because they were born into it.

If you come from humble beginnings, you might have learned that stockpiling money is a way to make sure you never run out of money. But, once you start making more and more money, hoarding your money leads to denying yourself the fruits of your good saving habits and can be unhealthy. 

We learn these money scripts mostly from our families so it is no surprise that we create these scripts within a limited framework. Once we leave the tribe and go out into the world we can quickly find ourselves in situations that are far different from when we were growing up. 

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