Money Scripts and Childhood


"Every money message we hold on to contains a fatal flaw; it impressions us in an incomplete world."


-George Kinder


Anthony is walking home from school. It's cold out, and he's got a long walk ahead of him. Many of his peers get rides from their parents, but Anthony is raised by a single mother, and she's at work. He gets home to his apartment to find a pink piece of paper taped to their door. They're being evicted again. This is the third time that he can remember being evicted. He starts to cry as he instinctively starts to pack his room. A short while later, he hears a knock on the door, and a man in a business suit asks to speak to his mom. Anthony knows who this man is; this is the man who is kicking them out. Upon telling the man that his mom works well into the evening, he watches the man drive away in a convertible. Later that night, his mom tells him that men like that only care about money.


Wendy finds herself making dinner again for her and her two brothers. Her parents are never home. Her mom gets home first, and her dad doesn't get home until late into the evening. It's hard for Wendy to take on this pseudo parenting role, but she understands. Her parents have to make money; they've told her a thousand times. She doesn't even know that other families spend dinner around a table talking about their day. This is just how it is for her. It's exciting when her mom can be home for dinner. It would be even better if both parents could be home for dinner, but she can't even remember the last time that happened. As nice as it is to have her mom home, Wendy feels a little nervous. Mom can't make money if she's here having dinner with us. She wonders if they have enough money.


Samantha is excited to tell her dad about the great day she had at school. She just finished up a science project the night before and presented it today. She did a great job, and everybody congratulated her. Her dad's car pulls up the driveway, but before she can tell him her good news, he runs to the trunk of his car to pull out more Christmas decorations. Her dad spent all of last weekend putting up Christmas decorations. Since then, two of their neighbors have put up even more outlandish decorations. Samantha's dad won't be outdone. For years Samantha's dad has been the talk of the neighborhood with his Christmas displays. He doesn't like knowing that not one but two of his neighbors are trying to one-up him. Samantha has seen this before. Indeed, her family has updated their kitchen, added on to her house, and get new cars anytime someone in the neighborhood does the same.


Victor is afraid to go to school. It's the first day back after Christmas break, and all of his friends like to talk about the presents they got. His friends often get extravagant gifts, including video game systems, new bikes, and electronics. Victor is embarrassed because his family doesn't give out fancy gifts. He has learned throughout his life that his family makes more money than a lot of families do. That makes it hard to reconcile how much money they make and the types of gifts he receives. He starts to wonder if his parents even love him. They never spend money. They talk about how people who spend their money are wasting their money; their family is smarter than that.


Anthony, Wendy, Samantha, and Victor, are going to grow up thinking very specific things about how money works, what it should be used for, and how they ought to use it. Their minds are like sponges, and they are trying to figure out how to make sense of what has happened to them.


As a result, their Money Scripts were born.



Money Scripts


Money Scripts are subconscious beliefs we have about money that drive all our financial behaviors. Money Scripts underlie everything we do or don't do concerning our finances. It's mostly our early experiences that shape and write these Money Scripts for us.



Money Script Are Internalized Money Messages


We develop Money Scripts mostly in childhood when we internalize the messages that we see, or think we see, about how money works in the world. Sometimes we learn these messages directly, but we're often left to figure it out ourselves by observing the world around us.


Direct lessons have little room for interpretation. We're told how money works. We're explicitly told what to do or what not to do. We're told what to think in certain situations. This is when your father teaches you that it is important to save for a rainy day. This could be when your grandmother teaches you it's better to give than receive. It could be me when your mother teaches you that if you're a good person, you shouldn't care about money. Perhaps your grandfather taught you you can't trust other people with your money.


Indirect lessons are a bit different. They're not really lessons at all, in the sense that nobody sat down to teach us them. We are on our own to watch other people, including television programs or other forms of media, and figure out what works for others. When we were young, our minds are like sponges, soaking up everything that we see, piecing together the puzzle that is our world. Each of us interprets the world differently. You can have two twins sharing the exact same DNA going up in the exact same household at the exact same time who grow up to hold vastly different views about money. One might stick with familiar patterns because that's what she knows. The other might do a complete 180, thinking that she has to get out of that situation.



Money Scripts Are Generational


Because we learn these while growing up, our family system informs many of our beliefs. The people that raised us, most commonly our parents, also picked up their Money Scripts from their own parents. These beliefs get passed down from generation to generation.


Your Money Scripts are shaped a great deal in childhood, and it's no different for your parents. Each of your parents grew up in a family system where they internalized money messages be received from their family. The same is true about your grandparents. Much of what your grandparents believed about money was passed down to your parents, and much of what your parents believed about money was passed down to you. Some of the messages may change, and the lessons may not be exactly the same with each generation, but Money Scripts are generational.


It follows that if you have kids, they are learning a great deal right now about how money works, whether or not you are directly teaching them.



Children Don't Fully Understand Reality


Since most of our money lessons come from observing the world around us, and because we are young with underdeveloped minds when we do this, the Money Scripts that our brains write for us are generally only partial truths. Even if we correctly understood how our world worked when we were growing up, we only get to see our own version. We have a sample size of one and don't see how many works for other families in different situations.


As a result, our beliefs don't necessarily reflect reality because we cannot grasp the reality of an adult world. At best, or Money Scripts are partial truths. We act as though these beliefs are absolutely true, though. All of this happens outside of conscious awareness.



Money Script Are Contextual


They may work in one situation, but they don't often work in other situations. For example, your brain wrote a particular Money Script for you in a situation when it was likely to work. Problems can arise when we find ourselves in different situations but are still operating with the same set of Money Scripts.


Even dysfunctional Money Scripts can be right, accidentally. You may have heard the popular cliches that a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes, or a broken clock is right twice a day. When we find evidence that confirms our beliefs, we are likely to notice it. However, we are very unlikely to seek out information against our beliefs. When we come face-to-face with disconfirming evidence, we either dismiss it or somehow rationalize it away.



Understanding that we hold a set of beliefs called Money Scripts can be helpful in and of itself. Understanding that everyone's Money Scripts are different because everybody has had a different journey helps us be less judgemental both of others and ourselves.


You only have one life. Live intentionally.

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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Barrett, Lisa Feldman: How Emotions Are Made

Klontz, Brad, Rick Kahler, and Ted Klontz: Facilitating Financial Health

Klontz, Brad, Rick Kahler, and Ted Klontz: The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge

Klontz, Brad, and Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money Klontz, Brad, Edward Horwitz, and Ted Klontz: Money Mammoth

Lawson, Derek, Bradley T. Klontz, and Sonya L. Britt: "Money Scripts," in Financial Therapy

Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Miller, William R., and Stephen Rollnick: Motivational Interviewing

Wikipedia: Schema (psychology)


Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.


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