Unlearning Financial Shame

March 25, 2024

If one thing is true it’s that almost everyone has money trauma. Whether you were born into wealth or poverty, everyone usually has strong feelings associated with money, but how these emotions manifest differs greatly from person to person. Some people find themselves obsessing over money, tracking every last dollar saved and spent, whereas other people find themselves on the more avoidant side of the spectrum, going long stretches without checking balances and relying on credit cards to get by. In order to change these behaviors and create a healthier relationship with money, we first have to look into where these narratives around money originate and find new narratives to replace them. 

Understanding the Causes of Money Trauma

If you grew up in an American household, you may be privy to the fact that religion, money, and politics are the three universal “off-limits” topics for respectable dinner table conversation. Americans, simply put, just don’t talk about money. This is ironic considering how deeply embedded money is in the American way of life. Money quite literally makes our world go round - it’s how we meet our most basic needs as human beings as well as access many things that bring us joy and purpose in this life. So it actually might make sense why money is such a hot topic.

While money is absolutely necessary for sustaining a comfortable life, it is also something that we have been taught is a finite resource and must be careful with. If you grew up in a financially unstable environment, you know first hand the experience of not having enough, and how that feeling of fear can plant itself deep within your psyche and remain until well into adulthood, or even for your whole life. Even if you grew up financially comfortable or even well-off, you may have also been taught to view money from a scarcity mindset, believing that the only reason you have these resources is because of frugality.

Both of these experiences are really two sides of the same coin that push a single false narrative: the choices we make as individuals have the single biggest impact on our financial success. When we believe this, we easily fall into the trap of connecting our self worth with our ability to manage money. This message is strategically pushed within our culture, often riding on the coattails of phrases like “hard work pays off” or “I’m just not a numbers person.” The result is all the same: working class people believe that their money struggles stem from some kind of personal or moral failing when in reality the culprits are widespread systemic issues and structural inequities in our economic system.

The Hidden Reason Behind Financial Illiteracy

Because of the way our system is set up, most working class people reach adulthood knowing very little about how to manage money. Maybe some of us had access to a basic financial literacy course at some point, but the knowledge that remains is nothing more than an alphabet soup of acronyms and industry jargon. By the time we start paying taxes, we often find ourselves asking, “why did they never teach us how to do our taxes in school?” The answer is both simple and nefarious, which is why it may seem hard to believe: those that benefit the most from our financial system have a vested interest in making it as complex, confusing, and inaccessible as possible. 

What if the reason that you’ve struggled with finances for so long has nothing to do with your willpower or moral standing as a human being and everything to do with a system that was never designed to benefit you? What if the path toward changing your relationship with money is paved with forgiveness, patience, and curiosity, not guilt, shame, and self-loathing? If you find yourself constantly crash dieting new financial resolutions, only to end up exactly where you started, it’s time to let go of that little voice that has convinced you that it’s all your fault, and start viewing your relationship with money through a more holistic and realistic lens.

Steps to Heal Financial Shame

So how do we go about actually healing our relationship with money so we can start experiencing real changes? First we have to look back to our earliest memories of money - how was money discussed amongst the adults in your life when you were growing up? Was money something that was easily available or was it limited? Write down everything you can remember about your early money memories. Once you’ve done that, reflect on how you think these memories influenced how you feel about money. Do you think the messages you grew up with made you more or less frugal? How do you think these messages manifest in your daily life now as an adult?

After getting clear on your money stories and scripts, try to identify some simple statements that lie hidden in between the lines. These statements can be broad like “if you work hard, you’ll make more money” or “money doesn’t buy happiness.” Now for each of these statements, write a counter-statement that challenges the original. Some examples:

“If you work hard, you’ll make more money” can be countered with “people who work 2-3 jobs are hard workers, but they don’t necessarily make a lot of money.”

“Money doesn’t buy happiness” can be countered with “financial stability is a key factor in one’s ability to live a happy life.”

The final step in this exercise is to turn these counter-statements into affirmations or mantras that you can repeat to yourself or write down as reminders during your financial transformation. They can be as simple as “I deserve to live a happy, financially stable life,” but they must be something that you want to fully believe and embody. While it might feel fake or forced at first, repeating these mantras out loud every day can really help you see that you are worthy of a new relationship with money.

While your challenges with navigating finances may not be your fault as an individual, you do have the power to heal and shift your relationship with money. No matter what means you were born into, all of us can relate to the feelings of guilt and shame that surround money, and most of us have dreamed of a different way of being. Healing your money wounds is not easy, but it is possible when we start to unpack our earliest memories of money and ask ourselves how those memories present today. Through consistent practice and patience, we can slowly change the way we feel about money and in turn, completely change our personal financial landscape.

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