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Did You Grow Up Thinking “There’s Never Enough Money”?

A financial therapist explains how to stop letting your family money story hold you back.

photo by Granger Wootz/Getty Images

You can tell the story about Grandpa deciding to run his first marathon at age 60, and how Aunt Jenny was the first one in your family to go to college. But can recount your family’s money story?

Our Family Money Story is the “original software” behind the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors we bring to our financial life. For some of us, our Family Money Story is all too familiar. For others, it percolates under the surface, influencing our choices without our conscious awareness. Some of us work to modify that programming as we run into limitations in the ways that it serves us. But before we can do that, we have to get clear on what the story is.

Everyone’s Family Money Story has four parts:

  • Events: What you experienced with money.

  • Messages: What people said about it.

  • Feelings: The emotional tone, even when nothing was said.

  • Meaning: How we interpret the events, messages, and feelings.

A Family Money Story is, essentially, a set of rules meant to help guide you in the world. It’s a shortcut that looks for patterns, enabling us to respond quickly to expected events. So if the story is “There’s Never Enough Money,” this story gives dignity to the difficulty of trying to make ends meet. It prepares us to go without. And it probably shapes many other facets of family existence, perhaps creating a “culture of no,” where people don’t even look for ways to afford non-essentials because the rule says there is no way.

A great way to dive into your Family Money Story is by sketching out a Financial Genogram. A Financial Genogram is like a family tree that shows how money impacted your family members. First, map out the people and relationships. Then, in the space around each person, write down what they did for work, any major events —like job loss, divorce, or inheritance — and other details that provide insight on that person. Think of how a family member may have used money to express love or exert control over others.

Sometimes a lot of anger comes up when we become aware of the burden of a limiting story. Though this can be difficult (and very emotional) work, it’s important not to get sidetracked by bitterness or blame. But everyone before you was simply responding to the events, messages, feelings, and meaning that shaped them. The Family Money Story is always intended to be helpful, even when it’s not.

Which brings us to your branch on the tree. As you grow and change, you may run into complications or even disruption with other family members. You may want to share the good news, that this story is false! There are other ways to think about and be with money!

Slow down. Just because the Family Money Story doesn’t work in your life doesn’t mean you’ve disproved it. It may still be very important, useful, and meaningful to other family members.

Another thing to consider: If your personal Money Story is different from your family’s, you may run into discomfort as a parent, raising someone in a different set of circumstances than the ones that shaped you.

One woman I worked with used to find herself so irked when her son would order the most expensive item on the menu. It wasn’t that they couldn’t afford it, or that there was a specific limit they’d put on the price of a meal. But she had worked hard to let go of her Family Money Story around scarcity, because it didn’t fit with the abundance she was fortunate to have in her own life. Even though she knew the story was just an old story, it was still hard for her not to react on a visceral level to her son’s breezy disregard for price. Unchecked, she might have shamed him over his sense of entitlement, without giving any constructive information about what, exactly, was wrong with this behavior. Thankfully she reflected on it, and was able to have a conversation with him about how she was raised, and her own mixed feelings about privilege. She focused on the importance of being thoughtful, grateful, and cognizant of the value of things.

We do well to remember that we are all part of a developing narrative. None of us holds the full truth about how money works or what one should do with it. So keep the Family Money Story in perspective, and just try to write the best chapter for you.

Amanda Clayman is financial therapist and expert in the field of financial wellness.

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