- One of the first steps toward better personal finance is recognizing the nature of your relationship with money.
- Psychological research has uncovered four broad patterns of belief that people hold about money.
- A better understanding of these so-called money scripts can help you develop a healthier relationship with money.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for how to best manage your money, despite what some personal finance gurus might claim. After all, personal finance is personal. Each of us has unique values, personality traits, and life experiences that shape our relationship with money, meaning that devising an effective personal finance plan is often less about understanding finance and more about understanding yourself.
“We all think we need to learn more about money, and we might, but most of us kind of know what to do,” Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist, told Big Think.
The intuitive aim of personal finance is simple enough: manage your money such that you’ll be able to achieve future goals. What is more complicated is figuring out how to modify the behaviors and emotions that block you from setting yourself up for financial success.
So, how can you improve your personal finance? To the financial psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz, one of the first steps is recognizing the nature of your relationship with money.
“You got to dive into your psychology,” he told Big Think. “You have to understand why you think the way you think around money, and how that’s manifesting in your life, in order to change it.”
Watch our full interview on money personalities:
Identifying common beliefs about money
In a 2011 study published in The Journal of Financial Therapy, Dr. Klontz and his colleagues surveyed more than 400 people on their beliefs about money. The participants were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements like:
- Money is what gives life meaning
- People get rich by taking advantage of others
- People should work for their money and not be given financial handouts
- You should always look for the best deal before buying something, even if it takes more time
The study, along with subsequent research, led the researchers to uncover four broad patterns of belief that people hold about money. The researchers called these beliefs “money scripts.”
“Money scripts are often at the root of money disorders, and when associated with emotionally charged or traumatic events, these belief patterns can be highly resistant to change,” the study noted.
The scripts include:
Money avoidance: This pattern describes a general belief that money is bad. People who score high in this category might believe that there’s virtue in living without money, that wealthy people are greedy or otherwise immoral, or that they don’t deserve money themselves. This group might also have trouble with overspending and sticking to a budget.
“Now, no surprise, if you have a negative association with money, it is going to have a negative impact on your financial outcomes,” Klontz told Big Think.
Money worship: As the opposite of money avoidance, money worship is where people put money on a pedestal, believing it fuels happiness and solves most of life’s problems. People in this group tend to be younger, have a relatively low income and net worth, and carry credit card debt.
Money vigilance: This tends to be the money script of the ultra-wealthy. People in this group value a bargain. They usually don’t spend above their means, placing an emphasis on protecting their capital. But while saving and frugality can be positive, an excess of vigilance may lead people in this group to suffer financial anxiety or a reluctance to ever spend it.
“What’s the point of all that if you’re still living a life of deprivation?” Dr. Klontz told Big Think. “You don’t deserve that — nobody deserves that.”
Money status: This is where people equate their self-worth with their net worth, Dr. Klontz told Big Think. People in this group like outwardly displaying their wealth, and they’re more likely to spend too much, gamble, and be financially dependent on others.
“Trying to find balance around all these beliefs is very, very important, not just for our mental health, but for our financial health,” Dr. Klontz told Big Think.
Personality traits and financial behavior
It might be tempting to explain somebody’s financial behavior by pointing to their morality or their level of financial literacy. But while those factors are important, research suggests that our personalities and even our brain structures play a large role in determining how we make financial decisions.
For example, a 2022 study published in the journal NeuroImage found that it’s possible to reliably predict the risk tolerance of an individual by examining an MRI of their brain.
“We can see structural differences in the brain, specifically in the areas […] of the brain that are important for decision-making, as well as functional differences in terms of how those areas of the brain are connected,” Dr. Joseph Kable, a neuroscientist who worked on the 2022 study, told Big Think.
Other studies have linked certain personality traits to certain financial behaviors. For example, research has consistently found that the personality trait of conscientiousness is strongly associated with healthy saving behaviors, timely repayment of debt, and a lack of financial problems.
Building a personal finance strategy
You can’t choose your personality traits, but you can choose to pursue a better understanding of your relationship with money. One solution is to consult a financial planner who’s willing to help you develop a tailored strategy.
“We are diverse in so many ways, so, therefore, when we think about financial advice, it should also be unique for the person, for their background, for who they are,” Dr. George James, a financial therapist, told Big Think. “I think really good financial planners, they actually give personality tests to really check to see who you are, to see where you are, how you handle risk, and from there they tailor their advice or the information they share with you.”
Lindsay Bryan-Podvin suggested outsmarting bad money habits through automation.
“I’m a huge fan of automating,” she told Big Think. “I am automating paying my bills, saving money in savings accounts, and investing in retirement accounts. If it was up to me to manually move money every now and then, there’s just no way I would do it, or I would do it far less frequently than I should.”
Like other kinds of relationships, our connection to money can be very emotionally charged. That’s why it’s crucial to take an honest appraisal of how your unique personality is shaping the way you manage your finances.
“What are the tasks that you’re putting off and what are the feelings that are getting in the way of doing that task?” said Lindsay Bryan-Podvin. “Start there.”