Common Money Stories we tell ourselves

“You are what you believe yourself to be.” – Paulo Coelho

A couple of weeks ago, I was called out by a friend for negative self-talk. We’d been talking about making time for “passion projects” and I’d told him that my current theory was that I needed to make time first thing in the morning because that way, there were no other distractions and I would have more energy. I mentioned that, every time I planned on setting aside time in the evenings, either something came up that threw me off track or I had no energy and couldn’t get anything done. In my head, my comment was just an effort to be self-aware and give myself the best chance of success (work early in the morning = success, work late in the evening= likely to fail). However, what my friend heard was me telling myself that I was going to be tired and low energy in the evenings and setting myself up to not even consider working or exercising after-hours.

When he pointed this out to me, my first reaction was that he’d misunderstood what I meant but when I paused to reflect on what he’d said, I realized that he was right. I was telling myself a “story” that effectively let me off the hook when it came to making positive progress and paved the way for evenings full of naps and taking it easy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with napping and taking it easy but when you have big goals, taking every night off isn’t really an option!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been paying closer attention to the stories I tell myself and also thinking about the stories that others tell. When it comes to money, just as with any other area of life, having the right mindset is critical to success and the stories we tell ourselves play a key role in fuelling that mindset. Sometimes we take on the stories that we’re sold by others, sometimes we create them ourselves but no matter where the stories come from, it’s important that we make sure that they’re driving us forward rather than holding us back.

Here are three common ‘money stories’ and some suggestions for ‘rewriting’ the script:

Story #1: There will always be debt

We live in a society that is fuelled by spending and a significant portion of that spending involves debt. Whether it’s a home purchase or an overworked credit card doesn’t really matter; carrying any kind of debt is a major obstacle to saving and building wealth and the sooner we can get rid of it the better. Believing that debt is a part of life and can’t be avoided removes any motivation to get rid of it. Justifying our debt with the story that everyone around us is in the same boat allows us to settle comfortably into our debt rut, make our monthly payments and lets us off the hook when it comes to making a change.

Re-write: Eliminating debt = financial freedom.

No matter how you got into debt, there is always a way to get out of it if you’re willing to work at it. I meet plenty of people who make good money and are up to their necks in debt and plenty of people who make an average salary and have a net worth of over a million dollars. The key different between the two? One group sees debt as a means to getting the lifestyle they desire and the other sees it as an obstacle that gets in the way of the life they desire.

Story #2: I can’t improve my financial life until I make more money

This is one of the most common money stories and it’s one that I fell victim to for more years than I care to count. It seems like basic math: more income = more money but the reality is that, if you’re living paycheque to paycheque on your current income then there’s a good chance that you’ll still be living paycheque to paycheque on a higher income unless you’re motivated to channel your extra dollars into eliminating debt and building savings. If you don’t believe me, then take a look at your 2015 T4 and compare it to what you were making 10 years ago. I’m willing to bet 2015’s is higher. No doubt there are stories that will justify why, even though you’re making more, your net worth hasn’t increased but the truth is, that those stories are what’s keeping you trapped.

Re-write: It’s not how much you make that matters, it’s how much you spend.

Building wealth isn’t rocket science; it boils down to one key fact: in order to build wealth, you have to spend less than you earn and save most of what you don’t spend. If you have more money coming in each month than you have going out, then all you need to do is consciously set some aside and let it grow. Simple. If you have less money coming in each month than you have going out, then you need to either reduce your expenses or increase your income. That might mean giving up things you like or taking on a part-time job but, if doing that will help you get on the path to financial independence then, trust me, it’s worth it.

Story #3: I’m no good with money

The financial services industry does an outstanding job of making us feel as though we need a degree in finance and a masters in math in order to take care of our own money effectively. We don’t teach our kids money management in school and so, as adults, we don’t feel equipped to handle our money without help. Additionally, with so much credit available, there’s no pressing need to make sure we live within our means: if there’s more month than money, we don’t go without food or find ourselves walking to work, we just borrow the difference. Before we know it, we’re trapped in a cycle of debt that can be tough to get out of.

Re-write: You work hard for your money; you owe it to yourself to put it to work for you. 

Managing money isn’t hard. It’s not complicated or time consuming and, after six years in the financial services industry, I have yet to meet someone who isn’t capable of taking care of their own money (although I have met plenty who choose not to). Chances are, if you’re not managing your money it has something to do with the fact it’s out of control or you have more interesting things to do. If that’s the case, then all it takes is a change of perspective (think of all the fun things you could do if you had more money) and a decision to take action (keep more for yourself and give less to creditors, retailers etc.) With all the technology that surrounds us, there are plenty of great resources that will teach you what you need to know and provide you with strategies and materials to take control of your money. And yes, there’s definitely an app for that!

We tell ourselves stories in all areas of our lives. Sometimes the stories push us forward but sometimes they keep us stuck on a path that’s going nowhere we actually want to go. If you’ve been thinking about making a change but found yourself unable to take action, then maybe ditching the stories that don’t serve you and writing a better script might be worth a try?

Written by Sarah Milton

Sarah Milton is currently stretching her professional wings in Edmonton, Alberta in a role that allows her to combine her talent for writing and speaking with her training in the financial services industry. She is passionate about inspiring people to get excited about their money and empowering them to take control of their financial future. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @5arahMilton

3 Responses to Common Money Stories we tell ourselves

  1. Sarah,

    I think the most important part of your excellent article is: “Re-write: You work hard for your money; you owe it to yourself to put it to work for you.”

    Also your article highlights that words matter and words can influence attitude. For instance, Want vs Need, or Save vs Allocate will alter how once behaves or decides how they use and view their money; is money an expense or an asset.

    Too many people underestimate their capabilities when it comes to managing money and retirement. Yet, they’ve learned some basic medical knowledge, learned about foods and cooking, can identify good products from shoddy ones, many (women?☺) can read maps successfully, understand rules about a variety of sports, etc…

    Money is just another object one needs to manipulate, other than spending it.

  2. I’ve been perplexed for a few years now. Ever since I found out about mutual fund mers. It’s not that hard to manage your own investments. You just need the encouragement to start. I opened my self directed account. Got nervous. Bought my first dividend stock. Got nervous. Got my first dividend. Nervous. Setup the drip. Was hooked. Wanted more right after.

    • Peter,

      Babies do the same thing; sleep, eat, yell to eat more, turn over, crawl, crawl fast, refuse help to stand, stand independently, stumble, walk, fall and laugh, eventually run without any assistance.

      So many people mystify money – except for spending it – that they never learn to “walk”.

      Thirty years ago it was still difficult and expensive. Forty years ago it was definitely more difficult.

      Another aspect about managing your own money is the feeling of accomplishment in seeing the results. Dividends are like applause; you just want more. The discovery process is also satisfying.

      Drips. Some on-line brokers offer a drip-like option allowing one to get more stocks for closed-end funds, for instance, that typically don’t have a drip option.

      Success rate. Expert Day-Traders aim for 2 successful trades out of 3. Baseball measures success at .300 or so.

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