Childhood and Money: Getting Beyond the Messages That Trip You Up

© ericro - - Children and MoneyChildhood and Money

I read an article today by someone in the sports world.  He talked about all the young athletes he knows who became successful and started earning big bucks – and then found themselves foreclosed out of all of their oversized homes, milked dry by all the ex-wives and friends they took pride in supporting because it pushed their “look at me, look what I can afford” buttons.  (Until the bucks were gone.)

The author compared that with Michael Jordan, who made the same big bucks—or more—and who spent plenty to “celebrate” his success, but who also started investing in businesses that would carry his income-earning years far beyond the short span of his athletic stardom.

Then my friend Dora called to ask if I thought she should buy a new car.  Hers has been in and out of the shop now that the 5-year warranty has expired.  I asked if she could afford to pay for a new one.  “Sure, I’ve put money aside each month since I bought this one, knowing that someday I’d have to replace it.  Besides, this model holds its value pretty well, so I’ll get a good trade-in amount.  But I can’t seem to make myself go pick one out.”

I said, “So tell me about how your family handled big purchases.  Do you remember?”

“Well, I remember the fights my parents would have when I was a kid.  My dad always wanted to trade his car in for the latest model, and my mother kept screaming that you had to keep a car for at least 8 or 10 years so you got full use out of it.  Anything less was being wasteful.”

“So what happened?  Did you father get new cars?”

“No, not for many years.  At least not until he used his year-end bonus to buy himself one.  That’s when the fighting got really nasty and they ended up in divorce court.  I was 15.”

Childhood and Money Messages

As different as these two instances seem, they both deal with messaging the people got from peers, family and other authority figures as children.  We receive these messages either from what we witness or from what we’re told.  The messages get embedded in our little brains as truth.  And that truth sits there until someone shows us how to challenge it if it no longer serves us well.

In the case of Michael Jordan, if he didn’t have a different childhood (and hence different messaging) than Chris Gatling, Latrell Sprewell and others who fell on hard times after poor money management, who made the difference?  Who was it who came into his life as he started making money and helped him reverse that messaging? It wasn’t just that he had a good financial team.  Someone reached him at the right time and reversed a lot of the destructive childhood beliefs.

In Dora’s case, the messaging she had around big purchases had everything to do with the reality of her parents’ life and nothing to do with her own.  Yet the emotion from the screaming and separation through divorce – especially related to car buying – is still embedded and having an impact on how she spends her money.

Childhood messaging – held far too long and too tightly.  Childhood and money.  Beliefs that should have been revisited and let go of once we reached adulthood.

The Power of Early Messaging

I discovered the power of childhood messaging when I hit the wall financially at 53, lost everything and was forced to reinvent myself.  As I did so, I revisited all my beliefs, trying to understand the ones that had tripped me up.  I eventually realized that my downfall had come from holding on to beliefs that may have served my parents well, but that did not work for me.

I started reversing them one by one.

I later went one step further, looking at how I could be proactive with this information.  I’ve come to realize that if I ever start to feel uncomfortable in a situation, I should look at where the discomfort is coming from.  To this day I still catch myself reacting to something my mother said, or my father did, or some older kids teased me about.

Once I identify the troublesome belief, my next thought is, “Do I still believe that?  Or have I just never questioned if that was true?”

Next time you’re hesitating to do something or are feeling uncomfortable in a particular situation, ask yourself where the behavior is coming from.  Don’t be surprised if it’s not something you’ve been reacting to the same way for years, unknowingly.  If it is, look deeper and see if it came from childhood beliefs.  If so and if it doesn’t make sense any more, let it go.  You have that power.

Let us know in the Comments section below if this triggered any childhood memories that might still be tripping you up today.


Bio: Sharon O’Day fixes financial lives. She is a tell-it-like-it-is money expert with a successful career in global finance, plus an MBA from the Wharton School. Today she specializes in getting entrepreneurial women over 50 back on their game so they can have more money, less stress and more joy. With her “Over Fifty and Financially Free” strategies, they take actions that lead to their ultimate goal: financial peace of mind.

  • Jeanne

    Thanks for a great reminder. I will certainly remember that when a big decision needs to be made involving finances. I have a generous husband and am always feeling like I don’t deserve it when he spends his money on me! All childhood issues!

    • How great that you can identify your reaction as such, Jeanne! If you’ll dig a little, you might understand why you feel that way and how to let it go so you can fully enjoy his gifts!

  • Mike Gardner – The Time Doctor

    It is amazing how we go through life, taking values at face value, until such times as we are forced to consider there value to us.

    • Yes, Mike, we walk through life taking far too much for granted. Becoming more aware doesn’t make us more disenchanted. It makes us more prepared to thrive!

  • Alexandra McAllister

    Your article did trigger a few childhood issues when it came to money. I remember when my grandfather used money to buy “junk” while my grandmother needed a doctor. I was raised by my grandparents. They would argue and it hurt me so much. Like you, I am starting all over again. Your articles have and I know, will continue to help me along the way. Bless you.

    • I’m so glad I can be part of your journey, providing occasional stepping stones that make it easier for you, Alexandra!

      • Alexandra McAllister

        Me too, Sharon. I love the way you think and often I can see me when you are writing. Thanks for being such an inspiration, Sharon. Bless you.

        • Actually, I feel we have some “shared experiences,” Alexandra, even if we’ve never met. Similar paths in some way … 😉

  • I’ve been reading a lot about discovering one’s Money Stories based on scarcity on different blog posts and each time, I really could not think of scarcity but the reverse! My inherited money values are not to spend money on shiny objects but to spend what is required so that I have a proper shelter and food in my fridge – I lived away from home as a student and I guess that was my parents biggest worry. I also remember being taught that if a better model of what I wanted was available, I should check if the budget could stretch – if not, then buy within my pre-planned budget. I don’t purchase the latest gizmo to show-off but at least I have what I want and can stretch if required. Got me thinking Sharon, we do carry our childhood tutoring even into our later years.

    • That childhood tutoring permeates so much of what we believe, Vatsala. How lucky that your parents instilled solid values that give you flexibility in your choices around money!

  • It is amazing how we latch on to our image makes ways of coping far past the useful point. So many people are hesitant to really think for them self, and second guess what mom or dad would do in this situation.

    • The key is that they’re not living their mom and dad’s lives, nor situation. Today’s reality has so little to do with that of 20-30 years ago. Granted, values are pretty stable. It’s the implementation that changes.

  • Martha Giffen

    Oh boy, is this a fascinating and interesting subject! I have been studying this for some time and the belief systems we develop (not just about money, but that one is so deep!) at an early age REALLY need to be looked at as we get older. I have been discovering so much about my money beliefs over the last few years by looking at the home I was raised in. Two parents who remembered the Depression very well and made crazy money decisions based on fear. I am slowly but surely shedding them, but it takes work. The people who work with you to get those core beliefs turned around are lucky indeed. To prosperity and unlocking the financial keys for your clients!

    • You obviously understand the process, Martha! I did it on my own too … by being completely honest with myself … and being willing to be honest about my parents, both of whom had died when I was about 21-22. If I can help you past a stubborn stumbling block at any time, just give me a shout! (And congratulations!)

  • Lisa Wells

    Thoroughly enjoyed your message.

  • Norma Doiron

    I believe that money is way up there in the list of reasons why people divorce. You wouldn’t have that statistic, by the way? Yes, certainly a big need in this area. You do a great job Sharon. >3

    • I’ve seen lots of stats, Norma. It’s certainly right up there as a reason. A Citibank survey found that 57% of divorced couples
      cited money problems as the primary reason for the demise of their marriage. But other experts say it’s the stress the problems created, added to other stress, and not the money problems themselves. At the other end of the spectrum (much less often, though) are couples who rally together BECAUSE of money problems. Can’t be ignored, either way! 😉

  • Susan Schiller

    I think I’m gleaning from the process today, or at least that’s what I focused on in your article this week… the process of identifying what makes me feel uncomfortable, and getting down to the root belief. Sometimes I wallow too long in the discomfort and end up procrastinating, when it’s likely as simple as identifying the childhood belief that is limiting me today. I’m going to activate this lesson this evening, before I go to bed. Thanks for sharing from your storehouse of wisdom, Sharon… as always, it’s just what I need!

    • Not everything stems from “old stuff,” Sue, but if you can’t identify what’s bothering you … and the discomfort feels familiar … it’s worth going back to see if there’s a “misconstrued” belief at the base. The best part is that, once you’ve addressed and adjusted the belief to your adult perspective, you find it was actually affecting other areas as well!

  • Leslie Ferris

    Great article Sharon. So many of our behaviors come from beliefs that were created in our childhood. Kinda makes it scary in some ways to actually be a parent. 🙂 We have had some of this in our family around having debt of any kind. And when you listen to everyone, you can totally see how what they are saying and feeling has to do with the situation they were in when the grew up!

    • I think what it points out, Leslie, is that parents have to be far more aware of what they are implanting as messages … and never believing, “Oh, she’s too young to understand.” We’re little sponges as kids, then spend the rest of our lives cleaning those sponges out! 😉

  • Shelley Webb

    Yes, I was about the same age when I hit my financial wall and was forced to become extremely frugal….no more Nordstrom shopping sprees; no more BMWs, not even the mani/pedis were simply habitual. I had been used to doing just what I wanted with money. I see now that mentality came from my mother (who is still living that mindset).

    • The awareness that comes from being honest when we go through that kind of life event is so valuable, isn’t it, Shelley? The frustration is that it’s real hard to share what we’ve learned with anyone who doesn’t want to hear us. Welcome aboard!

  • I need my own bit of reprogramming about money. I just realized while reading this post some of the messages I got about money were very subtle. And that included messages about why one should spend money on self even if it’s a necessity. ;(

    • This is a journey, Marvia. Not a difficult one, but one of gradual awareness and understanding. And forgiveness. The best part is that we do get to rewrite (or reprogram, as you say) as we go!

  • Jessica Stone

    Great advice about asking where the behavior, thought, or belief is coming from – I’ve been learning that a lot lately. I’ve also learned that it doesn’t mean you won’t have those thoughts anymore, but evaluating and tweaking are the most important parts to do. Thanks for the reminder!

    • You’re right, Jessica, you might have to revisit the thought more than once, because it’s part of a pattern we’ve carried for some time. But with just a little persistence — and gentleness with ourselves — it weakens and eventually disappears. Something else becomes “front of mind.” 😉

  • Carmen

    Thank your for sharing your process for looking at our beliefs to evaluate the way we make decisions.

    • We make so many decisions “automatically” and then aren’t happy with the outcome. May as well figure out how to understand what we’re doing and why, right? 😉

  • Robin Strohmaier

    Sharon, another great article! It is amazing how exoerirnces in our childhood can have an influence on our futures.

    • … which fortunately we can change, Robin, if we don’t like the influence!

  • Robert Manea

    great message! we teach our kids the value of money, we make them save and if they really want something they need to give something up in its place.. kind of like a car trade in.

    • That’s one of the greatest gifts you can give them,Rob: simple respect for the role of money … and then the belief that money is an emotionless tool with which they can achieve their dreams and desires …

  • Pat Moon

    It has been interesting to watch how our 3 children handle money as adults with spouses.. each is different because of the blend of their own upbringing and their spouse’s upbringing. I believe that blend of money values is so important in sorting through how to best handle money.

    • And particularly in couples, Pat, the decision-making HAS to be shared (or blended, as you call it!) so it works for both. And if they can actually have a dialog about money … wow! 😉

  • Connie

    “…if it doesn’t make sense any more, let it go. You have that power.” A strong statement applicable to ALL the decisions we make!

    • It certainly IS applicable to all decisions, Connie. As soon as we realize that, we start understanding how much influence we have over what we’re living. Either we move forward by releasing what doesn’t work … or we stagnate!

  • You know Sharon as I read this post I thought I finally was through with those thoughts, beliefs and lessons from long ago. However, as usual you dredged up yet one more…this one revolves around my work ethic believe it or not…which directly ties into money issues. As I’ve written about in the past my mentors – grandma and grandpa – were self-employed grape farmers. I began working in the fields beside them on weekends at the age of 5. From that point onward to today I’ve worked hard, a lot trying to “get ahead”. Circumstances of life have taken my journey here and there and then back again. I’ve strived after success til I feel like I’ve simply chased the wind. Now, I see why I’ve not met my goal…I feel like I don’t deserve it…my whole family has worked hard and NOT smart. Time to change the picture in my mind, cause I can. Thanks for the wake up call…

    • You realize, Carla, that my self-assigned role is to walk beside you on your journey and drop little hints as you need them. 😉 And because you are an action-taker, it’s a pure joy!

  • Great post Sharon. It is so important to question what drives us when it comes to important decisions. My quest in life was to teach my children this lesson. I had to rebuild from the bottom up at age 41. Very hard lessons to learn but empowering at the same time.

    • Leslie, I know how empowering those lessons are. I just learned them a little later, at 53. But once you’ve learned them, there’s a certain confident attitude that comes from knowing you can face the worst … survive … and then thrive!

  • Norma Doiron

    I watch my children in how they deal with money issues and I’m so proud of them. They have a healthy relationship with it and it causes them to make wise choices. I love your artcles Sharon, they give me cause to reflect… <3

    • You should feel proud of yourself too, Norma, for having raised children with wisdom around money. In this uber-materialistic world, its certainly easier to let children run amuk … except that they continue those patterns into adulthood!

  • Cheryl Relf

    So important, well said. Thank you!

  • Roz

    Sharon, this is so true in all areas that have a charge. I have learned that when I over react to a situation, to look back to identify what was triggered. Often the insight helps me deal with the current situation. I love your blogs. THey make so much sense to me. Thank you for your wisdom. Tweeted.

    • That “checking-in” process becomes an easy habit, doesn’t it, Roz? Almost a knee-jerk reaction, from having done it for so long … and so successfully. I’m glad my blogs are useful to you … and thanks for tweeting!

  • Simona R. Stefanescu

    Sharon, I think I have installed in me the terror of being in debt. I’ve probably seen it at my mom, for way too long. I like to pay my bills right away, I finished college with a couple thousand in debt and if I need to purchase big items I save in advance and pay them upfront, al least 50%. Wonderful article!

    • We either emulate our parents’ behaviors — or we react to them and and do the opposite. In your case, fortunately you chose to react and NOT follow in your mother’s footsteps . ‘Brava’ to you, Simona!

  • Gaynor Parke

    Hey Shanon, I like the idea of installing positive attitudes around money early in life, thanks

  • I grew up in a household where finances were chaotic and that’s how I managed my own money when I first started to earn it. I had been given no idea of how to cope or to save. As I’ve grown older I’ve learnt how to budget and that is definately something I pass on to my daughters. It’s very important to me that they appreciate the value of money and learn to be financially independent.

    • For whatever reason, with whatever is going on in our home lives as children, many of us start in that chaotic place, Carolyn. And we bring our money under control at different ages, usually later than we would have wished. How fortunate your daughters are, to start life with a solid foundation. You are breaking a generational cycle …

  • Diane Baker

    Wow how true is this…. we are responsible for setting the parameters for our children which will carry them through into hopefully a successful adulthood. Great article

    • Yes, we ARE responsible, Diane! Hopefully this generation is more aware of the benefit (or damage) that is done, usually unintentionally, while young children are so open to influence. It’s especially true when they are under 6 or so, and are still functioning to a great extent from their subconscious brains. That’s when the messages embed so easily …

  • daniele holmberg

    The ways in which we are raised and taught in childhood definitely trickle into adulthood. Positivity and learning new ways to deal with finances are critical to living financially healthy and changing your mindset:)

    • Always so happy to see how well you’ve captured what’s important when it comes to finances, Dani!

  • Robin

    Great stuff! It sure as heck is true how the way your parents reacted to money, and thought of it, carries through. It’s best if people figure all their inner-money-junk out BEFORE getting married, haha, or it makes for quite an interesting few years, haha 🙂

    • Ah, Robin, if they did that, then the divorce rate would certain drop a few points! Money, and the stress it can cause in a relationship, are certainly up there as major issues!

  • Kath Hope

    Wow! Great post and good timing for our household…… today we had the conversation with our son who has just started getting a half-decent income….. does he get credit for a new car now, or does he save to buy a car so he has the power to name his price with cash? He’s chosen the latter, which I’m proud of, but I haven’t always made the right choices myself in the past

    • Congratulate him, Kath. He is learning the power of cash early in life! Oh, but that more adults could figure it out! There aren’t that many places where credit really makes sense … and having the thing you’re buying on credit lose 10-15% of its value the moment you drive it off the car lot isn’t one of them! 😉

  • Gillian ~ Gilly

    This is a great post and reminds of why I do things the way I do with money…I’m slowly learning to let go.

    • Gilly, the key is to be aware that our behaviors are changeable, especially if we’ll invest the time to figure out why we’re doing them. So many are embedded from early days when we absorbed what we saw and what we were told … and those lessons no longer reflect where we are in our lives. Here’s to learning to let go faster! (And let me know if I can help …)

  • Sharon this reminds me of my parents when I was growing up. My father was the breadwinner and he “horded” the money in a way that my mom felt poor (even though we weren’t). I remember so vividly that she wanted a new vacuum cleaner. She begged for a high quality $300 vacuum cleaner, and my dad refused, saying that we already had one, and buying a new one would be a waste of money. Looking back, my dad was crazy. He was denying my mom the chance to clean more efficiently. Wouldn’t every husband want that?

    A few weeks later he went out and bought a $30,000 boat. That’s when I realized that the emotional damage that my father was doing to my mother.

    I’ve realized that you can’t hate money or horde money if you want more. You have to have a healthy relationship with money and love money if you want it to stay in your life. I am now on a path to financial freedom and it’s the happiest I’ve ever been. Coincidence? I think not. 🙂

    • Most people aren’t even aware that they HAVE a relationship with money, Keri. And, although it’s simply a medium of exchange, how we respond emotionally to money is what is helpful or detrimental. Congratulations to you for being on the path to financial freedom, and not allowing your father’s and your mother’s behaviors to affect your right to be on that path!

  • It’s so important to develop a healthy relationship with money and to be taught how to manage it early on in life. It is definitely a ‘learned’ skill. that unfortunately isn’t taught in school. My Mom was big on ‘having your own’ and wasted no time getting me into the habit of saving, starting in grammar school. My parents educated me about spending and showed me how to make buying decisions. I was very fortunate – because I learned to value money as a child (and married someone who appreciated that), it was a lot easier to handle and have respect for it as an adult. Thanks for the post – it’s a really good one!

    • You truly are fortunate, Dawn, because you are in the distinct minority. And since most of our parents weren’t taught either, it isn’t on their radar as something that would be beneficial to “teach forward.” Teaching money management in schools would be one way to make up for that lack — and a few schools are starting — but there is a huge mass that is hungry for that knowledge.

  • lauriday

    Sharon, I know many of my beliefs & money mindsets comes from my childhood. Coming from a very modest home where my mom was the main income earner in the 70’s didn’t allow for much extras. I know some of my anxiety comes from worry if we’ll have “enough”. Thanks for your pst and so timely!

  • Funny… I just got back from my family reunion and I began to listen to the words my family used. How they described rich people or how they talked about money. I was not too surprised that I don’t think like that any more. I have been working for years to tear down the false belief I had about money. Still struggle a little but I am in a much better place. My childhood was knowing that my parents always just had enough… and nothing more. I don’t want that life… but have been living it unconsciously for years.
    Thank you for sharing this great post.

  • Cindy Taylor

    Very interesting….I bet if I took some time to think back on conversations I overheard as a child, I would gain some huge insights into where I am at right now! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  • cathsj

    It is interesting how our early memories of money can still affect us. LIke everything else, it is time to grow and change 🙂

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