In a workshop I gave some time ago, a woman named Lisa related the following story. She had been sent to the store with money to buy milk for dinner. As she was leaving the store, she spotted a cute little stuffed bear. She had change in her pocket and thought, “I can buy this!” All the way home she was excited as she anticipated showing her mom what she had bought. But when she got home, her mom screamed at her, ordering her to return the bear and bring back the change!

The little girl was traumatized. Although the incident had occurred almost fifty years ago, the grown up Lisa still remembered it vividly. Her attempt to demonstrate independence and accomplishment to her mom had backfired miserably. Children naturally want to please their parents, and instead this attempt had gone horribly wrong, leaving an indelible impression.

Lessons learned

What lessons might she have learned that day? That what she wants isn’t important? Money is scarce, there just isn’t enough? Maybe she learned that she needs to be careful with money or else she’ll make a mistake, possibly one so big that she will incur her mother’s wrath. Perhaps she learned that situations involving money are unpleasant, and that therefore having money isn’t a good thing.

Any number of conclusions about money could be traced back to this episode. Early experiences with money, especially those that are emotionally charged, seem to become imprinted on our psyches. Embedded, they become the “buttons” that are pushed later.

These early experiences are then reinforced along the way. Years later, Lisa, for instance, may have wanted something, bought it, then found out a week afterwards she had no interest in it, say, an article of clothing. Then it could have been a parent or even a friend who reminded her, “Hey, you really wanted that when you bought it and now you don’t even wear it.”

Her internal dialogue might then go something like this: “Yeah, it’s a shame because I don’t have that much money and this purchase wasn’t a good idea. I must not be very good with money.” Over time, patterns and habitual ways of thinking take hold on an unconscious level, creating what we mean by our “relationship with money.”

Money is so much more than a medium for transacting goods and services. Our relationship with money, based largely on our early experiences and stories, is hidden from us, operating in the background. Beliefs, reinforced by subsequent experiences, are layered on top of the childhood stories.

Her money story and how it impacts her today

How Lisa’s relationship with money influences the choices she makes today only she can say. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were uncomfortable having money and expects to make poor choices. Her story could be something like this: “I’ll just make a mistake with it, so I might as well go ahead and spend it,” (thereby removing the discomfort). At the same time, she might also have scarcity issues and believe there will never be enough money, so that spending it might cause her to feel remorse and regret. She probably finds it difficult to save money.

These are just speculations. The point is that our money stories are relevant to how we think, feel, and behave with money. The ideas that arise from these stories can be complex and contradictory.

In considering your relationship with money, and trying to understand it, remember that our beliefs about money begin to be formed through the eyes of our childhood selves. Until we revisit our stories and the beliefs they’ve created, we will continue to make the same unconscious choices with money that we always have. Writing down some of your stories in as much detail as you can recall is a valuable exercise in discovering your own relationship with money. This insight will help you to make more conscious choices with your money.