If you wanted to leave some money to your children, how would you split it between them? You could come up with numbers based upon their likely need for help. Or you could simply divide it equally…after all you love them all, well…equally. Equal distribution is probably the most common way of dividing assets. Yet, what about the situation where one of the kids is very successful financially and has no need for your money? What message does an unequal gift send?

Conversely, if you were one of the children on the receiving end…what if mom and dad left all (or even most) of the money and investments to your sibling because you ‘don’t need it?’ You might feel ‘less loved’, or slighted in some way, left with a nagging feeling that perhaps they really did love them a bit more than you.

Equate spending with expressing love?

These are clear instances of love and money being considered together in such a way that they seem synonymous. It begs the question; do you equate spending on someone with expressing love? Given that we make so many financial choices on autopilot, that is to say the behavior is unconscious, it is quite possible you believe money and love go together. If you have children, or are in relationship where gift giving is frequent it is a question worth asking.

The parent trap

Let’s look at how parents might over-spend on their kids. As a loving parent, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we have an open-ended obligation to take care of them. Are you the type of parent who feels this so strongly that you get the kids whatever they ‘need’ even if you’re not sure you can afford it? People who have spending problems may fall prey to this kind of thinking. Moms who are used to putting everyone else’s needs above their own are also vulnerable.

An example of how this can really hurt you in the long run is the college spending decision. Over-spending on college is the sort of thing that can put parents’ retirement plans at risk. Having a retirement plan in place prior to making the decision of what to spend for college is essential. There is most likely a limit to what you can afford. If you feel compelled to ‘spend whatever it takes’ you could be doing yourself a grave disservice. It is a bit timeworn, but bears repeating…there are no loans for retirement.

When you feel the urge to ‘just do it’

When an issue arises that involves spending for an important item/experience etc. and you’re noticing your inclination to ‘just do it’, it is time to pause. If it involves your child, the best course of action might be to include them in the conversation about options. Discussing what you can afford and what makes the most sense will set a good example. In the process of sorting out values and priorities, you demonstrate an intention to treat money responsibly. Careful consideration in this way can lead to a conscious choice.

We’ve all heard the stories about parents using money as a substitute for love, for not being around and giving their kids attention, when perhaps the money assuaged their guilt for not being there. This is one of many possible family dynamics around money. You might examine the patterns of giving in your family and how they were perceived.

It is inevitable that we take in beliefs from our family without conscious awareness. And when we’re not paying attention we repeat what we know, what we internalized.

An unconscious motivation for that gift?

If you are the giver in a relationship, do you have any unacknowledged motivations; are you spending on someone to make up for something? Are you hoping to placate them, buy them off, curry favor or create a sense of obligation to you? Do these gifts come with emotional ‘baggage’ attached?

As a recipient of the gifts you may have questions to ask as well. Do you equate some one’s generosity toward you as a “measure” of their love for you? Have you ever thought, “if he/she loved me they would buy this for me?”

What happens when the giver is unable to sustain the gifting? Or, if over time the giving slows down and/or the spending level decreases? You’re in an emotional quandary and most likely to feel less secure in the relationship or worse yet, finding yourself creating stories about your mate that create a self-fulfilling prophecy around how much they do or don’t love you.

Subconscious habits and patterns running the show

Our psychology around money is complex! I encourage people to look at their choices about money and to question what may be happening underneath. Quite often our subconscious habits and patterns are running the show. Beliefs formed through the eyes of a child influence us to repeat behaviors which may not be beneficial. Being curious helps us to look at our behavior more objectively and encourages better choices.

Sometimes a gift is just a gift and money is just a tool. And then there are times when love and money come together in ways that require vigilance. Those who take the time to examine their options will be able to make choices that honor their own life’s work, preserve future financial independence, and ultimately their legacy.