Whenever I give a speech or teach a class, I ask the audience, “How many of you feel that everyone besides you has money figured out? That your coworkers, neighbors, or friends know more than you do?” Without fail, hands fly up across the room.
Each of us harbors the deep belief that he or she is the only one who is screwed up about money. Everyone else has it all figured out—they have all the things they need and never spend more than they make. We are sure that they must have a fully-funded retirement plan and a lucrative investment portfolio. They certainly understand all of their 401(k) plan choices, and they have just the right amount of insurance for their needs. They can’t be over their heads in credit card debt like we are. We see many of them leading affluent lifestyles, which serve as all the evidence we need that our perceptions are true.
Since we believe that other people know more than we do, we don’t talk about money. We don’t want to expose our ignorance. We are like the teenager afraid to talk about sex or understand it in a meaningful way. We feel that everyone else at school knows more than we do. So we pretend to know, hoping somewhere along the line that we will learn the secret. And everyone else around us pretends to know too.
At parties, we talk about the latest hot stock or give an opinion about the real estate market. We might even brag about the high return we’re getting on our investments. But if our checkbook hasn’t been balanced in two years, or if our paycheck is spent three days before receiving it, then these conversations leave us uneasy. Underneath, we feel inadequate. But we keep on, not mentioning our concerns to anyone, because—somehow—we are supposed to know all about money.
The problem is that if we don’t talk to people about our financial issues or our money problems, then we will do the same thing month after month, always hoping it will turn out differently. Rita Mae Brown defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” In the arena of money, many of us fit her definition of insanity.
We get most of this programming from our families. Most of us never really talked about money when we were growing up. In seminar after seminar, I ask, “What did your parents say about money?” Invariably, someone in the group says, “Nothing.” Money was taboo. It wasn’t a thing you talked about. For some unknown reason money was a “hush-hush” subject.
This is not to say we didn’t receive clear messages. In most cases we did, implied or nonverbal:
There’s not enough.
You have to work hard to earn money.
We can’t, because we can’t afford it.
Or if Mom and Dad paid for everything, then the message may have been: Don’t think about it, someone else will take care of you. And later in life we wonder why it all didn’t turn out that way.
Simply put, we never had a chance to really learn about money. At the dinner table our parents may have asked us about school, or how we felt about getting a new puppy, or where we wanted to go on vacation. But no one ever said, “Okay, let’s talk about money.”
This silence surrounding money was further reinforced by a school system that rarely, if ever, brought up the subject. We were not taught about home finances, investing, the basics of financial planning, or retirement planning.
So we’re supposed to know about money—but we’ve never been taught. Imagine going down to the driver’s license office and taking our driving test without ever having been taught how to drive.
We can’t hide bad driving skills for too long. But we have gotten highly skilled in masking our ignorance about money. We “compare and despair.” We look at other people and grade ourselves based upon how we perceive we are doing financially in comparison to them, but keep our thoughts to ourselves.
Money has become synonymous with personal identity and self-worth. If we don’t have enough money, then we feel we aren’t good enough. We don’t talk to people about money because we are worried that we don’t have as much as they do. And if we think we have more than they do, then we don’t talk about it because we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. We believe people wouldn’t like us if they knew the truth.