Money is power. Money is the root of all evil. Money is freedom. Money is security. Money is complicated. Money can’t buy happiness.
If you have used one of these statements before, you may have employed what is known as a money myth. A money myth is an idea we use to simplify our attitudes and feelings about money.
Simplifying our stance on money helps us subconsciously make decisions. With the vast number of choices a human being makes in a day, it would be impossible to critically analyze each one. We’d become paralyzed in evaluation mode, unable to make progress on necessary tasks and objectives. Instead, we’re forced to speed up the decision-making process and to do that, our brains have to distill complex ideas into simple, more absolute concepts. That way, when we are presented with a decision about something like money, we have a previously-formed opinion about it that will enable us to form a timely response.
For example, let’s say a friend of yours invites you and your spouse on a trip overseas. It’s a place your spouse has always wanted to go, but it’s a pricier trip than you are used to taking. Will you go?
Your decision will be informed by your beliefs about money. If you have come to believe that money is security, then the more money you have, the safer you feel. You may have developed this belief after witnessing a parent struggle financially, growing up during the depression, having a low-income family of origin or a number of other legitimate reasons that would lead someone to logically conclude that less money is dangerous and more money is safe. If the experience of having too little money was a very painful one for you, it’s likely you would have a stronger association between money and security and you may have even made promises to yourself that you would never let yourself be put in an insecure financial position ever again. That’s when a belief becomes a myth; when we believe it so strongly that we don’t allow ourselves to believe anything that contradicts that idea.
Coming from this mindset, you are likely to quickly reject the idea of an expensive overseas vacation even if you could afford it. You wouldn’t need to think much about it to know viscerally that the requirements of this trip conflict with your idea that money shouldn’t be frittered away on unnecessary trips when you might need it for other necessary expenses down the road.
You may not even consider the fact that this trip might be one you always remember, that going might really make your spouse happy, that it might build a deeper connection with a friend, that it would expose you to new things and make you a more well-rounded person, or that it would give you an opportunity to relax. This is the potentially destructive aspect of money myths. By focusing only on the ways in which our beliefs are true, we fail to recognize the way in which they are false. We stop considering the other side of the argument.
It’s an easy trap to fall into because there is usually evidence that confirms our myths. Believing money is security is often tied to ‘good’ financial behavior like budgeting, spending less than you make, saving for the future, making wise purchases and taking care of things to make them last. If you are measuring success by not winding up in an insecure financial position, then these behaviors are likely to get you where you want to be. That reinforces that your myth is true, making it even harder to want to entertain another line of thinking. If the decisions you make based on your myth are working, why fix what isn’t broken?
Despite how it may feel, there are always legitimate reasons to go against your money myth. Even a seemingly harmless belief like money is security has consequences if we cling to it too tightly. If money’s only wise use was to provide security, people wouldn’t take the risk of starting a business. We wouldn’t invest money in the stock market. We wouldn’t give it to charity or to friends and family. We wouldn’t use it to achieve goals and as a means of enjoying life. We wouldn’t take a new job because it might be too risky. All these choices can translate into real consequences like unfulfilled potential, lower returns, relationship strife, less fulfillment and a lower overall quality of life. You can be succeeding because you aren’t in financial turmoil, but there might be an even greater amount of success available if you can learn when to rely on and when to reject your money myth.
So, what do you do if you think you might be holding on to a money myth? Complete the sentence “Money is ____.” List the reasons this is true. Next make a list of why this belief could be destructive and then write down activities you can do to help you challenge your myth. For the money is security myth, things you can do to challenge yourself include spending less time checking and managing your money, including fun, gifts and spontaneous opportunities in your budget, talking to people you love about how your money behavior impacts your relationship, writing down instances when you notice yourself reflexively saying ‘no’ to purchases, and remembering that there are other measures of success besides your net worth. Finally, take one or two of your activities and decide which of them would be the most effective for you right now and give it a try.
The idea isn’t to change your beliefs entirely. You won’t go from a security-minded person to a careless spender through this exercise. The goal is to achieve a greater sense of balance and a more considerate means of making decisions so that ultimately you can achieve a greater sense of well-being. We have myths to help us be successful; to get to the next-level of success we have to decide when to let them go.