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Senior Correspondent

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

Childhood 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.

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