What is your relationship style? Are you indulgent? Controlling? Nonchalant? Obsessive? Guarded? Reckless? Chances are you have the same approach when it comes to money.
Psychological, behavioral and neuroscience research indicates that how stable and secure you feel in your interpersonal relationships tends to mirror how stable and secure you feel about your finances. So it’s worth examining your close ties, both past and present, to understand how they may influence your spending, saving and investing habits—for good or ill.
This doesn’t necessarily involve hours on a psychoanalyst’s couch, but it does require some honest self-reflection about your relationship history (starting with mom and dad) and the role money inevitably played. While money can’t buy you love, money is tangled up with love in your subconscious. Indeed, getting and losing money activates the same pleasure and pain centers in the brain, respectively, as falling in love and having your heart broken.
The security continuum
When trying to understand this complicated interplay, a good place to start is to look at your relationship with money through the lens of attachment theory, which holds we all have an interpersonal attachment style that is on a continuum from secure to insecure. Most of humanity tilts somewhat toward the insecure side and exhibits behaviors ranging from anxious (think of a Labrador retriever that can’t get enough of you) to avoidant (think of a cat that behaves as if it can do very well without you).
“If you are needy of love, the more anxious type, you use money as a means to be loved and be appreciated and have people around you,” says Mario Mikulincer, a professor of psychology who studies human attachment at the Interdisciplinary Center, a research college in Herzliya, Israel.
You may fall in the anxious category if you often pick up the check, give expensive gifts, regularly buy new cars and wear pricey clothes. Maybe you’re the person others treat as an ATM, bumming a few dollars or asking for larger sums because you have a hard time saying no. You may also be a “herd” or impulsive type of investor, putting money in and pulling it out of investments according to swings in the market.
The more avoidant types, on the other hand, are more staid, saving money so they won’t have to rely on others or can exert power over them. This might be you if your generosity has strings attached—like maybe offering to pay for a vacation with friends or family, but you get to decide where and when you go and what you do while on the trip.
“People with avoidant attachments may develop resentment or contempt for those who take their money,” says Dr. Mikulincer, which only reinforces their emotional distance. When it comes to investments, they tend to keep their own counsel, not entirely trusting financial advisers, much less prevailing market sentiment.
Where it begins
Of course, not everyone fits neatly into these categories. Many people exhibit characteristics of both. Your attachment style and how you are with money are uniquely determined by your upbringing, experiences and cultural influences. Depending on your background, you may come to associate intimacy—and money by proxy—with safety, peril, protection, secrecy, control, prestige, power, weakness, virtue, vice, acceptance or rejection. These often dysfunctional associations are typically established early in life and are hard to shake, likely because you don’t even know you have them.
“The way we’re raised is all we know,” says Daniel Crosby, psychologist and chief behavioral officer at Brinker Capital Investments in Berwyn, Pa. “Just like the fish doesn’t know it’s wet, we don’t know we have a specific money attachment style.”
Maybe you were raised by a single mother who sacrificed to pay for the things you needed, which you internalized. As an adult, you may have a hard time spending money on yourself. Your misplaced guilt may lead you to hide receipts from your spouse and even lie to friends that the clothes or shoes you’re wearing aren’t new.
“What we’re talking about is your individual financial psychology,” says Brad Klontz, associate professor of practice at Creighton University Heider College of Business in Omaha, Neb. “It’s often shaped by financial flashpoint early experiences about money, which directly lead to your later behavior.”
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Dr. Klontz, a psychologist and a certified financial planner, developed the Klontz Money Script Inventory-II, or KMSI-II, which attempts to classify people’s emotional attachments to money. The assessment asks the degree to which you agree or disagree with 32 statements about money to discern your prevailing money script, or underlying belief system that drives your financial behavior.
His inventory, which is available online, can provide you with a broad brush stroke of your money mind-set. But to really understand the interpersonal attachments and experiences that shaped your beliefs and the continuing impact, psychotherapists and financial coaches encourage people to ask themselves more expansive questions:
• “What did your parents directly and indirectly teach you about money?”
• “What were your most joyful and most painful experiences with money?”
• “Tell me about the last time you and your romantic partner talked about money.”
Another effective method is to imagine you are talking to money. What would you say? What would money say to you? Who from your life does money sound like? Not surprisingly, money often sounds like an influential childhood attachment figure like a parent, grandparent, neighbor, best friend or mentor. This pivotal person in your life may have been withholding or extravagant with their affection and their money—again, they tend to be intertwined—thereby affecting how you feel, think and behave in relation to others and your finances.
“The answers to these kinds of questions demonstrate how people’s beliefs and behaviors form at an early age and create a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy,” says Megan McCoy, professor of practice in personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “It’s so ingrained that they don’t even realize other people think about money differently.”
And how could they when, within families and as a culture, it’s taboo to talk about money?
Surveys indicate we talk more freely about our sexual relationships than about our relationships with money. Shame about how much (or how little) money you have and how well (or poorly) you manage it only makes money distortions more powerful and potentially damaging. The antidote, as with any distortion, is to bring them to light.
“At one point in my life, I thought money was the root of badness,” says Dr. McCoy, who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist, as well as a certified financial planner. She describes herself as “recovering” from a dysfunctional relationship with money.
“As a little girl, I was very preoccupied with being good,” she says. “The church message about giving and sacrificing resonated with me and somehow got tied to money.”
She also had a brother who was really good at math, and her little child brain decided math was his thing and her thing was reading. So she became insecure about numbers. “Let’s just say I grew up to be incredibly unhealthy in my finances,” Dr. McCoy says, referring to her habit of never looking at her bank statements. It took therapy and marrying someone who was her money opposite—overly vigilant about his finances—to change her (and his) thinking and have a healthier approach to their finances.
People with anxious and avoidant attachment styles tend to attract each other, so it makes sense that people also tend to marry their money opposites. Dave Lowell, a financial coach in Layton, Utah, sees it all the time. His specialty is money distortions and how they play out in marital relationships. Formerly an investment adviser, Mr. Lowell was troubled by how many clients had spent their lifetimes making terrible financial decisions.
“They knew that they shouldn’t carry credit-card debt or use savings to pay the mortgage on a house they couldn’t afford,” he says. “It wasn’t a knowledge thing, it was an emotional thing.” Now he focuses on helping millennial couples get to the bottom of their mismatched, and often warped, money beliefs so they can be more at ease with their finances, and with each other.
Mr. Lowell charges a flat fee for his services. Mining people’s tender emotional issues while simultaneously trying to sell them investment products is considered by many in the psychotherapeutic and financial advising community as a serious ethical breach. So be wary of anyone working on commission who wants to delve into your psyche.
Mr. Lowell’s process is to ask couples to separately fill out a questionnaire, which asks about their past significant relationships and memorable money experiences that might be influencing their behavior today.
“I have them think about it, spend time in it and explore something from an angle they probably haven’t before,” he says. Then they reconvene to discuss any “aha” moments. The exercise helps people understand not only themselves but also where their spouse is coming from. Even the most confounding financial behaviors become logical with a little historical context.
That’s not to say these epiphanies are entirely curative. People still backslide during times of stress, like, oh say, a global pandemic. Those who are anxious in their interpersonal relationships may overspend on Amazon because the deliveries feel like love arriving in a cardboard box. More avoidant types may become so obsessed with not spending money, it gets expensive—like hiring a cut-rate plumber whose shoddy work floods the house with raw sewage.
But Mr. Lowell says that’s all part of the process. “We talk about why they did what they did, recenter and get back on track,” he says.
As a backstop, though, he tries to automate as much of his clients’ financial lives as possible, like automatic paycheck deductions for retirement accounts and monthly-fund transfers to accounts reserved for goals like a house down payment, as well as designated “fun” accounts for those who find it difficult to allow themselves to enjoy what they’ve earned. Such defaults make it easier for clients to be healthy rather than unhealthy in their finances.
“It’s really just having the conversation of why they were behaving that way with money, and letting them consciously choose a different path,” says Mr. Lowell. “There are still struggles, of course, but it firmly puts them in the right mind-set to make progress.”
Ms. Murphy is a journalist in Houston and the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.