The meaning-making-machine and money

How do early learnings of money affect our approach to finances in later life?

Nonnie Canham CFP®

Nonnie Canham CFP®

Private Wealth Manager

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The meaning-making-machine and money

It’s not uncommon for spouses to have quite different views on money. My husband and I, for example, were raised with different values, in different economic circumstances and even in different countries. We were incentivized in different ways and our parents had very different conversations about money and how it works.

The result is that we learned very different lessons about money. For the most part we continue to remain firmly anchored to our individual views about money.

Morgan Housel, author of The Psychology of Money, says your personal experiences with money make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world, but maybe 80% of how you think the world works.

In other words, what we personally experience looms largest in our minds and carries more weight than what others tell us is true, no matter how compelling the evidence.

An investor who lost everything when they decided to go ‘all in’ just before the global financial crisis of 2008 would operate with far more fear and scepticism than a person who profited from the latest Bitcoin surge. Someone who was raised on very little by a grandmother who struggled to survive on welfare, weighs indulgence versus necessity differently to how the child of a generous and doting CEO parent may decide what is frivolous and what is not.

I’ve seen a wealthy client get irritated by what he perceived as his child’s wasteful behavior. The intense lack he experienced in his youth was the fuel that propelled him to a level of success that ensured he would never again wonder where his next meal would come from. His child, however, had never experienced that same lack and would never share the father’s same fear because he had been bought up in an environment of abundance, which was the child’s truest reality.

I had another client who, for her own reasons, never stuck to any investment plan we had agreed on. Delving deeper into her background I made a calculated guess and suggested that she was sabotaging herself financially to punish her father for – in her opinion - placing more value on money than on her when she was a child. It was a light bulb moment.

A mother who remembers the destitution her family experienced when her father passed away may prioritise life insurance while another may prioritise retirement savings, recalling what her own mother had to endure when she ran out of money and had to rely on her children.

Both women are equally smart and have equally good intentions and in all likelihood would be able to carry persuasive arguments for their respective positions. However, both positions are driven by past fear and uncertainty which colours their real choices years later.

With this varied input that our minds process differently, bringing us to a plethora of varied reactions to the same money questions or situations, we all believe WE are acting rationally based on the information available (the 0.00000001% that we have experienced) and possibly judge the actions of others as crazy or irrational. Picture therefore a machine in each of our minds that processes every experience with money and tries to make sense of it, colouring those money experiences with our own personal biases and multiplying the experiences by our fears before it spits out a result that we will forever hold to be true… our very own meaning-making-machine.

Understanding why my husband and I held different beliefs about money was the first step in reconciling those differences. Our priority now is to avoid incorrectly programming the ‘meaning-making-machines’ in our children’s minds (as if parenting isn’t daunting enough).

In the early days of our careers we adhered to a strict budget. As the self-appointed finance minister in our home I could frequently be heard saying, “That’s not in the budget” or “There’s no money for that.” My eldest son one day asked for something. Without skipping a beat, his younger brother chimed in, “There’s no money for that.” Who said children never listen to you?

I admit I felt a pang as I realised the damage I was doing to his ‘meaning-making-machine’ with my frequently repeated words. While my austerity measures were quite temporary and necessary only for a short period, my words were having a permanent impact on how he would relate to money.

From that point on I intentionally started using different phrases like, “Not yet” and “Let’s chat and see how we can make that happen”. Fortunately he was young enough that I could reprogram him.

Whether we are misinformed, understood something out of context or are operating with incomplete information, every financial decision we make makes sense to us based on our ‘meaning-making-machines’. It’s never too late for the reprograming to start. If we’re willing to learn we’ll be better equipped to do better.

newspaper clipping with small image of African female identified as the author This article was published by The Herald on 1 December 2021, you can access the original print article here.


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