Have you ever made an impulsive big-ticket purchase that you later regretted? Or, maybe you have found yourself making choices with your money that seem out of alignment with your overall life or financial goals? If so, then you’re likely familiar with the effects of your money script.
So, what is a money script?
Well, a money script is often unconscious beliefs about money, rooted in early childhood experiences and guided by family or societal expectations, that influence the way we think about and handle money. In many ways, the “script” is subconscious conditioning that tells us how to respond to money choices as we’re presented with one spending or savings decision to the next.
Having awareness and greater insights into what’s happening mechanically, under the surface, is the first step to setting sustainable goals and money management strategies that will endure no matter what curveballs life throws at you.
Now, it’s important to note that the concept of psychological scripts has been around for a while. But more recently, this concept has been popularized, at least in the context of financial planning, by Psychologist Bradley Klontz and Sonya Britt.
In their work, Klontz and Britt divide money scripts into four categories: 1) Money Avoidance, 2) Money Worship, 3) Money Status, and 4) Money Vigilance. These first three categories are associated with lower overall financial outcomes. The last category, Money Vigilance, is often associated with a lower quality of life.
Let’s take a look at the descriptions of these four categories according to Klontz and Britt’s research:
Individuals who score high on money avoidance believe that money is bad or that they do not deserve money. For the money avoider, money is seen as a source of fear, anxiety, and disgust. Money avoiders have a negative association with money, believe that people of wealth are greedy and corrupt, and believe there is virtue in living with less money.
At the same time, money avoiders are likely to hold conflicting beliefs that having more money could end their problems and improve their self-worth and social status. As such, they may fluctuate between the extremes of holding great contempt for money and people of wealth and placing too much value on the role of money in their own life satisfaction.
Money avoiders may sabotage their financial success or give money away in an unconscious effort to have as little as possible, but at the same time, they may be working excessive hours in an effort to make money. Not surprisingly, money avoidance is associated with poor financial health. Money avoiders tend to have less money and lower net worth.
Money avoidance is associated with an increased risk of overspending and compulsive buying, sacrificing one’s financial well-being for the sake of others, financial dependence on others, hoarding, avoiding looking at one’s bank statements, trying to forget about one’s financial situation and having trouble sticking to a budget.
At their core, money worshipers are convinced that the key to happiness and the solution of all of their problems is to have more money. At the same time, they believe that one can never have enough money and that one will never really be able to afford the things one wants in life.
The tension between believing that more money and things will make one happier and the sense that one will never have enough can result in chronic overspending in an attempt to buy happiness. Money worshipers are more likely to have lower income and lower net worth and be trapped in a cycle of revolving credit card debt.
Money worshipers are also more likely to spend compulsively, hoard possessions, put work ahead of their family relationships, try to ignore or forget about their financial situation, give money to others even though they can’t afford it, and be financially dependent on others.
People who hold money status scripts see net-worth and self-worth as being synonymous. They may pretend to have more money than they do and, as a result, are at risk of overspending in an effort to give people the impression that they are financially successful.
They believe that if they live a virtuous life, the universe will take care of their financial needs and that people are only as successful as the amount of money they earn. They have lower net worth and income and tend to grow up in families with a lower socioeconomic status.
People with money status beliefs are more likely to be compulsive spenders, depend financially on others, and lie to their spouses about spending. Holding the money status scripts is also predictive of pathological gambling, indicating individuals may gamble in an attempt to win large sums of money to prove their worth to themselves and others.
The money vigilant are alert, watchful, and concerned about their financial welfare. They believe it is crucial to save, for people to work for their money and not be given financial handouts. If they can’t pay cash for something, they won’t buy it and are less likely to buy on credit.
As a result, the money vigilant have higher income and higher net worth. They also tend to be anxious and secretive about their financial status with people outside of those closest to them but are less likely to lie to their spouse about spending behavior.
Money vigilance appears to be a protective factor in that the money vigilant are significantly less likely to spend compulsively, gamble excessively, enable other financial, and ignore their finances. While such an approach encourages savings and frugality, excessive wariness or anxiety could keep someone from enjoying the benefits and sense of security that money can provide.
Acknowledge Your Money Script
Do any of these money scripts resonate with you? If so, what can you do to rewrite or amend them to better align with your values and purpose for your money?
Well, the first step to setting financial goals that stick is to understand the money scripts that influence your decisions.
One approach to identifying the money script that could be sabotaging your financial goals is completing a Klontz Money Script Inventory (or KMSI).
The inventory, or survey, is a set of 51 questions designed to identify your propensity towards one script, whether that’s money avoidance, money worship, money status, or money vigilance versus another.
A score above a specific threshold developed by Klontz suggests less likelihood of being influenced by a particular type of script. And a score above that threshold suggests that a particular money script may influence your financial choices.
You can complete a KMSI by visiting Klontz’s website or downloading our version of the KMSI from the FI|Mastery Journey under the February action items.
Now, it’s essential to note that survey results should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, I believe surveys and questionnaires are useful tools for guiding further insight rather than typifying an individual into a particular bucket.
So, if you complete the survey and find yourself in disagreement with the result, don’t take it to heart. Rather, use the output as a starting place to reflect on potential subconscious influences that may be affecting your relationship with money.
If surveys aren’t for you, another approach you can take to identify your money script is to spend some time in reflection.
You can start by asking yourself the following questions:
What was the first big purchase you ever made?
What was your first job like?
How did money play a part in your childhood?
If you could change one thing about what you were taught as a child about money, what would it be?
What did you learn from your parents or grandparents about money?
As you think about these questions, jot down a few sentences describing the situation.
Next, write down the feeling you recall from the memory.
Was it positive or negative?
Did the event give you hope or leave you feeling regretful?
Then, identify a value that represents this memory. Try not to read into the intention of others, but rather, how you personally observe the outcome yourself.
Finally, evaluate whether the value of these influential memories aligns with the values that you defined in your own value ladder. Do the values related to these money memories reflect what’s essential to you in your life today?
Again, the purpose of this exercise is to gain information about what may be influencing your money decisions, and more importantly, the beliefs that could be throwing you off of your financial independence goals.
Make no mistake, evaluating your money script is the first part of setting SMART goals. Doing so will allow you to better understand how to think about money and the way they affect your decision-making. Getting this out into the open now can later reduce your odds of goal sabotage and improve your chances of achieving your life success.
Use Dissatisfaction as Your Catalyst for Change
So now that have better insight in your potential money script, or the subconscious beliefs driving your money decisions, what can you do to start making more constructive financial choices and reduce your chances of goal derailment?
Well, one approach to challenging defeating beliefs and their unwanted behavior is to use your feelings to guide your next steps.
And I know, at this point, you may be asking yourself, “in a world primarily driven by logic, data, and analysis, what role do feelings have in setting financial goals?
Well, feelings play a significant role in changing subconscious behaviors because they serve as an emotional feedback mechanism.
For example, when a person experiences strong emotions, such as guilt, shame, or anxiety, it can influence their subconscious behaviors by creating a drive to change them. This emotional feedback can make lasting changes by forming new neural connections in the brain that reinforce desired behaviors and weaken connections to old habits.
At the same time, positive emotions like joy and pride can also increase motivation to continue healthy behaviors. Thus, feelings can be a powerful tool in changing subconscious behaviors.
More specifically, what we’re trying to do is elicit an emotion, or rather that feeling of dissatisfaction, that comes from a keen awareness that some financial choices we made were less than ideal compared with our current values and life purpose.
So, the first step in amending your money script so that you can avoid making the same choices that once derailed your past financial goals, is to identify the gap between your current money script and the outcomes that you want to see from a life lived according to your values and desired life purpose.
Like it or not, we are creatures driven primarily by our feelings first, then logic.
And so, this step of eliciting emotions is essential to prompting change because thoughts, beliefs, and actions that are hardcoded in our subconscious mind are rarely changed simply by logic or pure will.
It’s like the individual who makes a new year’s resolution in January to lose ten pounds. They get the gym membership, they buy new running shoes, and work out 3–4 times per week. But, as the motivation wanes, old habits, or life scripts, kick in and the commitment to the new year’s resolution eventually fades.
That’s why we need a catalyst for sustained improvement, and often the feeling of dissatisfaction is one of the biggest motivators we can use to stimulate that change.
So, why focus on a negative emotion like dissatisfaction instead of positive emotions like achievement or success?
Well, dissatisfaction is a crucial emotion to explore because it helps us get to our “why.”
You know — it’s that “why” that often starts off a question like, “why did I make that purchase” or “why didn’t I save more money” that is often accompanied by a feeling of dissatisfaction with our past choices.
Now, you’ve likely heard the stories of individuals who, due to unfortunate lifestyle choices, found themselves in the doctor’s office diagnosed with a terminal illness.
The prognosis is poor, and they’re given only months to live. For some individuals, they immediately begin to contemplate their past life choices as the sense of dissatisfaction reflects their current life situation.
And for some of those individuals, the doctor’s news acts like a wake-up call, or a realization that their story isn’t finished. The idea of not being around for friends or family or loss of life experience itself is dissatisfying to say the least. And for these individuals, their values and life purpose immediately become clear.
And so, they use their dissatisfaction with their current situation, held in contrast to their values and desired life purpose, as a catalyst to begin making changes that allow them to turn around their situation and avoid a terminal fate.
Maybe you’re asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with money? Certainly, the dissatisfaction you’re experiencing with money today isn’t going to lead you to the poor house.
And no doubt, we all tend to make poor financial choices from time to time.
So, what’s the point of going through all of this work?
Well, the point here is to use our feelings of dissatisfaction with the patterns of unproductive financial choices to identify the behaviors that better reflect our values and the purpose that we’ve defined for our money.
How to Do the Work
So to get started, what you want to do is gain an awareness of your current money script. Then, take time to think about specific situations where you made financial choices that elicited a feeling of dissatisfaction and how they differed from your values and purpose.
One way to do this is to take out a piece of paper and divide it into the following five columns: 1) Event, 2) Why, 3) Script, 4) Value and Purpose, and 5) Desired Outcome.
You can also download and fill out the Money Catalyst worksheet from the FI|Mastery Journey in the February Action items.
Then, in the first column, jot down a past event that elicited a feeling of dissatisfaction. Maybe one example is buying an expensive car that you didn’t need.
In the next column, write down one sentence describing your why for that financial decision. In our illustration, it could be that you made the purchase to validate your self-worth by showing off your net worth.
Then, in the next column, identify in just a few words what script this decision was playing out. You can look back to the Klontz example we mentioned earlier for ideas here.
Then, in the fourth column, write down your current value and purpose related to this event in a few words.
And then in the final column, make a quick note of what choice you would have liked to have made in the past that would have better reflected your current value and purpose.
We’ll use your answers here as steps for amending your money script. But for now, use this approach to gain awareness of where you’re at and where you’d like to go.
Again, one of the first steps to rewriting or amending your money script is to use your sense of dissatisfaction with past financial choices to identify the gap between your current money script and your values and money’s purpose.
To accomplish this outcome, take some time to think through past financial choices that have elicited feelings of dissatisfaction and identify why you made that particular choice, the script playing out, the values and purpose related to that event, and the desired outcome you would like to have seen.
Reframe Your Money Script by Creating Desirable Life Experiences
Thus far, we’ve discussed what money scripts are and what they look like, and how to elicit emotions to spark change towards your desired money script.
So, how exactly do we go about making the changes we discussed here? Well, think about the next step of change in the context of broader human behavior.
For example, have you ever wondered why do some individuals from war-torn countries decide to migrate while others choose to stay behind?
Certainly, while family ties and financial resources may be one consideration for those choosing not to immigrate, for those seeking out new destinations, the conflict experienced in their homeland might push them to consider leaving, with the prospect of a better life being the pull to draw them to their target country.
Ernest Ravenstein, who is widely regarded as the earliest migration theorist, put forth a push-pull theory that described why individuals choose to leave one country for another. For instance, these individuals may be “pushed” by unfavorable laws, taxes, or conflict in their home country and “pulled” by the prospect of greater freedoms or economic stability in their destination country.
This push-pull behavior is relevant not just to migration but genuinely applicable to all aspects of our lives where we want to see change take place. And with respect to changing our relationship with money, dissatisfaction might be the push that we need to move us out of unproductive money scripts.
Where does the pull come from?
Well, that pull that we need likely comes from creating the conditions that bring our desired values and life purpose into reality.
So, to bridge the divide, we need to find ways to create a new belief system that help pull us toward amending or rewriting our money script.
This change process involves more than creating positive affirmations or good intentions. Indeed, simply knowing what you should do differently in the future with your money fails to lead to durable change when your current belief system does not back it, is not supported by your current actions and ultimately does not address the underlying subconscious biases running around the clock.
Indeed, when you engage in behaviors that do not align with your subconscious value systems, it leads to self-correcting behaviors that bring you back to where you want to be today.
Psychologists refer to this behavior as cognitive dissonance.
It arises when a person’s beliefs or behaviors are inconsistent with each other, and the individual is forced to choose between them. This inconsistency can result in feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and tension, which can motivate the person to resort to old beliefs or behaviors to restore balance and reduce the discomfort.
So, how do you change your belief systems? Well, rather than starting with positive affirmations, choose to begin with identifying and completing experiences that align with the desired values and purpose you’ve defined for your life and money.
In his book, “Atomic Habits,” James Clear describes how “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is why habits are crucial. They cast repeated votes for being a certain type of person.”
Therefore, thinking about the change in our behavior with money is only the first step. Affecting that change is challenging because there are a variety of processes taking place in our brains that affect our belief systems.
And a common aphorism used in neuroscience that explains this process is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
This means that our sense of experience results from complex interactions between various brain regions and systems that process sensory information from the environment and create subjective experiences.
The process begins with sensory receptors in the body (such as the eyes, ears, skin, etc.) that sends signals to the brain that are then transformed into electrical and chemical signals. These signals are processed and integrated in various brain regions, including the thalamus, the sensory cortex, and the limbic system. The final product is the conscious perception of the experience, which is stored in memory and can influence future behavior and decision-making.
That’s why experiences are essential to reframing and amending your money script. The more areas within our brain that we can activate as we’re engaging in our desired money script, the more connections we make. This increases the likelihood of creating durable change in our money habits.
Reframe Your Money Script by Creating Desirable Life Experiences
So how do you go about making lasting changes and finally rewrite your money script?
Well, to amend your money script you need to create experiences that help you cast repeated votes for being your desired person.
How can you do this?
Let’s look at this from the perspective of an individual with the money avoidance script.
For example, suppose you find it difficult to review your bank statements and keep track of your spending from one month to the next. Maybe the fear of knowing that you may have over spent has you laden with guilt underpinning your avoidance.
And so, if your values and purpose of your money are centered around achieving financial freedom, then you know how vital it is to keep track of your spending.
And reviewing your bank statements is an essential first start to this end.
So, how can you amend your avoidant money script so that you get past the fear of reviewing your bank statements?
Well, to begin, use your feeling of dissatisfaction as your catalyst for change.
Before diving in, create a whole sensory experience that aligns with the positive money script you’re trying to create. Remember, we experience the world around us with all of our senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, body position, and sense of space, to name a few.
Therefore, if you’re going to rewrite the script, do it at a time and in a place where you can be calm, centered, free of distractions or worries about work and family, and otherwise safe as you dive into your bank statements.
Well, while this approach may seem superficial, ultimately, the message that we’re trying to give your body is that reviewing your bank statements is safe.
Remember, the neurons that fire together wire together.
Now, when you’re in a calm, safe place, pull up your financial institution’s website on your phone, laptop, or computer. Then, review your last month’s bank transactions, and organize the transactions by category.
As you go through the work, avoid assigning judgment to any of your spending decisions. Simply use your time in this calm, safe space to bring awareness to your current habits. Then, bring awareness to any unwanted pattern of spending and acknowledge that your feelings of dissatisfaction are coming from a place of old money scripts and that you’re committed to positive changes.
Next, pick out one spending categories where you’d like to see improvement and write them down. Do you want to spend less money using Uber eats? If so, what’s the alternative? Jot down a few other options and create an immediate action plan for how you will avoid the use of takeout for the week and what reward you’ll give yourself for taking this step.
Inevitably, you’ll find yourself pressed for time at some point in the coming week. When this happens, refer back to your action plan.
Finally, assign yourself a reward for following through on your action plan. Operant conditioning, as described by B.F. Skinner states that behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences. When a behavior is followed by a reinforcing consequence, such as a reward, the behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future.
So be sure to treat yourself when you engage in behaviors that reflect the new money script that you’re trying to create, and ultimately the values and purpose that you’ve defined for your money.
Now, in this example we referenced the Avoidant type money script. You can repeat this same process if you find yourself dealing with a different one of the other scripts here as well.
Either way, remember that by bringing awareness to your current money script and using dissatisfaction with it can be the “push” you need to move towards a more desirable money outcome. Your values and money purpose are the “pull” to draw you towards your money goals. And to create lasting behavioral change, you’ll need to create new, positive experiences that enable you to bridge the gap.
While it may be tempting to set ambitious goals to spark this change, start small. Remember Clear’s advice: Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is why habits are crucial. They cast repeated votes for being a particular type of person.
In upcoming posts, we’ll dive deeper into bringing together your SMART financial goals and setting habits for achieving them throughout the course of the year. For now, taking these few steps will not only help make over your money mindset, they’ll bring you closer to becoming the master of your financial independence journey.