Kim Stephenson is a financial psychologist and former financial advisor
Would you rather discuss your sex life or your personal finance?
If you answer, “I’d rather not talk at all, it’s private”, then you’re probably in the majority for both categories. But that hasn’t always been the case. We don’t have to look too far back in history to see a huge difference in what’s perceived as a comfortable topic of conversation.
In Victorian times, while sex was very much a taboo in every aspect of society, money was something to boast about. Fast forward 150-odd years, while talking about sex has become increasingly normalised – with the mechanics of sex and relationships now being introduced from a young age – money has withdrawn into ‘no go’ realms for large swathes of society. Where it is discussed, it tends to be in practical, functional terms, rather than about the complex emotional relationship we all have with money.
We evolved in a simpler world without money. Attract a mate, keep them close, provide for them and don’t get killed – and, with a bit of luck, you’ll pass your genes on to the next generation. You needed to be a better prospect than rivals, but the need to be part of the pack and have allies was also critical.
We still possess those same conflicting drives to both be “better” and outcompete others because we want to impress potential mates/friends, and to “fit in” with the crowd. But now the world is more complex. Whereas once competence was judged on hunter gatherer capabilities, now the criteria we judge on have evolved: money, income, possessions, status, sense of humour, similar ‘tribal’ views (politics, football clubs etc), social class, are just a few.
How are others judging us? Will we be “in-crowd” or outcast and how do we respond to that? The simple threats of the old world – acute, physical ones like predators – triggered a run, fight or hide reaction. Today, social judgment is one of the biggest threats we face. And what does that mean when it comes to money? Fight the bank manager, run from the bailiff, cover up debt?
These instinctive reactions don’t work with modern threats. If we hide (not talk about money) does the threat go away, like a predator would? No, it’s ongoing. It’s a complex, chronic social threat and it won’t disappear. Instead, we need to find an alternative solution, and talking about it as a problem rather than reacting to it as a threat is a good way of approaching it.
The belief that money is the sole measure of our worth and the desire to have more than others are understandable – but they lead to treating money as both a God to be worshipped, and a monster to be feared.
Instead, determine what you really want and what you value in life – friends, family, things that are meaningful. Then work out how much is “enough” for you to enjoy life, instead of constantly having to have “more”. To channel JFK, ask not what you can do for money, ask what money can do for you.
Start talking through money problems and fears, instead of fighting their existence, running from them, or hoping they’ll go away.
To get people talking about money in a more meaningful way, one ice breaker activity that’s good to play with friends, family, colleagues or clients is the “if I had £10 million, what are the first 15 things I’d do” game.
People usually talk about buying houses, cars, holiday homes, yachts, or other fancy stuff. When you’ve got a list, think about where the desires come from and what it would mean if you had them – and share the ideas.
Typically, somewhere between 12 and 15 items on the list stem from things you’ve seen advertised, from trying to compete with siblings or friends or impress others. Less than three are things that people actually want because they would add value to their lives – such as being able to spend more time on hobbies or with friends and family.
When people actually play the game and talk about it, you find that the 50-room mansion would cost a fortune to heat, insure and pay council tax, and you’d just rattle around in it. It becomes easier to be honest with yourself and others about what you really want your money to do for you. It’s also easier to pull out of the constant race to compete.
Once you realise that, it’s easier to get together with people and start to set budgets and control your spending, and start saving for the things that really matter – which, in turn, means you can start to share success stories about the improvement in your life and finance, instead of bottling up shame and disappointment that you can’t get a grip on your money.
There are no silly questions when it comes to finance, but it’s certainly smart to approach managing your money by asking “what can money do for me?”- that way, you’re more likely to make better financial decisions.