Thanksgiving has past and now we're in full holiday swing. And for many of us, that means we’re in for some serious family time.
And mostly, that’s great! It’s a chance to bask in warm fuzzies and re-vamp our gratitude lists (not to mention eat every single bite of pumpkin pie available).
But everything can’t be fuzzies and pie. Sometimes a trip home can be a trippy voyage down memory lane. Especially when it comes to our family’s money baggage.
Believe it or not, whether you grew up just like them—or in reaction to them—the money lessons you first learned at home tend to follow us through life.
And, if your family had a few less-than-healthy financial habits, trust us, you’re not alone.
“We learn from our parents,” explains Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist and author of “Be Fearless.” “Money is an important part of our upbringing. We model our parents’ behavior and it becomes ingrained in us. It’s difficult to break out of that.”
As much as we want our parents and families to be shining examples of how best to manage money, the truth is that they’re human, and their own approaches can be flawed.
How do we know? We asked members of the LearnVest community (whose names have been changed, because no one wants to deal with that at Thanksgiving dinner) to share their own families’ toxic money habits. Then we asked Alpert to break down the psychological motivations behind them–as well as what you can do to break free.
Because after all, as Alpert puts it: “You can’t choose your family, but you can choose the way you manage your money.”
Money Toxic Behavior #1: Living in Denial
“My mom would literally let three weeks of mail pile up in the mailbox and drive right by it rather than face the music and open her bills.” - Marian
What Causes It: “This is classic avoidance,” Alpert says. “It’s the mind’s way of avoiding that which it anticipates will be uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking.” He explains that the problem with this particular coping strategy is that it only provides a very temporary relief, while doing nothing for overall stress and anxiety.
How to Shake It: Get motivated by the outcome rather than the process, says Alpert: “Think how you’ll feel once you clear the bills off the table,” he says.
Another method for tackling this sort of financial denial is automating every money step you can. For example, set up regular retirement contributions and standard bill payments (that is, for the bills that don’t change every month, like rent or mortgage), which will save you on late fees that will surely result when you choose to ignore what’s happening with your money.
Money Toxic Behavior #2: Embracing Debt
“I grew up as a kid without the concept of building wealth–debt was just the norm. It was more of a question of how much did you owe, and how much could you afford to pay off that month. Because of certain circumstances, my family never got ahead of their finances, or understood the idea of using money to help you make money.” - Susan
What Causes It: “Living paycheck to paycheck and surviving has become the norm over the past few years,” Alpert says. “People are feeling defeated, unable to see the future and stuck in a perpetual cycle of work and paying the bills.”
How to Shake It: Before getting ahead of your finances, you need to start catching up. Start putting as much as you can afford (even if it’s only $10 each week) away to pay off any bad debt like credit cards and car or consumer loans, and start shoring up an emergency fund. When you’re debt free and have a little financial cushion, then it might be time to turn your attention to investing. Think $10 investments aren’t enough? Think again–just ask this woman, who turned $10 stocks into $60,000. It might take some time to get ahead of your money, but the most important thing is that you start right away.
Money Toxic Behavior #3: Throwing Budgeting to the Wind
“My mother has this idea that money just kind of appears. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her use the word ‘budget.’ I would always watch her go crazy over some glass bowl or piece of art, and spend an hour talking about how expensive it was and how she shouldn’t buy it … and would inevitably give in and buy it anyway. So when I got out in the real world, I just ball-parked everything. I was overspending every single month without even realizing it, because no one had ever told me to actually track my income and expenses! “ - Amy
What Causes It: ”A lot of people use buying as a way to provide comfort in the same way that people might overeat–as a way to feel fulfilled,” says Alpert. They buy lavish and luxury items they don’t need to make them feel complete or special.”
How to Shake It: We don’t need to explain that money doesn’t just “appear,” but seeing where all your dough goes is also one of the best ways to avoid mindless spending. By consistently tracking your earnings and expenditures in the free LearnVest Money Center, you’ll get a sense of how much you really have to spend on what.
In fact, in your Financial Inbox, your areas of spending are sorted into Essentials, Priorities and Lifestyle costs (according to our 50/20/30 rule), and you can track your spending trends over time, so you can easily see where you’re on budget—or going over, whether what leads you astray is a glass bowl, new shoes or a dinner out.
“Maybe it’s a growing up in Detroit thing, but everyone in my family has always leased a brand-new, very cool car for a few years, then traded it back in for another. They’d never settle for wheels that were less than snazzy.” - Jenny
What Causes It: “For a lot of people, the appeal of leasing is the convenience,” Alpert explains. “Decisions are made for them. The price and time frame are set, the mileage is limited. People like order and control, and they feel like this provides it.”
How to Shake It: He points out that the hardest adjustment for someone who inherited this practice might not be the age of the car, but making the distinction that a car is a method of transportation from point A to point B, not a representation of who you are. “Don’t let a car define you,” he advises.
Of course, leasing a car isn’t necessarily a bad move—if you have money in your budget and that’s how you choose to spend it. Before buying or leasing, however, make sure you have the money to cover car, maintenance and insurance payments every month, as well as gas. (If you’re currently saving up these funds, you can easily set a savings goal in The Money Center.) The average cost of car ownership is almost $9,000 a year, and the last thing you want to do is take out a high-interest auto loan.
Money Toxic Behavior #5: Resenting the Joneses
“‘Must be nice,’ is my mom’s favorite catchphrase for anyone who bought a new house, or took a vacation to Florida. It got to the point where I cringed when I heard that statement. It was pure ‘comparisonitis,’ but in a way it made you the victim because it suggested you couldn’t have these things yourself, and instead should begrudge others who did.” - Keisha
What Causes It: “Social comparisons are normal and her mom was right that it ‘must be nice’ to be able to buy a new home and take vacations,” Alpert tells us. “Her statement though, suggests a hint of jealousy and/or anger.” Though these emotions might motivate someone in the short term to make changes, he explains, they’re ultimately draining, not a good motivator like setting your own goals to pursue because you truly want to achieve them.
How to Shake It: “Keeping up with the Joneses will only allow you to be as happy as the Jonseses,” Alpert cautions. Money comparisonitis is the real, toxic behavior of constantly comparing yourself to those around you, and the first step to getting past it is forgiving yourself: It’s totally normal. In fact, a study of data collected since 1970 shows that we base our self-esteem more on the money we make compared to others, or our relative financial status, than on our actual financial picture. If you’re concerned that you might have money comparisonitis, take our quiz to find out.
Money Toxic Behavior #6: Wanting What You Want Now
“My parents never looked at prices–when I asked my mom how much gas was costing her when gas prices were getting out of control in Los Angeles, she told me, ‘I don’t know–I never look.’ We bought everything immediately, at full price, because my parents always felt that the time it takes to find a discount isn’t worth the money you would save. Now that they’re nearing retirement, they’ve started seeing how much money they could have (and maybe should have) saved over the years.” -Audrey
What Causes It: Not everyone sees the value—or the joy—in seeking out the best deal. “For some people, there is great satisfaction in knowing they got the absolute best price on a product, and that outweighs any amount of ‘wasted’ time and energy. For others, it just doesn’t feel worth it,” says Alpert, who explains that they may feel more uplifted by the temporary thrill of immediate gratification.
How to Shake It: Nobody’s saying you have to be an extreme couponer if that doesn’t appeal to you. Splurging—in the right way—can actually be good for your finances. But depending on your financial situation, and your budget, you need to know when it’s OK to treat yourself and when you’re just throwing money away that you could be able to save. One good way is to enroll in our free Take Control bootcamp, which will teach you how to set boundaries—and long-term financial goals—for yourself.
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