I recently wrote a column about an aging friend who, after years of doing it himself, hired someone to clean out his gutters. His reasoning was that at this stage in his life he had more money than energy.
One of my retired clients, this past March, bought the second brand new car of her life. Though not a luxury model, it was sporty and bright red. Between the time she ordered it and the time it arrived, the pandemic hit. For the first several weeks she owned the car, it stayed in her garage, in part because of stay-at-home restrictions but in part because she felt embarrassed to drive it.
Each of these stories could be just the tip of a money script iceberg. Some people hate tasks like cleaning gutters or housecleaning, could afford to hire them done, and yet still do such chores themselves. Some people find it difficult to spend money on things, like new vehicles, that they can easily afford and would enjoy and use.
Here are some of the reasons they might give if anyone asks:
• “I can’t afford to hire someone.”
• “Hiring someone to do household tasks I could do myself is wasteful.”
• “Chores like this just come along with owning a home.”
• “It’s faster to do it myself rather than find someone else to do it.”
• “I shouldn’t have a new car when so many others are losing jobs and struggling financially.”
• “I shouldn’t have bought a car; with the economy so uncertain, I might need that money.”
These money scripts are all internally driven. They are held in place by what you think, feel, or believe about your money behaviors.
Other scripts are driven by what you believe other people, or society, may think about your money behaviors.
• “Only rich people have someone else do their housecleaning or yard work.”
• “If I hired these things done, my neighbors would think I was trying to be better than them.”
• “If I drive a new car, people will think I’m a selfish rich person.”
The “what would people think” money scripts are often externally driven and very cultural. We tend to associate with and live near people who mirror our financial circumstances and money scripts. Such a “financial comfort zone” is shared by people who tend to have similar incomes, lifestyles, spending and savings habits, and beliefs about money.
These zones are artificial financial boundaries that we impose on ourselves or others. They are not necessarily defined by what we can or cannot afford or even by what we really want. Yet we, and those around us, can become uncomfortable if we move too far outside them.
Certainly, people can and do expand their financial comfort zones. Children who grow up in low-income families, for example, may be able to get an education and go on to careers that bring them financial success far beyond that of their parents. Often, however, those who leave the financial comfort zone of their peers are ostracized unless they mend their ways and return to the beliefs and behaviors of “the zone.”
It’s no wonder that many people, coming into unexpected wealth, unconsciously feel a need to get rid of it. It’s one way to get back into the familiar zone where they know how things work, they are comfortable, and they belong.
The money scripts around something as simple as whether to hire help for household tasks or buying a new car can be amazingly complex. Paying attention to what we imagine other people are thinking about our decisions can give us insight into our internal relationship with money.