“Sometimes when I speak, my Mum comes out.” Anyone of a “certain age” who stumbles across this aphorism when searching for a birthday card will recognise its poignancy.
There comes a time in life when we find ourselves increasingly reverting to parent-isms; particularly, it seems, if we have children ourselves. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explained this phenomenon in his 1970’s tome “A Good Enough Parent”. He claims it is most common when we are under stress: our brains will reach in panic for clues on how to act and, in the absence of anything better, will draw on the last time we found ourselves in a similar situation. If that last time was when we were a child, we will parrot the way our parents dealt with the situation (usually by shouting!) because, under stress, we don’t have the time or wherewithal to create a different response. This, according to Bettelheim, is compounded by the fact that we tend to bury negative experiences as they are too painful to bear scrutiny – so the response comes out, in the raw, exactly the same way as it was before, only this time – we are the ones doing the shouting!
So many of our attitudes are shaped by our upbringing – and the rest are shaped by our experiences. If your parents had a very relaxed attitude to money (whether or not there was plenty to go around), the chances are, you will too. Equally, if your pocket money was docked every time you smeared a grubby finger on the sofa because you were shortening its useful life, you might also find yourself stressing about the financial implications of every action. Or, you might have been shaped in quite the opposite way, learning the lessons of your elders and swearing not to make the same mistakes (“My parents lost everything we had in a Bingo hall in Slough – I’ll never put my kids through that humiliation”).
One way or another, attitudes to money and finance are influenced by the past, but it is important to recognise that the Past You does not have to be the Future You, or even the Present You. Feelings towards money can, of course, change with time and experiences. Furthermore, the actual amount of money we have can bring a great deal of influence to bear on our spending patterns; although not always in the way we might think. For example, if money is tight it can be tempting to take a short-term view of our finances – when there is little prospect of saving enough to change our life circumstances, why not spend what is available to make the here-and-now more palatable? Conversely, when wealth starts to accumulate, the fear of losing it can prompt a tightening of the purse strings. Also, attitudes towards what is affordable tend to move in line with our income - most of us have a figure above which a bottle of wine, pair of shoes or haircut is considered too expensive, and that is determined by how much we earn – but the point at which it becomes “a ridiculous amount to pay” is probably shaped by our backgrounds, the company we keep and – for some people – our aspirations (spending, say, 1% of your disposable weekly income on a bottle of wine might get you a £3 bottle or a £300 bottle; where you draw the line can say a lot about you!).
Culturally, too, our attitudes can be ambiguous. We can be heard consoling ourselves about the loss or lack of finances with “Never mind, it’s only money” or “Money can’t buy you happiness”. And yet, at its most basic level it is intrinsically linked to our survival and, even when we have enough, our quality of life is determined by the amount of any excess. Every generation worries about the next generation’s ability to cope in a fast changing world and is fiercely possessive when it comes to passing on anything that is left over at the end – in fact the very word “legacy” means “money” to most people. So, money does matter. It is important to us.
Yet the legacy that will have the most lasting value is in the lessons we have learnt and the experience we pass on to those we leave behind. That is not to say that the next generation should adopt our goals and live our lives (the world of finance looks very different now from one or two generations ago, and attitudes to credit, risk and saving reflect that), but rather that if we can help our children to look beyond the pressures of the here and now and show them the path to financial wellbeing, they will have the tools to shape their own futures in ways that suit them and the world in which they find themselves. And the only way we will be able to do that for the next generation is to start to take notice now. The Present You needs to take a good long look at the Past You and then listen to what the Future You desires; and not just for your sake but for the next generation too.
Part of The WoWW! money programme encourages participants to take notice of the many different ways in which their actions – or inertia – around money are the product of past influences. When we understand why we do what we do it becomes easier to accept that lessons can be learnt to shape the future. A fun, 60-second test helps them to understand their personality type, and from this we take them through the key elements of behavioural finance and how their particular personality type approaches money and decision making. Just as having an insight into why a parent always yells at their child for the same things they got yelled at themselves can help to break the pattern, so a bit of time taken to notice how and why we approach money in the way that we do can help to shape our future actions. The Future You needs to have a voice. And it doesn’t have to be your Mum’s.