Not long ago, I was having lunch and caught wind of an archetypal event occurring just behind me. I turned around, ever so subtly, to find a young mother trying to convince her youngster to eat a single Brussels sprout. For quite a while, it was a non-starter. The toddler would have no part of it. No matter how much she tried to convince him that this green orb would make him into a big boy and how each little sphere was packed with such good vitamins, he was unmovable. I secretly rooted for the sweatpants clad little boy to hold out against that vile tasting blob. Offers of treats, movies, an afternoon with grandma and finally even a visit to ToysRUs were to no avail. The little boy certainly had the advantage and I could see the exasperation rising in his mother's face. After several minutes, the gloves came off; the heavy artillery was put in place and the crafty adult maneuvered her son right where she wanted him, even though he didn't know it yet. "You know," she began gently, "if you ate Brussels sprouts, you'd be stronger, faster and smarter than your big sister!" Ah, the trap was sprung. Unhesitatingly, the little boy opened his mouth to receive the communion with the buttery globe. I left the table acknowledging the child's defeat. Adults 1-Kid-0.
While this battle is probably familiar to most parents, it is one that is familiar to any financial planner who wishes to help their client achieve their dreams and goals. As Financial Life Planners, we are keenly aware that people come into the relationship with certain money scripts and attitudes. These scripts, rooted in their memory, guide their beliefs and behaviors. Those behaviors and beliefs become habits that either support or negatively impact their ability to move forward toward success. If, for example, one were to have grown up hearing that "money is the root of all evil", would you expect that person to grow up to strive toward financial success or would you expect that anything relating to or anyone with money would be ‘bad'. Does that sound like a stretch? I don't think so, in fact, I have seen numerous clients with money scripts, beliefs and behaviors that keep them from living a more comfortable and balanced life.
One such case was a doctor, who was born at the very end of the Depression. His earliest money messages were all about depravation. While some Depression-era people became exceedingly frugal, this man went to the extreme opposite. He took his "lessons" of lack and decided that once he had money he would not deny himself of anything that struck his fancy. The result was constant battles with his wife over money, tax problems, debt issues, and facing a retirement with very limited resources. In trying to help chart a course of financial recovery and relative comfort, the client had to come to grips with his "Brussels sprout". He had to realize that in order to achieve his stated goal of living a comfortable life in retirement without money worries, he would have to make changes.
The need to examine our current financial life, our goals and strategies is especially important during difficult economic times. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is an avoidance technique that works really well, until the ‘wheels fall off'. Then we're stuck on the side of the road, in the rain, at night, on a holiday weekend, 100 miles from nowhere....with crappy cell service. No good! So, let's take a step back visit our current paradigms and see what's working and what might need a tune up or at least the lugs tightened.
Get yourself something to write with and try this easy exercise:
1. What are your earliest memories about money?
2. As a child, what was the most important lesson you learned about money?
3. Growing up in your family, was money used to reward, punish, survive, impress, control, help others, have fun, buy love reach goals or _______?
4. Thinking about today, do you see any of your childhood messages in your current beliefs, behaviors or habits?
5. If so, do they support your goals or are they detrimental to your success?
OK, exercise is over. How was that for you? Any ‘a-ha's'? If so, it's time to begin to wrestle with the concept of change. In order to effectuate meaningful change, it is helpful to start with reality; about one's current financial condition and an understanding of what got them there. The next step is to consider what success means and what one is willing to do to get there. For example, are you willing to change your spending habits or even make structural changes in order to achieve your desired goal? Once you know where you came from and where you wish to go, one may make a companion of the following question:
Is this decision bringing me closer to or further away from my dreams?
No, change isn't quite that simple. It is a process with bumps and bruises. As one challenges their beliefs, they are able to move in a positive direction by implementing a system of small steps and small victories; behaviors change, attitudes change and outcomes change.
This was stark realization for my client, and as I have seen so many times before, a challenging process. I turned to the doctor, and ask if he would indulge me to close his eyes and just listen to my words. I took a deep breath and began. "Imagine yourself, three years from today and you are debt free and the master of your spending and your financial life. Imagine how you would feel. Take a moment and let those thoughts sink in." I watched as his face changed and a smile appeared. Brussels Sprout 2 -Children-0