Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist at Morningstar and author of the new book Loaded: Money, Psychology, and How to Get Ahead without Leaving Your Values Behind, took a deep dive into the root of people’s money issues, and found that numbers have surprisingly little to do with it. More often, unarticulated but very real ideas and values that we pick up from our families and communities play an outsize role in our financial challenges. Precisely because nobody talks about these issues, many of us aren’t even aware that they exist — let alone that they can be driving us away from a healthy relationship with our finances.
In this Q&A, Newcomb highlights major triggers that cause us to sabotage our finances and talks about how, with awareness, we can circumvent them.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Newcomb specified these are her views, not Morningstar’s.)
Why is it important to understand that most of us have a conflicted relationship with money?
The reason I think that’s important is this includes negative feelings towards money, and those negative emotions will push us away from dealing with it. So if those emotions and the stories that underlie them are left unexamined, we avoid money — we leave things undone. When you get bills in the mail you leave them unopened, or you just avoid balancing your checkbook because you don’t like thinking about it. Those are some of the more benign things, and they can still lead to overdraft fees, bank fees, even collections.
Why is it important to realize that we have a financial “storyline” or money narrative?
Every one of our experiences we distill down into a story, and that becomes your narrative, and an unexamined narrative is still a narrative. Underneath almost every single financial decision we make there’s a story, there’s a belief — and some of them are true and some of them are not. So many of them have some financial moralism and any time we get to that we blame money — this inanimate object that has no power over us — for choices people make. We take responsibility out of the hands of human beings and put it on money.
What’s the most common money belief that prompts people to unconsciously sabotage their finances?
One would be the kind of belief that money is evil or money will corrupt you or the idea, ‘If I get money, something bad will happen.’ When we take in messages with the undercurrent of ‘money is evil’ or ‘money will corrupt you,’ people will avoid earning what they’re worth because they’re afraid of what having too much money will do to them. So few of us are really self-aware in this area because we’re only taught to think about money in terms of numbers.
You present the idea that the basic cash flow model — income in one column, expenses in the other — most of us think of when we budget is actually damaging. Why is that?
The reason I think it’s damaging is because it perpetuates the idea that income comes from outside of us. In that model, when you think of income, it’s like money is this thing you have to go out and get, and then it’s gone again. It’s like a river and your job is just to direct the flow, and that’s a very powerless way of thinking about the way money moves in your life. The reality is much more positive than that. Any dollar you earn came from your time, your skills, your intelligence. This knowledge can help break down that idea that ‘I can’t have money.’ It can help remove those feelings of guilt.