The stories that play in our head are often put there by what is happening in the world around us as we grow up. We hear the stories from our parents, friends and society and depending on how loud and prevalent they are, we tend to adopt them as our world view.
When I was growing up, the story that was playing was that you have to be very careful with money and save for a rainy day that was surely coming. We could not continue to count on our good luck as someday it would change and we needed to prepare for that change.
There are many reasons why this story was prevalent in our household and in similar middle class households around us. Most of our parents were children of war and depression impacted parents and they had had this story drilled into them. Our parents simply passed along their beliefs.
Everyone interprets the stories they hear differently. One person might take the story that good luck can’t last and go out and spend their money so there is nothing to lose when that bad day comes. I chose to believe that I had to save every dollar that wasn’t going to a clearly defined necessity such as food or shelter. Every spending decision for me became a debate in my head: “do I really need this or would it be better to save my money for the day when I will not be able to make any money and will therefore otherwise be destitute?” The rainy day always won the debate in my head and I simply stopped spending money.
The only time I spent money on “fun” things was if I was with someone else who had a different story playing in their head. As a self-proclaimed people pleaser, I would tend to weigh other people’s arguments more heavily than my own. If they were telling me it was ok to spend my money on that item of clothing or fun night out, I would do it. And then I would feel horrible guilt and would spend time justifying my spending after the fact.
Sometime in my thirties, I began to recognize that I was a bit extreme in my spending habits and I modified my behaviour slightly. However I still strongly believed the story that I was going to be broke someday. Then I got married and had kids and my ability to save was severely impacted. I worried about money all the time. It was fairly exhausting.
Then I got divorced.
Well, this was all the proof I needed that I had been correct that someday things were all going to implode. My story had been confirmed.
Starting out again after a divorce is challenging. Starting out again after a divorce with the belief that the end of the world just happened and there is no way to ever get back to even a remote semblance of the financial stability one had before divorce is even more challenging.
That day that I had been planning for all my life had finally arrived. I would be financially unstable for the remainder of my life.
It is hard to move forward with that belief. For me, I tried to mitigate the damage by not taking any risks. I would horde my remaining savings and make them last until I was dead.
Then I started to notice that other people had different stories. One story that I was particularly fascinated by was the one where if you run out of money, you can simply go out and figure out a way to earn more. Really?
Another story I noticed was the gratitude story. Some friends were grateful for their good fortune of living in Canada and having jobs and felt like they were living in abundance. I noticed that they seemed to have more joy in life.
I also began to realize with time that in actual fact doomsday had not come for me. In reality, I had not become destitute. I just believed that I had. It was not true. I realized that my story was creating my not so fun reality.
What did my financial story do for me? Some people might argue that it helped me save and saving is a good thing right?
That story did help me save and I am grateful for the fact that I had some financial stability coming out of a divorce.
But did I need that story playing in my head while I saved? Did I need guilt and buyer’s remorse as my constant friends as I went through life? I would have to say I could have done without it.
I could have saved and set aside for a rainy day without all the extra baggage of guilt going around in my head. Really, it is quite easy to do. What is that saying? It is “pay yourself first.” I did that. When I got my paycheque every month I put a percentage aside as savings. That part was not hard. Why did I then have to continue to feel guilt about spending the money that was not designated savings? Because I truly believed a made-up story.
Do you have a story about money that is playing in your head? How does it affect your life and spending patterns?
Recognizing the stories we tell ourselves can illuminate how we are making decisions in life. Are you doing things based on a made up story or are you living your life according to your true values and beliefs?
Next week I will tackle a friend’s story. In her words: “my story is that it is ok for everyone else to have money – not me…at least not yet. I don’t know when it will be my turn”.