What Are You Carrying?

Reexamining our beliefs about money

4/19/20233 min read

two brown donkeys carrying baggage
two brown donkeys carrying baggage

One of my favorites of the many (many!) books I acquired when my kids were younger is Zen Shorts, a collection of short stories by Jon Muth.

It recounts an old Buddhist parable (adapted for children) about two monks, one older and one younger. They are traveling and come upon a woman who cannot cross a large puddle without getting dirty, so the older monk picks her up and carries her across. She does not thank him. The young monk stews about this and, hours later, expresses anger for her lack of gratitude. In response, the older monk says: “I set that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

What are we still carrying? Is it moving us forward or holding us back? We all carry our history, financial and otherwise, whether we’re aware of it or not. In our financial lives, this history can lead to ingrained beliefs about money. Those beliefs can hold us back from making progress toward our goals.

Aside from my dad’s firm belief that a pair of jeans should not cost more than $30,* in my family, we didn’t talk much about money. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were incredibly supportive and modeled good financial habits, but I got the sense that money is a private matter and isn’t a subject polite people discuss.

I followed that perceived guidance and didn’t discuss it much for the first decade of my adulthood – not even with my spouse. I also got the impression that it was a sign of weakness to need to worry about money, so I didn’t. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother to submit expenses for reimbursement at work.

We were fortunate enough that this avoidance approach worked out until we had children and really needed to pay attention to our finances. When I finally started paying attention, I realized that we needed to make some serious changes to avoid accumulating debt and falling further behind. While hindsight is 20/20, I still sometimes wish I had been more mindful in my 20s, before I had kids and things got more complicated. That said, I'm grateful I started paying attention before the train went too far off the tracks.

It turns out that failure to discuss money with children is a common source of confusion that can lead to lasting, problematic scripts like the ones I internalized. Mind Over Money by Brad Klontz is a really interesting book that discusses common money scripts and beliefs around money. He notes that “[w]hen money is never talked about in front of the children, common and predictable responses include the child growing up financially dependent, living in financial denial, or developing an avoidance of money[.]’”

It appears the current generation may suffer from some of the same avoidance issues I experienced in my 20s and early 30s. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal posted an article entitled “They Can’t Even: A Generation Avoids Facing Its Finances.”

On the flip side, where money is a constant source of discussion and stress, children can develop anxiety about money that carries into adulthood. Financial anxiety can have little to do with how much is in the bank – I’ve heard interviews with multi-millionaires who struggle to spend money on anything – but everything to do with your history and the beliefs about money you’ve developed. It turns out, if you don’t feel like you have enough now, reaching a certain number may not fix that underlying anxiety.

As we think about our finances, it’s worth stepping back to think about what beliefs you’re carrying about money and whether they are serving you in your current financial journey. Of course, these beliefs are not the only thing that matters -- there are many other elements in play, some of which I'll try to unpack in future posts -- but without reexamining problematic beliefs, it's difficult to move forward.

I'd love to hear about what beliefs you're carrying or have carried and how you've worked to reexamine them!

*This is a premise with which I agree in principle but has been difficult to execute in practice, aside from the used jeans I've scored through various swap groups on Facebook.

Disclaimer: I am not certified in financial planning, nor am I familiar with your personal financial situation. These are my thoughts grounded in my experience, which will differ from yours. Please run any ideas by someone familiar with your situation!