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In a workshop I attended long ago, I met a woman named Jenny who told the story of being sent as a child to the store to buy milk for dinner. She takes the dollar bill into the store and buys the milk. On her way out she spots a cute stuffed bear. She has the change in her pocket and thinks, “I can buy this!”, and she does. All the way home she is as excited as can be. She can’t wait to show her mom what she bought. But what happened when she got home? Her mom screamed at her, made her return the bear and bring back the change. Ouch!

Despite this occurring almost fifty years before, she still remembered this incident with remarkable clarity. I can see how it could be a powerful emotional experience. As young children, we like to demonstrate our independence and accomplishments for our parents. We want so dearly to please them. This turned out badly for her. What impact might that story have upon her, and her relationship to money?

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What lessons might Jenny have learned that day— That what she wants isn’t important? That money is scarce, there just isn’t enough? Maybe she learned that she had better be careful with money or she’ll make a mistake…one so big that her mom will yell at her! Or simply that situations involving money are unpleasant.

This could be the birthplace of some of her beliefs about money, beliefs that she still may hold today! What is interesting is that our early experiences with money, especially ones with high emotion attached to them, seem to be indelibly imprinted on our psyches. They are like little emotional buttons that, when pushed, remind us subliminally of what we learned, way back when.

What happens along the way is that we have other experiences that support the “lessons” that we learned from our previous interactions with money. Years later, Jenny may have bought something she wanted, an article of clothing for instance, only to find a week later she had no interest in it. Perhaps a parent, or even a friend pointed out, “You really wanted that when you bought it, and now you don’t wear it.”

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What goes through her mind might be like this, “Yeah, it’s a shame, because I don’t have that much money. It wasn’t a good idea. I am not very good with money.” It doesn’t take many occurrences like this for our minds to establish a pattern, and create an habitual way of thinking and behaving with money. This is what we’re talking about when we use the phrase “relationship to money.”

Our relationship to money operates unconsciously. It is influenced by our experiences with money and the stories we create from those experiences. Subsequent episodes of our “money story” can reinforce what happened earlier.

What motivates Jenny’s financial decisions today, we can’t be sure. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes choices based on her discomfort with money. She may find it difficult to save. Her story could be something like, “It makes me uncomfortable to have money, so I might as well just spend it,” removing it as the source of discomfort. Or she may have scarcity issues – there will never be enough – and spending money will cause her to feel remorse and regret. She may embrace both narratives at the same time.

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The idea is that our money stories are relevant to how we think, feel and behave with money. They can be complex and contradictory. Money can be that way. It represents so much more than a means of transaction for goods and services.

As a final thought, consider that our beliefs about money might begin by our perceptions as a child, built upon by subsequent interactions. And until we analyze our beliefs from that perspective, we may continue to make unconscious choices with money. Writing down some of our stories, in as great detail as we can recall, is a valuable exercise in discovering our personal relationship to money. And it may lead to our making more conscious choices!

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