If you are not making good financial decisions, it may be time to change the financial stories you believe.
You may think you have to be very knowledgeable to make good financial decisions, but, in fact, the information you need is simple, Morningstar’s behavioural economist, Dr Sarah Newcomb, says.
Newcomb was speaking at a recent Morningstar conference in Cape Town. Morningstar is a United States-based company that rates unit trust funds around the world.
She says all you need to know is that you must spend less than you earn and invest what you save in a diversified portfolio. It’s that easy.
Newcomb says the hard part is not spending all your income, or, even worse, not spending more than you earn. We find this difficult because “our financial behaviour is rooted in the stories we tell ourselves about money”, many of which do not support a sound strategy for creating and preserving wealth.
She says there are three factors that shape what we do:
1. Our attitude towards a particular behaviour – for example, whether we think it is good to save;
2. Our subjective norms – what the people around us think; and
3. Whether or not we think we can control a particular behaviour.
These three factors are determined by the stories you tell yourself, and these stories become your core beliefs and values, and shape your intentions, she says.
Every financial decision begins with a story. For example, many people believe the famous misquote from the Bible, “money is the root of all evil”.
However, money only “turns up the volume” for people to express who they already are, Newcomb says.
Another popular saying is that “money doesn’t grow on trees”. This “story” is intended to make you appreciate money and not waste it, but it also sends the message that money is scarce, which can have a negative effect on your financial behaviour, she says.
Many people believe the American Dream, that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. But at the same time they love to hate the wealthy. These conflicting beliefs do not create a healthy relationship with money, Newcomb says.
“Stories are the reason a man earning R10 million a year may feel completely inadequate, because he is living in his father’s shadow,” Newcomb says.
Other stories that can result in poor financial decisions are the belief that your personal worth is equal to your net worth, or that poor people are lazy and rich people are greedy or selfish, Newcomb says.
Some people who are afraid of money tell themselves they don’t deserve to have money, whereas people with a sense of entitlement tell themselves they deserve to have money.
“Couples who fight over money are fighting over their stories,” Newcomb says.
The good news is that stories can be changed no matter how long you have believed them or how much “evidence” there is to support them, she says. If your money story is unhealthy, consider changing how you interpret it, Newcomb says.
The moral of the fable about the tortoise and the hare is that slow and steady wins the race. But you could re-interpret the story to mean “don’t underestimate your competition”, or “pride comes before a fall”, or “don’t be lazy before you have finished something”.
Newcomb says she recently met a worried single mother who believed that, to be a good mother, she had to put her three children through college. But saving for their education meant she could not save for her retirement.
The woman’s father had paid for her studies, and she believed that a student loan would be a burden on her sons.
Newcomb says she encouraged the mother to consider that her children could have either the burden of a loan when they were young or looking after her when she was old.
She also encouraged the mother to change her belief that not having the money to put her children through college made her a bad parent.
“Good parents care and provide for themselves so as not to be a burden to their kids in their retirement,” Newcomb told the mother.
“Good parents have conversations with their children about the economic realities of life and how they need to prepare themselves to create value, but this does not mean every parent can pay their children’s way though incredibly inflated education.”
The woman had been trapped in her own financial story and could not make a different financial decision until she changed her story. Once she took Newcomb’s advice, she was relieved and began saving for her retirement.
In another example of how stories can be changed, Newcomb says a teenager concluded that her family was bad because they were among the world’s wealthiest one percent.
Newcomb says it was laudable that the teenager felt the weight of her privilege, but, because she had internalised it in a way that made her demonise herself and others, she could not be a proper steward of her privilege.
What helped the teenager was finding examples that proved that not every rich person is bad.
Newcomb says that, in maths, when you set out to prove a theorem, you can either prove that it is true in every case or, more efficiently, you can find one counter example to prove that it is not always true.
In the same way, finding a counter example to your core beliefs puts a little crack in those beliefs, Newcomb says.
Newcomb says she suggested the teenager consider Bill Gates’s philanthropic work and Elon Musk’s attempts to change the way we create and consume energy.
With just one counter example, the teenager’s story could change to: although it may often be true that being wealthy is bad, if it is not true in just one case, it may not be true for me.