“I am a former utter financial mess,” behavioural economist Dr Sarah Newcomb says.
“The reason I got into this work is because I found myself at the age of 28 with a maths degree, but I couldn’t manage my money. So I knew something was going on other than the numbers,” Newcomb told a recent Morningstar conference in Cape Town.
Raised by a teacher and a social worker, two people with four children trying to make ends meet, “money was a constant source of stress in my home when I was growing up”, she says.
“On top of that, my parents’ faith taught us that God had ordained my parents’ financial situation, so for me to want anything more was ungrateful.
“I tried to adopt a non-material point of view, but financial stress is survival stress. I found myself digging for treasure in the backyard. If I got $1 pocket money, I would get my friends’ parents to buy a lottery ticket.
“By the time I was 12 years old, I was shoplifting on a regular basis. I just wanted to have the same things every other kid had. I was angry at money, because it had come to represent injustice and a lack of opportunity in my life. Money was the reason I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, not the reason I could,” she says.
Newcomb says she partied the night before her college entrance exams because she knew she couldn’t afford tertiary education. She worked in “dead-end jobs” for seven years until she turned 24 and was able to take out a government loan to go to college.
Newcomb graduated summa cum laude in maths, “but I still couldn’t do my finances”.
Then Newcomb studied to become a financial planner, but says she still didn’t know how to manage her financial behaviour – “the day-to-day decisions I was making that were keeping me from having enough money to invest in the first place”.
It was only in a financial psychology class that she learnt that managing money is not about numbers and knowledge. She realised that she could not manage money because her financial story was full of fear, anger and resentment. “I couldn’t think about money without being angry.”
She changed her financial behaviour by digging up her roots and teaching herself a new story about money.
• Dr Sarah Newcomb is a behavioural economist for Morningstar. She has expertise in consumer psychology, economic decision-making, personal money management and cognitive and social psychology. Before joining Morningstar in 2015, Newcomb earned her doctorate in behavioural economics from the University of Maine, where her work focused on the psychological barriers to sound personal money management. She is the author of Loaded: money, psychology, and how to get ahead without leaving your values behind. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Salem State University, a master’s degree in financial economics from the University of Maine, and a master’s certification in personal financial planning from Bentley University.