Money worries are one of the biggest sources of anxiety in the lives of Americans. This week, we kick off our new “Money 2.0” series with psychologist Brad Klontz. He says that while external economic forces often shape our financial well-being, our unconscious beliefs about money also contribute to how well we manage our money.
Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health, by Brad Klontz and Ted Klontz, 2009.
Wired for Wealth: Change the Money Mindsets That Keep You Trapped And Unleash Your Wealth Potential, by Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz, and Rick Kahler, 2009.
The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge: 5 Principles To Transform Your Relationship with Money, by Ted Klontz, Brad Klontz, and Rick Kahler, 2008.
The Sentimental Savings Study: Using Financial Psychology to Increase Personal Savings, by Bradley T. Klontz, et. al, Journal of Financial Planning, 2019.
A Financial Psychology Intervention for Increasing Employee Participation in and Contribution to Retirement Plans: Results of Three Trials, by Edward J. Horwitz, Bradley T. Klontz, and Faith Zabek, Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning, 2019.
Money Disorders and Locus of Control: Implications for Assessment and Treatment, by Colby Taylor, Derek R. Lawson and Bradley T. Klontz, Journal of Financial Therapy, 2017.
The Wealthy: A Financial Psychological Profile, by Bradley T. Klontz, et. al, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2015.
How Clients’ Money Scripts Predict Their Financial Behavior, by Bradley T. Klontz and Sonya L. Britt, Journal of Financial Planning, 2012.
Money Beliefs and Financial Behaviors: Development of the Klontz Money Script Inventory, by Bradley T. Klontz, et. al, Journal of Financial Therapy, 2011.
The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice, by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Science, January 1981.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Around the world, when you ask people what keeps them awake at night, they'll invariably tell you money problems. Our challenges with money are varied, but we generally tend to have a fixed way of thinking about them. Most of us point to external factors as the root cause of our money problems.News Clip 1:We've had an eight day losing streak in the Dow that in percentage terms puts it on par close to that percentage loss, those two days in 1929.News Clip 2:This could be the most serious recession in decades.News Clip 3:Every American is feeling the bite of inflation. Groceries cost more, gas costs, more, everything seems to cost more.Shankar Vedantam:It's certainly true that a recession or an unexpected medical expense can send our finances into a tailspin, but it's also the case that psychological factors within us can play a powerful role in determining our financial successes and failures.Brad Klontz:All I know is I have these beliefs around money that are banging around in my subconscious and in our studies, we have found that these beliefs, most of us aren't even really aware of them, they have a profound impact on our financial outcomes.Shankar Vedantam:Today, we begin a new series called Money 2.0. Over the next few weeks, we'll explore how money shapes our behavior in profound and subtle ways. We'll consider how money influenced the rise of civilizations and why we are drawn to focus on people who are richer than us. We'll also look at the common psychological traps that lead to money difficulties and how we can chart a path to solid financial footing. Our money and our minds, this week on Hidden Brain.Many of us struggle with money. We have a hard time saving it. We spend more than we earn, and we blow through budgets. Others of us have the opposite problem, focusing so much on saving for the long-term that we never commit to spending on things that will give us pleasure in the short-term. One thing we don't do: few of us stop to think about how we think about money. We don't notice the psychological patterns in our behavior. That's why each money challenge can look like a brand-new problem. Psychologist Brad Klontz studies how people think about money. It turns out that once you understand the underlying patterns that shape your money-related behaviors, it can transform the way you think about your finances. Brad Klontz, welcome to Hidden Brain.Brad Klontz:Thank you so much for having me.Shankar Vedantam:Brad, I want to start looking at a moment in your own life. You were just out of grad school and you had a massive amount of debt. I think you were staring at a $100,000 student loan. Can you start by telling me what it felt like to owe so much money?Brad Klontz:I knew that the only way for me to get through school was to take on loans. And I was very fortunate in undergrad that I had some sports scholarships and academic scholarships, but grad school was very expensive. And I knew that was the only way for me to get where I wanted to go. So I took on that debt and staring at that, looking at that interest rate, it was terrifying for me. And it was something that I was very anxious to tackle and try to get rid of as fast as I could.Shankar Vedantam:Now you had a friend at the time who was making a lot of money. What kind of amounts are we talking about here?Brad Klontz:Well, I saw him make over the course of a year, about $100,000 by day trading.Shankar Vedantam:And what was his secret when you watched him? What was he doing?Brad Klontz:What was so attractive about it to me is that he had no idea what he was doing. I would sit there and I knew I had no idea either. So I sat there and I'd watch him buy a stock. And one that comes to mind is EMC. And I'm like, "What's EMC?" And he's like, "I have no idea." Click. And he buys a bunch and this strategy had been extremely effective for him over the course of this year.Shankar Vedantam:So your friend is raking in the cash, even though he doesn't know what he's doing. He's buying and selling stocks and companies he's never heard of. Meanwhile, you are working three jobs. I understand you had lawn furniture inside your home. You were sleeping on the floor. Obviously, I can imagine the next thought that goes through your head, Brad.Brad Klontz:Well, absolutely. And it really was, for me, the focus, I was very honed in on getting rid of this debt because I knew this was a big monkey on my back. And the interest rate was 8.5% at that time. And so I saw this was a viable way for me to just clean the slate and my goal was to get to a net worth of zero. That was my goal.Shankar Vedantam:How did you go about doing it? I mean, where did you generate the capital to begin day trading?Brad Klontz:Yeah, I didn't have much money, but what I did have was a truck and the truck was worth probably about $7,000 at the time. So I decided to sell it and take the money and start trading with it. It just made logical sense from that point of view. It's like, "Of course, I should do this." And I was living in Hawaii at the time and I didn't have a lot of material needs and I bought a couple $500 cars and I would... The reason I bought two is because the first one broke down in the first month so I bought another one, and I would alternate fixing one and driving the other. And I thought this was totally fine. I can totally do this for a year so I can become wealthy or at least make that a $100K to pay off my student loans.Shankar Vedantam:Did you have any success when you began day trading? Did you have moments where you suddenly felt, oh my gosh, this easy money is rolling in?Brad Klontz:I did. It was incredible. I had three months of just bliss watching these stocks that I was buying move up in value. And by the time I cobbled together savings and all that, I think I had about $10,000 in. And I remember vividly just seeing it go up, $500, $1000 a month. And I knew that if I could get better at this, I would have no problem reaching my goal within a year.Shankar Vedantam:So you must have felt that you made the right call to sell your truck, quit your jobs to become a day trader. How did the story turn out?Brad Klontz:Well, unfortunately for me, but I think fortunately in retrospect, given that this experience launched my entire interest in financial psychology, was about three months into it, the tech bubble burst. So I had invested at just about the peak of the tech bubble and I started to then watch my accounts go down and stocks go down and I went to my friend and I'm like, "What do I do?" And he's like, "I have no idea." He's never experienced this. And I'd say over the course of three to six months, I mean, I was down about 70%, 80%. And when it was all said and done, I'm going to say about 90% of it was gone. The question I asked myself was why would a reasonably intelligent person do something so stupid with his money? Fortunately, being trained as a clinical psychologist, I had gotten here in a very logical way, as I knew that it could make sense if I analyzed it and learned from it.Shankar Vedantam:Brad, you fell for what was essentially a "get rich quick" scheme. And of course it's not just you, this happens all the time. I remember some time ago people began buying stock in a company called Game Stop. This was the company that was failing, but some traders on Reddit wanted to drive up the value of the stock so they invested tens of thousands of dollars. And the stock skyrocketed, it went from, I think, $4 a share to $325 a share or some astronomical number like that. Here's a clip from CNN's Christine Romans.Speaker 6:The fundamentals of the company had been rough here. They're not making any money. They've been closing stores. Someone's going to be hurting when this thing turns, but for now it's not turning.Shankar Vedantam:Eventually of course, Brad, it did turn, some people made massive profits, but many others lost a lot of money. So clearly, your story is not the first time we've heard a story about a "get rich quick" scheme and it's almost certainly not going to be the last.Brad Klontz:Yeah, there's nothing worse than the idea of hard work and drudgery and waiting years and discipline to become wealthy. And so anything that looks like it could be a shortcut, of course, it's instantly attractive to most of us.Shankar Vedantam:So "get rich quick" schemes are not the only money problems that people confront. The average American has a credit card balance of $5,525. And collectively, Americans owe about three quarters of a trillion dollars in credit card debt. That's a heart-stopping number, Brad.Brad Klontz:It's an unbelievable number. And I remember the statistics showed that when we are in really good economic shape, that's when we tend to have the higher credit card debt and the lower savings rates. It's really fascinating. When we're really excited about things, we go into more of a spending frenzy, not really thinking about the future, this optimism that everything's going to be fine. And so we see that. I mean, that's the biggest problem in America, I believe, is not saving enough for the future and spending more than we make.Shankar Vedantam:So the challenge of overspending seems like a simple enough problem to fix. I want to play you a clip from Saturday Night Live that essentially was a parody of the problem.Speaker 7:Did you know millions of Americans live with debt they cannot control? That's why I developed this unique new program for managing your debt. It's called don't buy stuff you cannot afford.Shankar Vedantam:So we'll talk later in the conversation, Brad, about why people engage in overspending. But I want to flag that if you don't understand the underlying thought patterns that lead to some of these behaviors, it can seem like the same irrational things keep happening over and over and over again.Brad Klontz:That's right. And it is one of the reasons that money is the number one source of stress in the lives of Americans. Studies have shown three out of four Americans over the last 10, 15 years, it's one of the top stressors in their lives. And you can argue that we're in one of the richest, wealthiest countries in the world.Shankar Vedantam:So we've seen how lots of people are drawn to "get rich quick" schemes and to overspending, but it turns out some people have the opposite problem. One of your earliest memories involves your dad giving you a crisp $20 bill to spend at a county fair. What did you do with this windfall, Brad?Brad Klontz:Well, it did feel like a windfall. I did not have much money growing up. My parents divorced when I was about two and they were both public school teachers. So we did not have much. And when he would give me that crisp $20 bill, I felt an intense need to hoard it and to save it. And so I would go through the entire day, not buying any cotton candy and looking around at things I wanted, but feeling so good I had that $20 bill in my pocket, not really enjoying the money that was given to me. I was anxious about not having enough.Shankar Vedantam:So I have to say, some listeners might say, "Look, this doesn't really seem like a problem." Many adults have trouble saving money. You were already saving money as a kid. Why do you feel your frugality or your hyper-frugality is a problem? And perhaps you might explain that in the context of a conversation you had some time ago with your wife about a new couch.Brad Klontz:Yeah. So I think one of the problems with that mindset is you can look at it as a scarcity mindset. There's this belief and it's really deeply held almost on a cellular level that there's not enough money. And quite often, if you're growing up in lower income, it's true. There really isn't enough money. But when you're able to climb that socioeconomic ladder, that thought and that emotion doesn't just disappear.And so then what you're left with is potentially an experience of scarcity and poverty even though you have money and resources. And for me, what I saw happening in my life is that I felt like it was never enough. And so what I would do is I would get more and more jobs and work more and more hours. It's sort of comical when I think about it, but my wife wanted a couch and I'm about 40 years old and I had never bought a couch in my life. It's like we don't need to buy a couch. These lawn chairs are fine. So in that moment I realized, I'm going to have to sit with my anxiety and I got to tell you, she was right because they are way more comfortable than a lawn chair.Shankar Vedantam:We've looked at different problems that people have when it comes to money. "Get rich quick" schemes, spending more than we can afford, and miserliness. When we come back, the common threads that Brad has discovered that connect these different issues. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Save, avoid debt, spend less than you earn. The basic rules of money are pretty simple, but in our day-to-day lives, many of us struggle to put these rules into practice. As a young college graduate, Brad Klontz chose a risky financial path. It ended up draining his bank account. When the dust settled, Brad asked himself a simple question. Why do smart people make bad money decisions? He took it upon himself to answer that question. As a psychologist, he has spent decades studying the way we think about money. He found there are powerful influences that shape us. And the first has to do with our family history with money. Brad, I understand you are an avid martial arts fan as a kid. For your 11th birthday, your mom got you a special present. What was it?Brad Klontz:Yeah, I was so incredibly excited. I got three months of karate lessons and then I got my white belt and it was the thing that I loved more than anything. And my gift was for three months of karate lessons. And then when that time was up, my mom said, "I'm sorry, sweetie. We don't have any more money." And it was actually a devastating experience for me realizing, well, there goes the end of my martial arts training.Shankar Vedantam:Tell me a little bit about your mom. I understand that she was extremely frugal. Where did her anxiety about money come from?Brad Klontz:She grew up in Detroit and went to high school. And she went to a high school where there was half the school was poor and the other half had money. And so she was one of the poor ones and she felt extremely self-conscious about this, anxious about it. And as she's talking about it, I'm seeing, oh, okay, so I get why I'm anxious. This is starting to make sense. And then I asked her, "What was it like for grandma and grandpa growing up around money?" And this blew me away.So first of all, I knew we didn't have money. And so at this point, my grandparents, they're living in a trailer park community. So I know we didn't have much money, but I know everyone's really hardworking and smart. So this was one of the mysteries I had in my mind. And I found out that my grandfather went to the bank as a young man, right during the Great Depression and all the money was gone. And then my mom said that your grandfather never put a dollar in the bank again the rest of his life. Now, he lived into his nineties. He kept all of his money in a lockbox, either in the attic or under his bed.Shankar Vedantam:So you call experiences like this a financial flashpoint, an experience that leaves this long-lasting imprint on our minds. The Great Depression was clearly a financial flashpoint for a lot of people, but you argue that these financial flashpoints, in some ways, stay with us, not just for the rest of our lives, but sometimes for the rest of our children's lives and our grandchildren's lives as well.Brad Klontz:They absolutely do. And that's what I found to be true in my own experience. I realized that my grandfather's trauma... I mean, what does that experience tell you? What do you walk away with in terms of understanding money in the world? And it's like, well, very clearly you can't trust banks with your money. Then my mother's reticence to invest anything. She wouldn't invest in anything. She bought CDs in the bank, but she would not put money in the stock market. And all of a sudden that makes sense to me. And so then this is the real light bulb moment for me is I did what I call a dysfunctional pendulum swing, right? You see this quite often in extreme behaviors. For example, if you grew up with an alcoholic parent, some people either become alcoholics themselves or they never touch the stuff.And I went from "Don't trust any financial institutions, be super conservative with your money" to investing in the riskiest possible asset class. And so I realized if I hadn't been aware and thinking about it, I would've then swung back to that money belief my grandfather had, which is you can't trust financial institutions. And what we've seen in our culture is that's the typical response and the crazy sort of creepy part is you don't even have to know the story. All you know is you have this emotional response to money. And that's what blew me away was realizing, searching through my family history, all of a sudden it made total sense why I did what I did.Shankar Vedantam:I mean, it's almost like Faulkner-esque. The past is not dead. It's not even past. That's the same idea here.Brad Klontz:Here. And it really helped me feel less ashamed. Of course, I felt ashamed and embarrassed here. I had made this financial mistake. When I put it in the context of these financial flash points that went back for generations in my family system, it actually freed me up a bit to give myself a break and be like, "Okay, great. I made this mistake. I get why I did it. Now, what can I do about it?"Shankar Vedantam:A more recent financial flashpoint might be the great recession of 2008. The housing market, which had been booming for years, suddenly crashed. Millions of people lost their homes, sparking a global economic downturn that lasted for a very long time. That downturn had a profound effect on young people. Many of them found themselves struggling to afford the things their parents owned at the same age. And Brad says even those who could afford to spend were reluctant to take financial risks.Brad Klontz:Well, some early surveys have shown that millennials, and it makes sense, are more reticent to owning homes, to investing in the stock market. I mean, as a kid, if you watch your parents have to delay retirement or lose their home, it is going to make you anxious around the thought of buying a home or investing.Shankar Vedantam:It's not just laypeople who are affected by these financial flashpoints. Experts seem to be affected as well. I understand you once ran a study on how the Great Recession of 2008 changed the advice that financial planners were offering. What did you find?Brad Klontz:Yeah, so I was consulting with financial planners at the time. And in my training as a psychologist, I'd been trained at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress in Hawaii. And so I was aware of post-traumatic stress and I'm talking to these advisors and I'm like, these people are traumatized. So imagine it's not just your money, but it's your parents' money and your family's money and your best friend's money that you're managing and watching a huge drop.When we did a study, we saw that 90% of the people we surveyed had medium-to-severe levels of post-traumatic stress. They had trouble concentrating. They were anxious. They were worried about the future. And when you experience a trauma like that, your brain tries to sort it out so that it never happens again. So the other thing we saw, they were questioning their entire approach to investing, how they're helping people. And interestingly, there was a dramatic shift going on at the same time where financial advisors were moving from more of a strategic buy-and-hold strategy to more tactical asset management. So it had a profound impact on how the investing profession was actually operating.Shankar Vedantam:So we've seen how these experiences, financial flashpoints, our experiences with money growing up, even the way our parents and grandparents thought about money. All these things influenced the way we think about money. In our minds, they form what you call money scripts. What do you mean by that term, Brad?Brad Klontz:So money scripts is the term that we use to describe beliefs about money that we quite often inherit from our grandparents and our great grandparents and the culture and the people around us and events that are happening. And I use the word scripts because they're almost like a script written in a play that was passed down to me. And I don't even know who the author was. I don't know what they were thinking. All I know is I have these beliefs around money that are banging around in my subconscious and in our studies, we have found that these beliefs, most of us aren't even really aware of them, they have a profound impact on our financial outcomes, like our income, our net worth, our financial behaviors, our credit card debt. And so I think it's really important to be aware of your money scripts.Shankar Vedantam:So your money script came from growing up in a household where having enough money was a struggle, but there are other scripts that also come from growing up who are watching your parents fight about money or being around other people who are in dire straits. And let's look at some of those other scripts. One is something that you call money avoidance? Can you describe for me what this is?Brad Klontz:So money avoidance is a pattern of beliefs that make you have some anxiety or negative associations with money and specifically, they're beliefs like rich people are greedy, money corrupts, or there's virtue in living with less money. And this is actually not an uncommon belief pattern in lower income communities and environments because quite often... The thing about money scripts, they all are valid in a certain context.So without a doubt, you can find people who are rich, who are total jerks and do terrible things in the world. And that's the tricky thing about money scripts is there's always an element of truth, but this belief set when we study it, it damages the holder. People who have these beliefs and believe them very strongly are much more likely to have lower income, lower net worth and engage in self-destructive financial behaviors because they have a negative association with money. It's a lot easier to adopt a belief that having money is bad and rich people are evil. You can do that a lot faster than you can go become rich, which can take decades or generations. And so if you want to feel better instantly, the bailout is to vilify the people who have something that you wish you had.Shankar Vedantam:The opposite of money avoidance is another money script. This one is called money worship. This money script also affects people who grew up without much money. What are the hallmarks of money worship, Brad?Brad Klontz:Yeah, money worship, I would say, could potentially be the average American. It's beliefs that more money and more stuff is going to make me happier and it's going to solve all of my problems. Now the crazy part is in our studies, there is a very strong correlation between people who hate money and also wish they were rich. Now just to illustrate the confusion that so many of us have around money, they're very, very much in conflict, but that's a common pattern we see. And if you believe that more money, more stuff's going to make you happier. First of all, there's an element of truth in that. If you growing up hungry and poor and you can't afford karate lessons and you love them, having more money will help. And if you're able to use some money to better your life and give you better experiences, I think it's a beautiful thing. But if you're putting money on a pedestal, there's no amount of purchases of things that are going to make you happy in any sort of sustainable way.Shankar Vedantam:Another script that you talk about is something called money status. People who follow this script place a lot of value on money. So unlike money avoiders, they are willing to say that money is important, but you say they confuse their net worth with their self-worth. What do you mean by that?Brad Klontz:So in some ways we have shown that the "keeping up with the Jones'" effect is actually real and it actually happens. And this is where people if you ask them how much they made, they would probably tell you they make more than they actually do. They don't want to buy something unless it's new. They really want to show the world that they have status, that they have value, that they have importance. And unfortunately, of course, this can lead to overspending and there's another huge problem with it.Our culture lies to us about how rich people actually spend their money and the money status scripts. You see it all over the place, like Instagram, TikTok, all the social media platforms sell this idea that rich people have outward displays of wealth. And certainly, there are people who are wealthy who spend money quite lavishly. And there's nothing wrong with that if you can afford it, that is just not how most wealthy people spend their money. First of all, most millionaires in the US are self-made in the sense that they didn't inherit all the money. And so how do you become wealthy and how do you grow your net worth? Well, it's actually by saving and by investing and not by buying the latest flashy thing to try to impress your friends.Shankar Vedantam:I'm thinking about that book that came out some years ago, The Millionaire Next Door. And it was all about how the people who are next door living very ordinary lives, driving 12-year-old cars and not even very expensive cars. These are the people who are truly wealthy. Many of the wealthiest people, in fact, are living fairly modest lives. Can you talk about that idea, Brad, that in some ways there's a disconnect between what we see in the media, the representations of who we think are rich and who is actually rich in our society?Brad Klontz:Yes. One of the most profound things about The Millionaire Next Door is it took our vision of who rich people are and how they live their life and it just turned it on its head. And there's such profound wisdom in that because if you live the life that you think most wealthy people are living, you're going to get a paycheck and then you're going to start buying watches, expensive cars, feeling like this is what you need to do to join that group. That is actually the opposite of what most millionaires do in the United States.Shankar Vedantam:So all the scripts that we've talked about so far seem like they're pretty bad. They produce problems in people's lives. Are they scripts that actually point to good money habits?Brad Klontz:Thankfully, there are and scripts we can aspire to. And so what we call those in our studies, we call them money vigilance. And this is the group of people in our culture that have the most money. They fight with their spouse the least. They have more income and there are beliefs like it's important to save for a rainy day. I'd be a nervous wreck if I didn't have money saved for an emergency. So there's that real emphasis on saving and investing is important. There's a future orientation and a little bit of anxiety associated with it. And so interestingly, if you ask them how much they made, they're actually likely to tell you they make less than they actually do, which is fascinating in terms of social media because the people who are least likely to brag about what they have are the people who tend to have the most.Shankar Vedantam:And in some ways you seem like a money vigilant person yourself, but I also hear you say that perhaps this can spill over into a form of hyper-anxiety, where money vigilance can become hypervigilance and then you become unable to spend money even when you can afford it.Brad Klontz:Yeah. Actually my first book I wrote about Ebenezer Scrooge. Ebenezer Scrooge is the perfect example of a hypervigilant, ultra-wealthy individual. And the problem was, he had a scarcity mindset. Now, what is so fascinating about that mindset is if you grow up in poverty and not having enough, it can make you an incredibly hard worker. Some of the richest people I know were immigrants who had nothing and their work ethic was so incredible, but they were so anxious about not having enough, they can have a difficult time enjoying life. And so really, we need to be able to do both. We need to be able to save for the future and enjoy the moment.Shankar Vedantam:I'm also reflecting that money scripts in some ways teach us to be vigilant to the kinds of things that produced trauma in our past or in our family's past. But unfortunately, money traumas are not like the trauma of encountering a predator, where you just want to stay clear of the predator. If you lost all your money in the Great Depression but now you're choosing to stick your money under your mattress or in the attic, you're solving a trauma that was in the past, even as you're exposing yourself to the risk of an even bigger trauma in the future. So in some ways, it makes intuitive sense why we would have these scripts, but in actual practice, they could be deeply destructive.Brad Klontz:That's right. And in my experience, the ones that are the most difficult to change and shift are the ones that have intense emotion attached to them. So the example of my grandfather, it wasn't just this thought, oh, you shouldn't trust banks because beliefs can change very easily. When the federal government came in and guaranteed banks, well, guess what? Now you can trust them, but that emotion was so intense. And so when we have really emotional experiences or they go back in our family for generations around money, that's when it can become really difficult to change our relationship with money. This is where we find ourselves knowing that we shouldn't be doing things, but finding ourselves continuing to do it.Shankar Vedantam:Our experiences, our upbringing, and our financial background all play a role in how we think and behave when it comes to money. Because these scripts are so deeply ingrained, our problems with money can seem impossible to solve. When we come back, how to change that. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Brad Klontz is a psychologist at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of the book Mind Over Money. He studies the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs that people have about money. Brad calls these our money scripts.These scripts are rooted in our past experiences with money, but they determine the way we deal with money in the present and in the future. The solution to many of the problems we face with money lies in first understanding the way these scripts influence us. Once we do that, there are ways to get around these scripts or even get these scripts to work for us. Brad, I want to talk about a study you conducted where you and your colleagues went into a workplace and tried an intervention to get people to save more for retirement. You started by helping people understand their money scripts. How did you go about doing this?Brad Klontz:A big part of that was helping people identify their early experiences around money. And I gave them a little questionnaire on money scripts on the categories we just discussed and then asked them to think about what did your mom teach you about money? What did your father teach you about money? What was your earliest experiences around money, your most joyful and your most painful. These types of reflections are going to help you identify these underlying beliefs you have around money. And then of course, you can then challenge and change them. As I said, every money belief, every money script has an element of truth. And I think it's really important to validate where you learned that or where your ancestors learned that. And the most healthy mind around money is one that's flexible. So we want to be able to take in new information. So for example, my grandfather, you can trust banks at least up to $100,000 in his time and you need to have flexibility in thinking, so that is really the goal.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that contribution rates increased by about 40%, which is just an astronomical increase in the amount of money that people were saving.Brad Klontz:That's absolutely right, so that was 401k contributions. And people had been in these meetings previously, the mandatory 401k meeting, but I think really connecting with who they are, where they come from and what they really want on the other side of this deferral, this salary deferral, really, really important.Shankar Vedantam:So we talked about four money scripts that produce problems, money avoidance, money worship, money status, and hypervigilance about money. With money, avoidance people avoid dealing with money altogether because they have negative associations with it. Money worshipers, in some ways, have the opposite problem. They overestimate how much money will buy them happiness or make them feel good about themselves. People who follow a money status script tend to focus on how having money and possessions can increase that status in the eyes of other people, so they're using money and possessions almost as a signaling device. And both people who have a money worship script and a money status script can end up doing a lot of overspending. And then finally, there are people who are hypervigilant about money. They allow their anxieties about money, their scarcity mindset, to turn them into misers. Let's look at some of the ways we can disarm these scripts.Let's start with money avoidance. In one study where you looked at people's savings behavior, you ask people to come into a lab and you split them into groups. The control group was given a financial literacy presentation. They learned some basic money management lessons on things like compound interest and saving for retirement, different kinds of banking accounts. In the experimental group, rather than give people the financial education presentation, you asked them to bring an interesting object into the lab with them. What kind of objects did you ask people to bring? And why did you ask them to do this?Brad Klontz:We asked people to bring in something they had saved, a sentimental object. Maybe it was something they got from a grandparent. People brought in pieces of jewelry. Some people brought in stuffed animals. Some people brought in pictures of vacations they took as kids. And what we were trying to do was get people connected to their core values. What really matters to them.Shankar Vedantam:And what was this intervention designed to do? How does that help change their behavior when it comes to money?Brad Klontz:From my perspective, I was theorizing that if we could get people in touch with what really matters to them in a visceral way, that's why I wanted it to be very experiential, not just think about it, but bring in the item. I had people close their eyes and think about how this item came into their life, how it felt, what it meant to them, to really get at these core values. And then what I did is I had them identify their values, so what does this represent to you? It represents family, safety, adventure, comfort. And then I use that as a bridge to have them identify their top three financial goals. It looked like a kindergarten classroom. We had paper, we had scissors. We had people drawing pictures, cutting out pictures, really getting a very clear vision of why they want to save for the future.Shankar Vedantam:So I can imagine that if someone is a money avoider, they have negative associations with money. They don't want to deal with it at all. They want to push thoughts of money out of their heads. Connecting money to their personal values might help them in some ways rewrite or rethink that script.Brad Klontz:That's right. So we expose them to the idea and try to encourage them to explore the idea that not all money is bad. Because the belief that rich people are greedy and money corrupts is accurate in only one context. It's much more accurate to say some rich people do bad things in the world. I can become wealthy and do good things in the world. And so it was really important to tackle that and examine it and to make it, frankly, more accurate. We were looking for more accurate thoughts.Shankar Vedantam:So when you connected people in some ways to things that were important in their past, perhaps made them more, I guess, emotionally available to things that had happened, the values that they cared about and then after each experiment, you checked back in with people and looked at how much they were saving, did you find that it made a difference in terms of increasing their savings rate?Brad Klontz:For that particular study where we had people bring in the sentimental object, we saw a 73% increase in savings as a percentage of gross income, in comparison to the 22% increase for the financial education group. But I think it really came down to getting people really excited. And then another hack, once you have a really clear vision of what it is you're wanting, that's when you want to automate towards those savings goals. And that's the instruction that I encouraged everyone to do. Get real excited, share this with somebody you love and then immediately automate, to capitalize on that status quo bias we have.Shankar Vedantam:So we've looked at some techniques to combat money avoidance. Let's look at the next money script, money worship. So these are people who believe that money or possessions can buy them happiness. I'd like to play a clip from the TV show Parks and Rec. In this scene, the characters Tom and Donna are describing a special day that they have planned, which involves spending a lot of money on pampering themselves.Aziz Ansari, as Tom Haverford:Once a year, Donna and I spend a day treating ourselves, what do we treat ourselves to?Retta, as Donna Meagle:Clothes, treat yourself, fragrances, treat yourself, massages, treat yourself, mimosa, treat yourself, fine leather goods, treat yourself. It's the best day of the year. The best day of the year.Shankar Vedantam:Can you explain what you found about how you can disrupt the script by changing patterns of behavior?Brad Klontz:So part of it comes down to educating people around happiness in general. So happiness is a state, right? It's not a trait. It's not like you're either happy or you're not happy. It's like, you're going to be happy ten times today. And you're going to be sad ten times today. And so realizing that stuff is not the cure to happiness. And I love the example of thinking to your birthday as a kid and you got this shiny new toy. I mean, this thing you always wanted, that Red Ryder BB gun. Have you been happy ever since then? I mean, did that thing create happiness in your life? Of course not. It's fleeting. The emotion is fleeting. And so, really identifying that money in and of itself and items in and of itself are not the key to happiness.Shankar Vedantam:So the third problem we looked at was the script of money status. You found that people who follow the script prioritize outward displays of wealth and they often end up with a lot of debt. How can people learn to combat this script, Brad?Brad Klontz:One study that we did, we saw people from an ultra net worth group and we compared them to a middle class group. And the ultra wealthy had about a net worth of about $10 million. And we compared them to a group of people who had a net worth about $500,000. And what was so interesting about this study is that ultra net worth group, they had about 18 times more money, but they only spent twice as much as that middle class group on their watch, their house, their car, and their last vacation.And so for me, a huge part of it is educating people on if you really do want to have "status" and have wealth, this is how you need to operate and this is how you need to get there. It's actually the opposite of what you're seeing people do on social media. Those people are quite often trying to do a brand deal or they're selling you a course or a "get rich quick" scheme. That is not how most people become wealthy. And it makes logical sense. They become wealthy by growing their net worth, not getting rid of their net worth.Shankar Vedantam:We talked earlier about how money scripts can produce interpersonal conflict, conflict within marriages, within families, within households. I'm wondering how you have tried to resolve this yourself in your own relationship, perhaps with your wife or with other people in your family, but also more generally how people can resolve problems with their money scripts that are not just rooted in themselves, but are rooted in relationships and interpersonal behavior?Brad Klontz:Well, quite simply I have spent 20 years convincing my wife that she's wrong about everything around money and that her parents were wrong and her grandparents were wrong. This is what most couples do, actually. They're unconsciously battling it out. And if you're not careful, the conflict is going to push you further and further apart. And before you know it, you're going to be saying some ridiculous things like "We only should live in lawn chairs, not couches" because you're so worried about your partner's spending. So when couples go to counseling and therapy, on average, the ones who go to a therapist, have been fighting about an issue for seven years. So when I work with couples in conflict, what I have them do is table that, whatever this issue is, we'll get to it. By the way, that's the easy part is fixing that.But what we should really do is have a conversation that you all should've had on date seven. Okay, now we could debate which date number it is, but you know about the date where you're saying, "Hey, do you want to have kids someday? Where do you want to live?" We don't talk about money. We don't talk about what are your financial goals? How do you handle money? How do you want to handle money? And so I encourage couples to just rewind to date number seven, sit down and have a conversation. And some of those questions are, what was it like for you growing up around money? What did your mom teach you? What did your dad teach you? What is your most painful money experience, your most joyful money experience? What are your financial goals? What are your financial fears? I love this one too. How did you feel about your socioeconomic class growing up?And then I also ask them to say, what am I most proud of in my relationship with money? And what do I appreciate about you, my partner, around money? And what I have found is that this has two benefits. People get insight about their own relationship with money. And then I get insight about my partner's relationship with money. And so for example, I might have seen some irrational spending that made no sense to me. Now I see that my partner grew up not having much and for them, whatever that purchase was, was almost this desperate sort of need to say "It's okay. I can actually have some things because I grew up with nothing." And if I can look at it through that lens, I have much more compassion and it's much more easier for us to negotiate a solution around whatever this thing it was we were fighting about.Shankar Vedantam:As you're talking, Brad, I'm realizing that one reason I think many people don't do this and perhaps don't think to do this is that many of these conversations involve the emotion of shame. And especially when it comes to money, people have grown up, especially if you've grown up poor or especially if you've grown up around people who are much richer than you, there is shame often involved in the way we think about money and shame prompts us in some ways to withdraw and to hide and to not communicate. And of course those things make our scripts invisible not just to other people, but invisible to ourselves.Brad Klontz:That's right. Shame is an emotional glue trap and it keeps us stuck in our financial behaviors. And so de-shaming is so important. And part of what I'm talking about, I can take any baby born and I could probably stick them in your family, stick them in your culture, give them the experiences you had and they'd be thinking and behaving exactly the way you are around money. So shame does us no good at all. And when we're shaming each other in relationships, it's terrible. I think it's really great to start with, we're all screwed up when it comes to money, so let's all move forward.Shankar Vedantam:How does this speak to people who might be currently in very difficult financial straits? So let's say someone's working a minimum wage job. They're not able to make ends meet and they hear this conversation and they say, "Well, it's all very well for you to talk about money scripts and what I should be doing psychologically, but I'm not getting paid enough. I just don't make enough." Are money scripts or the conversations about money scripts and the psychology of money, is this a conversation primarily for people who are well off or do you think people who are poor have something to gain from this conversation as well?Brad Klontz:I'll be honest. I'm not that worried about trying to help people who are well off. That's not really why I do the research I do. I believe money scripts are most important for people who are struggling financially, for people who are poor and low income and working class. I think they're the ones who can benefit the most from understanding their money scripts. And it's not just understanding, oh, I have these beliefs. There's another very key element. And that is challenging them and changing them and realizing that these beliefs predict income, they predict not worth.They have a profound impact on your relationship with money for the rest of your life. And so understanding, though, that a part of why you are, where you are is just a stroke of fate. You can't help where you were born. You can't help what family system you were born in, but understanding that you have the ability and the power to examine those beliefs, to modify and change them so you can better your life. The studies we have done have found that people who have more money are more likely to have an internal locus of control, believing that the mistakes in their life are because of them. The successes are because of what they're doing and they have the power to change their life. And so that's a message that I think is great for everybody, especially people who are struggling financially.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering if you can tell me about a time when your own study and research into money scripts helped you revise or even recognize that you were operating under a money script and perhaps give you the latitude to change what it is that you were doing.Brad Klontz:So for me, part of understanding my money scripts was a conversation that I had with my father and my wife was sitting there at the time. And I said that I had worked 70 hours the past week, but I felt lazy compared to him. And my father said, I worked a hundred hours and I feel lazy compared to my dad, which is my grandpa. And I was like, "What?" I said, "Dad, why?" He goes, well, I don't know if you know this and by the way, I didn't know this, but my grandfather's father was a lazy good-for-nothing. And my grandfather had lived his entire life trying to please his mother by being a hard worker in supporting her. And my dad is here working a hundred hours a week, trying to live up to his father's standards. And I'm feeling guilty working 70 hours a week.I got to tell you when I saw that pattern, I laughed. I thought it was crazy. I can't believe I'm living out this script that goes back four generations and has nothing to do with my life. All I know is that I'm not taking care of myself. I'm not spending as much time as I want to with my wife. I know I don't want to be an absent father like my father and my grandfather. Profound understanding for me. But I'm going to tell you this. It was so hardwired that I had to write a script for myself and read it at the end of the workday that said this. I have worked enough today. My family and my health is more important to me than this job. I'm getting up and I'm going home. I literally had to read that to myself for at least a year to try to change that money belief.Shankar Vedantam:Brad Klontz is a psychologist at Creighton University. He's a co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and he's the author of Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health. Brad, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Brad Klontz:It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is David Biello. If you've watched a recent science related Ted talk, you have David to thank for it. David is the science curator at Ted and he was by my side recently as I delivered my first Ted talk. David's wise feedback and guidance were invaluable throughout the process and I'm really grateful to him. I expect my Ted talk will be posted soon. Thank you, David. Hundreds of Hidden Brain listeners have stepped up to make a contribution to support our work. If you like the show, please consider joining them. You can do so at @support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, that's suppor.hiddenbrain.org. Next week on our Money 2.0 series, how to avoid the mental traps we often fall into when it comes to our spending. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.
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