Which of These Four Stories Do You Tell Yourself About Money?

Paul Sullivan wrote an interesting New York Times piece, Stressed by Money? Get on the Couch,  about people going through “financial therapy” to get a better grip on their emotions and behavior around money.

Certainly, from what I’ve seen, the relationships among money, happiness, and habits are extraordinarily complex.

Sullivan cites financial psychologist Brad Klontz for the notion that people have four basic “money scripts,” that is, stories that we tell ourselves about money. Which describes you?

money avoidance: people who try to distance themselves from money, and in doing so, often undermine their financial well-being (here’s a story about money avoidance that I’ve never forgotten,)

money worship: people who believe that if they had more money, it would solve all their problems

money status: people who tie their money to their self of well-being, “net worth = self worth.”

money vigilance: people who are cautious about spending and pay debts promptly; they’re the ones who may refuse to spend for no rational reason.

The article notes that these “scripts” often run through our heads outside our conscious awareness of them.

How about you? What script fits you best? Mine is money vigilance.  Perhaps that’s partly why I’m an under-buyer.

Do you think there are any “scripts” that weren’t listed?

  • Gillian

    Definitely Money Vigilance. I have always been very frugal and I keep careful track of our money. When I first married, I was frugal to the point of being cheap, even though we had enough money to be a little more generous. My husband was much less careful. Over the years, we have both moved in each other’s direction, meeting somewhere in the comfortable middle but I still look after all the finances – he doesn’t care much; I do.

    I hate being in debt, although that has been necessary at times, but it was never more than we could handle.

    I think that money troubles in a marriage are not the result of too little money but of very different attitudes towards money. Even if you have very little, it won’t cause a problem if you both have a responsible attitude. If one is responsible and the other spends carelessly, trouble is on the way.

  • Diane

    I am TOTALLY a money vigilance person and also an under-buyer!! I do NOT like shopping, but when I do occasionally go shopping, I find that I do enjoy buying things for myself because I am always telling myself that I rarely shop, so it’s ok. And when I DO buy for myself, I don’t scrimp! Again, rationalized by the above “excuse.” 😉

  • Jenya

    I think I trend toward “money worship,” though that term feels a bit strong. Often I’ve told myself that if I had more money, it would fix health and happiness problems for me.

    This line of thinking is ridiculous though because many things I want/need are available to me already. The block is really my social anxiety and/or laziness most (but not all) of the time.

    Also, I have learned from experience that the more money you have, the higher your expectations are raised. There’s a reason the record for yacht size is broken every year — some ridiculously rich guy is beside himself that another guy beat him out.

  • Sam

    I don’t really feel home in any of these four categories.
    I don’t care much about money. I don’t tie it to security or status, it’s a tool to buy (fun) stuff.
    But I’m vigilant about not buying into things which cost every month (“death on easy credit terms”). I have only one credit and it’s for my house. All other costs are made in a way I can cancel them immediately so I’m not bound to long payments if I don’t have the money.
    Apart from that, when my bank amount is higher than x, I’ll happily spend the money. If not, I refrain from spending until it again is higher. That way I wasted a lot of money in my life and am sometimes joking that I could have been a millionaire if not for my bad spending habits. But on the other hand I love trying stuff and always have enough money for living, so why bother being a millionaire when I don’t feel connected to the money (for security or status)?

  • I’m a money vigilante. Having had to struggle with having enough money in my youth to go to college, meet basic expenses, etc. I have the tendency to really think about a purchase before buying it. On the other hand, this means once I do buy something ‘nice’, I REALLY enjoy it. It’s like savoring a rich mug of coffee!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I would say that I started life as a ‘money avoidance’ person, afraid to deal with it because I didn’t have much, and after a divorce went through a period of real money anxiety and unemployment. To this day, I still have more debt than I approve of, and pay bills at the last minute because I don’t like to sit down and be bothered with the paperwork. But I have improved!

    I learned eventually that money issues just don’t go away, and that taking care of business does not go away. Money is like food–you have to have it, and you have to consume and monitor it, or it will just get out of control. I still am far from being the best money manager, but I have been able to establish and complete a career, buy a home and maintain a decent car,and save enough for retirement to live in a reasonably secure way.

    It was very helpful to me to make use of the services of a reliable financial adviser who helps me to see money as a resource that I can use to realize some of my dreams and to prepare for a more secure future. The main helpful thing he did for me was to sit me down and ask me what things I wanted to do / accomplish in my life, without talking about money at all. THEN he drew my attention to the relationship those dreams had to money and saving and time — and how I could start to do things that would help me to ‘get there.’

    I also have learned a lot from a friend who is an excellent money manager. He seems to think of money the way he thinks of all his tools and vehicles: as a ‘ride’ that can be kept humming and in great condition if he manages it well. I have watched him become financially very comfortable as he continually makes CONSCIOUS decisions about how to use his resources.

  • Hmm…,now I’m confused.
    Basically,I don’t like to spend money if I’ve earned it through my hard work.But if I do,I spend it on things which really do seem worth the money; like, if it is the best product in the market.I spend a lot on books ,because I value them greatly.
    But I also think that one should concentrate more on doing their work properly,without worrying about money.If I am committed to my work ,then the reward is sure to come,right?That is what I say to myself.
    I think that I can live without having a lot of money.
    Also I’d rather not be in a debt.I don’t mind if I don’t have much money in my purse.I feel at ease when I don’t have to worry about money.But’at the same time I’m inclined towards saving money.
    So,which category do I belong?

  • Susan

    These sound like 4 money * issues. * How about healthy relationships with money?

  • Nancy Darling

    Alas, I think I have all four, although I don’t really aspire to status through money. Grew up right after the great depression and my parents were very thrifty and inventive. Also, I have in my lifetime seen a pair of really fine shoes (the kind that now cost $200+) go from $20 to the present price. It’s kinda scary so I live in fear around money.

  • Juli

    I think I’m a bit of Money Worship and a little of Money Status, although both feel like strong terms. I don’t think it’s this set in stone.

    For example, I think my natural inclination is money vigilance. However, I have a huge amount of student loan debt that looms over me, influencing everything money-related.

    Because of my huge student loan debt, I don’t have money for a house/down payment, or for other large, life-impacting decisions. This breeds “money worship” because I feel like if I just had the money to pay off these damn loans, I’d be good to go. I can’t be “money vigilance” because there is just no feasible way to pay it all down the way I would with any smaller debt, like I did with my credit cards and how I normally budget.

    Then, because I get so stymied in my goals due to the debt, whenever I do anything financial in a positive way, like pay off a credit card or pay off my car, I feel a huge burst in self worth. “I’m awesome because I had the money to pay this off” type of feelings…pride, basically.

    So where does that leave me? Do I use the label for how my gut initially wants to respond, or the label that’s the result of the first label being shot down, or the label that is about the pride I feel when I can use the first label? <– This is why labels aren't always applicable.

  • 1102

    I am unquestionably in the money vigilance category. I had a financially irresponsible father and it has continued throughout my life to heavily influence my relationship with money.

  • Jen Johnson

    I too am in the money vigilance category. I have a very elaborate budget set up on my computer, monitored weekly, and I hate debt. That said, I don’t consider myself an under-spender. I tend to gift big to friends and family, and we like to eat well and stay at nice hotels. But my sofa is over 25 years old, and my bedroom dresser is over 50, so it’s a mixed bag based on my priorities! I think the money vigilance stems from a desire for control, making sure my impulses don’t get the upper hand.

  • Anna

    My mum was a money hater.

    • Emily_O

      I am such a mixture of my parents’ attitude about money, without the security that they enjoyed through either marriage or secure jobs.
      My mother was a frugal bargain hunter and worried about bills, being a child of the depression, yet her motto was ‘what would you do if you were rich?”; a dancer and choreographer, she achieved a tenuous security through marrying a college professor. My father (divorced from my mother when I was 3) also had a terribly deprived background, and in the later part of his life succeeded in finding a secure job at a community college and then enjoyed a state pension. Yet he too lived as if he was rich at times, emphasizing experiences over possessions. He had 20 year old cars, and built his own furniture, but enjoyed adventurous trips to Europe. My stepfather had exquisite taste and only the best was good enough for him. Perhaps he had a disdain for thinking about dirty things like money.( His parents were poor Korean immigrants who had been among the cultural elite back in the old country). I inherited the excellent taste, and attitude that there were more important things than money.
      I’m afraid I’m now in the camp where money and debt is the thing I worry about most, because high earning power was never important to me in the past, and I never put enough away. I definitely need financial therapy. I’ve begun to see that calories and money are similar things to me now. I do NOT like keeping track of either. And yet, if a stern person came along in my life and said you must keep track of everything you spend or eat, I’d probably see the wisdom of it and obey. During tax preparation season, I start to see why I am falling behind. Money coming in does not equal money going out. My stepfather’s influence was definitely a mixed bag. While all three parents were artists, they figured out through teaching or selling art, how to make it.

  • Gillian

    So glad the comments section is back to the original look and feel! Vast improvement. A shame all previous comments (at least the recent ones) were lost in the process.

    I’m definitely money-vigilance. I was always extremely frugal, to the point of being unnecessarily cheap, and my husband was the opposite. Over the years, we’ve moved in each other’s direction, meeting in the comfortable middle so I think we both now have healthy attitudes towards money. We live on a budget, have no debt and are experiencing a modest comfortable retirement. I keep careful track of our finances. That said, if we want a treat, we can splurge without worrying about it.

  • Gillian

    I think that when money causes conflict in a marriage, it is not lack of money but a difference in attitude towards it that is at the source – each partner has a different “script”. If there is little money but both partners have the same responsible attitude, there tends to be little conflict.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    So glad to be back to the previous format. I love to be able to ‘like’ comments.

    At the risk of repeating myself, I would say that in my earlier life, I was pretty much in denial about money. Eventually I learned to overcome my fear and loathing and just take care of business. Money, like food, seems to be one of those things that is way too easy to overuse, and hard to make into my servant rather than my master. When I started to see that mastery would be essential to some basics like a car, retirement, and a home, and that these things were actually ATTAINABLE if I made the effort, I buckled down.

  • Grammyx4

    None of these – I have always been “comfortable”. My parents did not act wealthy but had enough money to not worry about it. They had nice things and bought things when they needed them. They didn’t spend lavishly ever (children of the Depression). I married a man with potential – and he moved up the corporate ladder. I worked before children but didn’t work for about 13 years while my kids were young. I went back to work because I loved what I did – not for financial reasons. We are retired now and have enough money to buy what we want within reason. My ‘problem’ is I have no sense of money. If I want it I buy it – I don’t pay attention to sales or best deals. I probably stress shop – buy something new to wear when I feel down. Thank heaven for a husband who is long on common sense and patience.

  • Devaldo Jose Silva


  • Elizabeth Wolf

    While it may not seem possible, I recognize myself in all four of these categories. My parents both came from little money, but my father became a conservative, successful, self made business man. His self worth is tied to his financial success and he displays it proudly. My mother is an extremely liberal teacher who feels it is immoral to make more money than you really need and to display it is vulgar. They are divorced now, but I am still unconsciously torn in both of their financial directions daily. The best example is the Cartier watch my husband gave me after the birth of our son. I wear it proudly, find it beautiful and it gives me great joy to look at, but I won’t get a new band for it. Now that our son and the watch is almost five, the leather band is tattered and broken in one place, but I won’t spend the money to get a new one. It feels wasteful. Anyway…bla bla bla!

  • I am definitely an under-buyer as well. But I agree with some of the other commenters that there are some other archetypes, or perhaps variants of these archetypes.

    I like Vic’s money steward. And there is probably a “Rebel” archetype too – someone who spends just because it will piss everyone else off.

  • Brooke

    I think I’ve transitioned through all the stories but avoidance. I grew up in a worship story and lived that story into my 20s. In my 30s when I began to make money I lived the status story. Now in my 40s with decade or so of making and having money I am living the vigilance story. My husband and I have a friendly IRA competition going and I am in the lead.

    I am so happy to see that Comments formatting issues have been fixed (and I know you are too), Gretchen!

  • I am definitely a money vigilance. However I think a script not listed would be the person who looks at money as a way as giving some away. People who like to donate and like to see other people benefit from the money they have

  • MKSP


  • Holly

    I can relate to having no concept of it. My parents never talked about it, lived frugally, and, as a kid, I was never aware of going without. My husband moved up the corporate ladder and we got into the habit of doing or buying what we wanted – though we focused more on experiences than acquiring big ticket items. I’ve been divorced for 8 years and am realizing that my obliviousness is so counterproductive to providing some of the big ticket items that I’m now realizing are important – home, retirement, etc. So now I’m trying to make the switch to mastering it, like Penelope describes below.

  • Holly

    Penelope, I’ve gone from being oblivious, like Grammyx4, to finally realizing, after being divorced for 8 years that I need to master it if I”m ever going to attain some of the big ticket items like a home and retirement on my own. I think, partly, I’ve never thought the big ticket items were possible. Any suggestions for how to transition into mastery?

  • msfrisby

    The “money worship” category seems pretty dismissive of people who have real money issues. Many of the working poor would definitely be better off and have fewer problems if they made more money.

  • Trudy in Cinci

    I am getting training with hopes for becoming a money counselor. I’ve led some workshops with adult women who are trying to change their relationships with money. I have been quite SHOCKED at how avoidant and/or conflicted many (most) women seem to be about money. Not only do they not have much knowledge (very basic aspects of financial planning) but they feel inept and unable to make a change–not even willing to talk about money in a dispassionate, impersonal way. They might like to shop or find bargains, but beyond that, nothing. Even among educated, independent women who are in control of their work lives and families–confidence with money is a huge lack.

    I wonder if you’ll know how to reach such people. I’d like to do some coaching for a modest fee, without going through financial planners who must charge quite a bit more. Any suggestions?

  • Isabelle Bleu

    Coming along a little late in the conversation, but – – I thought that I would add my two cents’ worth (haha!). I think that, out of those four scripts, “money worship” is by far the closest fit for me. I think, though, that I would agree with some of the other commenters that this term & script might be off-putting to those with fewer resources. Maybe another way to phrase it is “money imaginer” or “money dreamer”. I think that this reflects not just the fact that there are people who dream that more money is the key to solving their problems, but it also describes the fact that these dreams are often not realistic. It then also encompasses the kind of behaviour that expresses when people do have enough money, but make penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions; over-gifters; and those who could be making small, constant gains with their limited resources, but instead squander money on small indulgences because the dream of solvency is too far from reach (guilty!!)

  • Kelly

    Wow, reading through the comments, I thought more people would be like me – money avoidant! I was instilled with “Money can’t buy happiness,” “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to go to heaven” – so I have always aggressively avoided thinking or talking about money. My husband, ironically, falls more under “money worship.” Not surprisingly, we’ve had to work through a lot of differences in opinion around finances, but we finally have a strategy we both agree on, for now – get out of consumer debt. That’s why I appreciate that link you put up saying that “The less you care about money, the more you have to think about it,” because I cared so little that I just racked up credit card debt on travel and experiences, which I did care about, and then realized that I was locked into a higher-paying job I didn’t like at all just to keep up with the bills (and also because of a bit of people-pleasing in that it would definitely disrupt my husband’s happiness if I suddenly started bringing in less). But learning that we have different attitudes towards money and working through how to deal with it has made us both more tolerant and understanding of the other and it has made it possible to agree on and work toward mutual goals.

  • Devidasan Chathanadath

    The story I believe in is that, with money one can definitely buy the best dog, but it will wag its tail only if it loves you. It is also equally true that if you don’t have money not even a dog will look at you! Strike a balance in thoughts. It is required not only for happiness but necessary for financial happiness as well.


  • Barbara Whitley

    I have never not had sufficient money … always worked since age 12. … the article seemingly doesn’t allow 4 combo purchases with a soda and fries included… a good Stuart of money is able to Flux to the situation and not be boxed into a category. Optimum word being stuart… money is a “vehicle for survival” in a world economy. Recogning…the 2 types of gold helps people understand how to manage the world’s gold. There is a universal law to economics and wealth. 1st. : honest labor. 2nd honest payment for labor 3rd .honest payment of taxes. 4th . Honest payment of bills for goods and servicez recieved 5th. Distributions of fair portions of wages to the needy. . Those who do this with honesty and fairness need not worry about the style of managing money . Their style is correct. Karma is in the manner of justice … in times of trouble … the universe will help. In times of greatness they will share .