You don’t need to be a math whiz or expert in personal finance to improve your financial situation, according to Brad Klontz, PsyD, a financial psychologist and director of research at H&R Block Dollars & Sense. And you don’t need to make dramatic changes, either.
“[T]he most critical aspect of improving one’s financial health is to uncover, challenge, and change self-defeating money scripts.”
Money scripts are often unconscious beliefs about money, which we learned in childhood.
In other words, each of us has a unique relationship with money, and understanding that relationship is key to improving it.
“Understanding our financial life is part of our self-care,” said Joe Lowrance, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who helps clients struggling with money issues. That’s because the choices we make with our money affects other areas of our lives, including our “physical, mental and relational health.”
Below, Lowrance and Klontz revealed the small steps you can take in greatly improving your financial situation.
1. Figure out your financial history.
In his research at Kansas State University, Klontz found that money scripts predict everything from how we use money today to our income and net worth.
For instance, the following money scripts have been linked to lower levels of income and net worth: “More money will make you happier,” “Rich people are greedy,” and “If something is not considered the ‘best’ it is not worth buying.”
Since our beliefs around money are shaped in childhood, digging into your history can be illuminating. Ask yourself: What did I learn from my mom about money? What did I learn from my dad? What about other family members? How has the culture affected my beliefs?
2. Think about your experiences.
Another way to improve your financial situation is to sit down and think through your experiences around money. Ask yourself these questions, said Klontz, also author of four books on financial psychology, including Mind over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health.
- “What is your most painful money experience?
- What is your most joyful?
- What is your biggest financial fear?
- What beliefs about money emerged from these experiences?
- How have these money scripts helped you?
- How have they hurt you or limited your potential?”
3. Pay attention to the everyday.
Focus on the thoughts and feelings that arise as you spend, save, earn, borrow, give and invest your money on a daily basis, Lowrance said. This gives you a clearer picture of “how you relate to money and what serves your best interests.”
Again, having a deeper understanding of your beliefs, attitudes and feelings around money helps you make insightful decisions that improve your life.
4. Revise your money scripts.
After you identify your money scripts, it’s important to revise them. Consider “What is a more helpful money script?” Klontz said. Then consider the individuals “you know that operate from this more helpful money script.” In other words, identify several people who are closer to being where you’d like to be.
Then ask those individuals to chat with you. “Interview them about their relationship with money and use whatever wisdom you collect to make changes in your financial approach.”
5. Tackle Debt
If you want to free up your budget and improve your financial situation, you must get out of debt. Regardless of how much you have or how manageable it is, pay it off as quickly as possible; the longer you stretch out the loan term, the more you will likely pay in interest and total loan costs. For example, you are likely paying more in interest on credit card debt than you are earning on any investments you may hold.
First, you need to create a debt repayment plan. If you have a lot of high-interest debt, list your debts in order from highest interest rate to lowest, and then begin paying all of the extra money toward the first debt. Once you have paid off that debt, move onto the next debt on the list.
If you have an unmanageable number of debts, however, you may want to pay down the one with the smallest balance first and then proceed to pay down those with increasingly larger balances.
If any of your debts are in collections, you may choose to pay them off first and bring them current to stem the negative impact to your credit and reduce the number of calls you get from creditors.
In order for any debt repayment plan to work, you need to make a commitment to stop using your credit cards and stop acquiring new credit.