Managing money is an essential life skill, yet many adults would fail a financial literacy test.
If you find money confusing, you’re far from alone. But the reasons you’re baffled may have more to do with how our brains work than how money does.
Understanding some of the common barriers, along with strategies to cope, could help you to get a handle on your finances.
Money is a new language
You wouldn’t expect to carry on a fluent conversation in Madrid or Mexico City if you only knew a few words of Spanish. Similarly, personal finance is loaded with terms, jargon and concepts that take a while to learn.
“Entering the world of money is like entering a whole new culture and learning a new language,” says Ed Coambs, a certified financial planner in North Carolina.
You shouldn’t feel stupid for not understanding everything instantly and no one should make you feel that way," he says. "However, learning can be more difficult if we encounter judgmental, condescending or dogmatic people — which, unfortunately, describes many people who are fluent in personal finance lingo.
“Many money experts, professional or non-professional, can become varying degrees of authoritarian: ‘Yes, I know what’s best for you. This is what you should do’.”
People with a rigid approach to personal finance may not understand the culture and life experiences that shaped you. They may insist you funnel every possible dollar into paying off debt or saving for retirement, for instance, but you may feel it’s important to give to charity or support your elderly parents.
Rather than dictating how you should spend, helpful advisers meet people where they are, says Rachael DeLeon, interim director of the Association for Financial Counselling and Planning Education, a non-profit foundation.
“It’s figuring out: what are your values? What’s important to you? And how do you make that work within your own financial situation?”
Money is emotional
For many people, money evokes strong and often negative emotions. For example, if you struggle with managing your finances, you may be so embarrassed that you try to avoid talking or even thinking about money.
“That’s what really stops people from making money progress,” Mr Coambs says. “They feel ashamed that they don’t know — and they feel like they should know.”
Painful early experiences often shape our view of money, says Mr Coambs, author of The Healthy Love & Money Way: How the Four Attachment Styles Impact Your Financial Well-Being. Listening to parents fight about money or suffering financial hardship can be traumatic, leaving us convinced that money is dangerous or shameful.
Mr Coambs suggests discussing your feelings about money with supportive and compassionate people. That could include an empathetic financial adviser, a financial therapist or trusted, knowledgeable friends.
“Action is predicated on feeling safe for many of us,” he says. “Until we feel safe and accepted, we’re typically going to feel stuck and stalled.”
Money is collaborative
Fear is another common emotion people experience around money: fear of making a mistake, not having enough, or being scammed or misled.
“There are a lot of predators in this space and knowing who to trust is hard,” Ms DeLeon says.
Educating yourself is crucial. You can learn about personal finance basics from trusted sources, she adds.
But you also can hire people to help you. Ms DeLeon recommends fee-only advisers, meaning they’re compensated only by the fees paid by their clients rather than by commissions or other financial arrangements that could influence their advice.
Look for advisers who are fiduciaries, which means they are required to put your interests before their own. Fiduciary advisers include certified financial planners and people with the credentials to offer advice, including accredited financial counsellors and financial fitness coaches.
With money, it’s more important to know who to ask than to have all the answers ourselves, Ms DeLeon says.
“Not everybody needs to be a personal finance expert,” she adds.