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Why Can’t I Save Money? The Answer May Be In Your Past

why it's so hard for you to save money

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It’s always been easy for me to save money. I would love to congratulate my self-control, but I never realized there was any other way. I saw how my parents and their friends managed money, and I just followed suit.

My environment fully formed my spending habits. It made me consider that we are wrong to congratulate themselves and shame others too much. There are many reasons why it’s hard to save money that have nothing to do with self-control. Let me explain some of the reasons why it might be hard for you to save money.

1. Why Can’t I Save Money? Because of My Parents (and Grandparents)

Our parents teach us how to behave, whether consciously or not. One study shows that toddlers who take objects relatively frequently from their peers have mothers who take things relatively frequently from them. Conversely, those toddlers who offer objects more frequently to their peers have parents who offer things more frequently to them.

We don’t know it’s right or wrong, good or bad – we just think that’s how it is and how we are supposed to react. So many people are responding to money cues that they learned from their parents – either copying them or reacting to them.

Of course, it’s easy to see that we learn the behaviors of our caretakers, with whom we interact, but even our grandparents and ancestors play a role in forming us. We all know that we inherit genetic traits from our ancestors. What is less well known is that we can inherit what our parents learned as well.  In Pleased to Meet Me, Bill Sullivan talks about this study where mice were taught to be afraid of the smell of cherries. When those mice were bred with normal mice, their pups and their grandpups were more anxious when faced with the scent of cherries. So your behaviors may be affected by your grandparents’ experiences.

It’s possible that your grandparents’ bad history with banks may have led to your suspicion of banking activity. It’s possible that you inherited your grandparents’ anxiety over dealing with money. Crazy, right?

2. Why Can’t I Save Money? Because I’m Poor 

My mother had heard that some kids at our church couldn’t afford new clothes. She asked me to help her pick out some clothes to give to them. This was the 90s so we went to the typical teenager stores of the time – Old Navy, Guess, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger.

When she gave them the clothes, I noticed that they discarded the Old Navy duds but were quite excited about the name-brand items. The name brand items weren’t better looking but they were emblazoned with the brand name (this was the 90s when that was the style). I thought this was peculiar because new clothes are new clothes. I proudly wore (and still wear) clothing from Walmart and would have been grateful for the gift.

Similarly, when I visited a child for whom I was performing pro bono services, I couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing a Helly Hansen coat. That coat was probably more expensive than the one I was wearing, as her attorney.

Something similar happened when I was talking to a woman I mentor at an event for our mentees. Nearby was a child of another mentee decked out in a shiny rose gold shirt with matching rose gold accessories. I definitely never had such nice things when I was a kid, and I’m sure my parents earned at least quadruple the income that hers did.

The Confidence of the Middle Class

When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the dichotomy. When you don’t have anything shouldn’t you be grateful for anything? Why spend a lot on clothes, particularly children’s clothes, when you are worried about the rent, the electric, the car, etc.? Shouldn’t these families learn to be minimalist and frugal?

But sometime after seeing my mom donate those clothes, something clicked for me. Yes, I was wearing cheap hand-me-down clothes. But I also never had to worry about where I was sleeping for the night. I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from.

Most importantly, I never had to worry about someone accusing me of being poor.

My family wasn’t rich, in absolute terms or in comparison with the people in my middle-class public school, but we were safe – both in terms of living in a safe neighborhood but also in terms of social status. I could “afford” to wear cheap clothes because I had confidence that if someone even joked about me being poor, my classmates could vouch for my living in their neighborhood in a suitably sized house.

Why the Poor Have Nice Stuff

If I were poor, I’m sure being called poor would be absolutely terrifying. I wouldn’t have the self-confidence of a middle-income person. I wouldn’t have people who could vouch for the size of my house or the white collar-ness of my parents’ jobs.

Because of this anxiety, I’m sure I would change my lifestyle so I would never fear being accused of being poor. That means wearing nicer clothes, eating fancier meals, driving a nice car. I would do these things not because it made mathematical sense, but because, I would want to avoid anyone second-guessing my social class, and thus, subtly second-guessing my worth. (I’m not saying a person’s worth is dependent on their social class, or that it should be that way – I’m just saying that many people feel this way).

I can remember talking to a friend who had grown up poor that it was a pretty common occurrence to see someone with nice new shoes. Everyone around him was poor, so it never made economical sense. But I think most of us can remember a time when they had something someone else wanted – and it felt great. Or when we were able to give our kids or loved ones something that they really wanted – and it felt great.

Why Can’t I Save Money? A Poverty Mindset

We are all guilty of giving into our emotions over our head – and the poor are no different. There’s something about having something shiny and new that can make someone feel better about themselves, their lives, and give them hope for the future. It doesn’t make logical sense, but it makes emotional sense. And if something resonates emotionally, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false or valueless. In small doses, a tiny purchase can bolster us – even as in large doses, they can ruin us.

You try to keep up appearances by buying nice things to bolster your own self esteem. Maybe you can barely afford rent but no one needs to know that. The very last straw isn’t homelessness or even when others stop believing in you. The last straw is when you can’t believe in yourself. And if you can’t have the stable life, you can at least look the part, to others and to yourself.

This mindset isn’t only held by the poor. You can grow up at any income level and still have a chip on your shoulder. There are people who grew up far richer than me that might identify with it. But it’s a mindset that is easier to overcome as a rich person than as a poor person. It’s a simple matter of looking around and being grateful for having the roof over your head. It’s much easier to be confident when you have some constants in your life.

The Difference Between the Rich and the Poor (it’s not self-control)

When a rich person says that he could pull himself up by his bootstraps if he had a reduced income, he may be right. To be more specific, he is right that he may have the skills, health, education, connections and confidence that if he were put in a situation with low income, he could lift himself up by his very own bootstraps. He could visualize where he was before and say, well I got there once and I believe in myself to get there again.

But the poor aren’t “rich people pretending to be poor.” The poor are the way they are.

When people point at the poor and say, why do you have the newest iPhone or the big SUV when I, as a rich person, have a flip phone and take the bus, this is part of the reason why. It’s not that the poor are secretly not poor. They very much are. In fact, they are acting in ways that very much show that they’re poor, though perhaps not monetarily. They are poor of mindset. And that can be harder to fix than a cash flow problem. They may very well not believe that they can get out of their situation so the thinking may go, I might as well have my fun now. You may not have hope, but at least you have an Xbox.

3. Why Can’t I Save Money? Financial Gurus Don’t Speak My Language

Many people who rely on emotion in their financial decision-making avoid making financial decisions because they think they require a cold, abstract, analytical mindset. This is likely due to the marketing of personal finance as some mathematical skill. But personal finance is not about math – no one balances their checkbooks by hand anymore. There are apps and calculators and bots that can do all the math part – that part’s easy. So much of financial decisions are emotional – prioritizing certain purchases over others, learning to overcome our family’s demons, being confident in our own decisions even if they differ from others.

The key to getting around this roadblock by phrasing financial decision making in terms of the lifestyle you want for your future.

Why It’s So Easy for the Rich to Save Money

When people say, the poor shouldn’t care what other people think, that’s a fallacy. The rich don’t need to care what people think of them. The rich can insulate themselves from people they don’t want to have around; the poor cannot. The poor have to see social workers, teachers, school administrators, government workers, neighbors and family because they rely on all these people to survive. So the poor have more people judging them than the rich. Thus, the poor have more people they want to and need to view them positively. In fact, the poor likely get a lot more bang for their buck by spending extravagantly on appearances.

Additionally, being rich drastically changes how you’re viewed even without spending any money. For instance, I can be frugal because I have so many indicators to show that I’m wealthy. When people come to visit, they don’t care that my furniture is secondhand Ikea because my apartment is in a neighborhood where the median home values are $1 million.  They don’t notice the lack of fancy gizmos because I have a laptop laying around that costs over $1000. When I didn’t have a car, the understanding ws that I choose not to, not because I can’t – because everyone knew I was a lawyer and I made bank.

Similarly, when I say my clothes are several years old, low-priced and sourced from ignoble locales like Payless and Walmart, it doesn’t affect others’ views of me because I’m young, thin, pretty and rich so my humble clothes seem more expensive when I wear them. Everything seems more expensive in my life because of me. It’s actually a waste for me to spend on more expensive things because I will get compliments whether my dress is from Target or Gucci.

Why Can’t I Save Money? I’m the Product of My Circumstances

You inherit so much from your ancestors and parents – their views about money and even their behaviors. So much of our emotional reactivity to money may also be inherited, making it easier for some of us not to care what other people think. And our emotions and our anxieties have a huge role to play in how and if we become financially secure.

No one wants to wear Mark Zuckerberg’s clothes, but they want to be as rich as Zuckerberg and then be free to wear whatever they want. The people who get away with wearing junky things are the rich.

The purpose of expensive things is so people will think you’re rich. If you’re already rich, you don’t need people to think anything of you. People will come to you if you’re rich. If you’re poor, you still need to prove yourself to get a job, friends, connections, business partners, etc. The irony is that the Gucci works best for those that can’t afford it.

The dirty secret to being frugal is not caring what people think. The secret to not caring what people think is being rich.

If you don’t have these indicators of wealth, it’s a lot less likely that being frugal seems like a worthy goal. Having the junky items I have just makes you look poor, and no one wants to look poor without secretly being rich.

Conclusion – Why Can’t I Save Money? How to Change

I don’t mean for this to be a sad tale – only an explanatory one. Just because you are born with certain predispositions to make it hard for you save money, that’s not the same as being born with a fate. You still have the power to change your life. Because even though you can’t control where you start, you have a lot of control over how you finish. Be wary of easy solutions, don’t blame yourself for what you can’t control or what’s in your past, and work on your emotions and predilections. We are all rooting for you.

1 Vandell, D. (1976), ‘Boy toddlers’ social interaction with mothers, fathers, and peers’. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston University.

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