Money Scripts is a term that Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz, and I coined in around 2005 when we were working on one of our co-authored books. We based it on a term “life scripts,” used by some therapists to describe unconscious beliefs that shape people’s behavior. Money scripts, then, are unconscious beliefs people hold around money.
One of my often-repeated statements is that every financial behavior makes perfect sense, no matter how illogical it seems to you or others, when we understand the beliefs behind it. Those beliefs are money scripts. They are unconscious. We don’t even know we have them. Yet our actions are completely in sync with what we unconsciously believe to be true—even if those actions are not in our best financial interest.
So in order to change our money behavior for the better, it’s really important to find out what we believe. to uncover our buried money scripts. This is not a simple task. Typically, the average person has 50 to 200 of these money scripts operating 24/7. They touch everything that we do with money. Money scripts are partial truths, but we unconsciously believe them to be absolutely true and follow them as if they were.
Money scripts are often formed early in life. We learn them from our caregivers, other people in our lives, and our circumstances. Just like the script for a play, money scripts are written for us. We follow them as written, because they come from our parents and others that we rely on and trust. They’ll tell us things about money, and we’ll take that in. They’ll not say certain things about money, and we take that in. They’ll behave in various ways around money, and we’re observing what they do and don’t do. As very young children, we don’t understand all these things, and we make up stories and “rules” in our minds to explain them.
Some of us go through painful childhood experiences around money. These might be significant traumatic events such as a divorce, bankruptcy, business loss, or the death of a parent. We might also experience years of chronic stress and a pattern of repeated small traumas. You can have a whole series of really minor traumas that wouldn’t be a big thing at all if they just happened once or twice, but that are deeply wounding if they happen over and over. Either way, we respond by developing unconscious coping behaviors and mechanisms. In many cases, parts of us become emotionally frozen at the age we were when the trauma took place.
Our family, our caregivers, our community influences like teachers, churches, and media—the systems and society we grow up in—all reinforce money scripts until we unconsciously “know” them to be true. This is “how it is.” This is “the truth about money.” And many of our money scripts are generational, legacies that are passed down in our families.
Money scripts we learned as small children might have served us well and helped us survive at the time. Chances are they do not serve us well when we’re 30 or 40 or 50. Yet we still follow them because that’s what we know.
Some common money scripts are: “Money is power.” “You’ve got to work hard for money.” “Money is evil.” “You deserve to have money.” “You don’t deserve to have money.” “There will never be enough money.” “More money makes things better.” “Money is unimportant.” “It’s not nice to talk about money.”
Inherent in a money script is rigidity. As you explore your money scripts, those that include strong words like every, always, or never are likely to be especially strong beliefs. “All rich people are selfish.” “The only way to get money is to earn it.” So part of the goal in reframing our money scripts is to build in flexibility.
Let’s take a money script that “you must work hard to earn money.” Certainly, at times, that is true. But what happens when you work hard, and the money doesn’t come in? That certainly also can be true. Or what if you don’t work, and the money comes in anyway? That can be true, as well. When we encounter circumstances where our money script does not apply, we often struggle. There’s a disconnect that can be painful. It’s not uncommon for people with this money script to have trouble adjusting to retirement, when they stop working and money comes in anyway.
Building flexibility into this money script would involve framing it this way until we can see more than one possibility: I can work hard, and the money sometimes comes in and sometimes doesn’t; sometimes I don’t work at all and the money comes in, and other times I don’t work and there’s no money.
It’s also common to have conflicting money scripts. A part of you might believe “There’s never going to be enough money,” and another part is contradictory: “Don’t worry, there’s always enough.”
How do you find out what your money scripts are? A good place to start is with a short self-assessment called the Klontz Money Script Inventory-Revised (KMSI-R). Identifying your money scripts is not going to automatically “fix” or change them, but it is an essential first step toward building a more functional relationship with money.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.