Divorce. Job loss. Business failure. Eviction. Bankruptcy. Poverty.
Few people get through life without experiencing a financially traumatic situation of some kind – whether as a child watching your parents go through it or experiencing it yourself as an adult. Look no further than the pandemic to see countless recent cases of it.
Such events can lead to undermining money habits that can hurt your finances, your relationships or both.
Early experiences leave a deep mark
Growing up in a financially volatile household – especially if your family barely scraped by – can leave a deep imprint and influence how you handle money in adulthood, no matter how financially successful you become.
“Every day is an emergency when you’re poor. You’re always like one bad bill away from losing everything,” Mars Nevada, an ad agency art director, told Delyanne Barros, host of CNN’s Diversifying podcast. “Having that kind of existential threat [and] being aware of that as a kid kind of like messes you up in a way that I don’t know if I’m quite past yet as an adult.”
Children can internalize the stress and anxiety when they see their parents struggle financially, said Ed Coambs, a licensed therapist, financial adviser and author of “The Healthy Love & Money Way: How The Four Attachment Styles Impact Your Financial Well-Being.”
So how you handle money in adulthood may be an emotional response to those stressors, Coambs said. One response might be to become very restrictive in how you spend money and being critical of your partner’s spending. Or the opposite may result, he noted. “You may be overly carefree with money, figuring you might as well live for today because tomorrow it could be gone.”
Similarly traumatic childhood experiences that may not have anything to do with money directly – such as not feeling loved by a parent or being sexually abused – can still result in money behaviors that hurt your financial health and relationships, Coambs noted.
For instance, if you overspend to boost self worth, that can yield not only unmanageable credit card debt but painful criticism from a partner, which can feel like the threat of rejection you felt as a child. And that, in turn, can lead you to become financially secretive.
Financial trauma in adulthood can have a long tail
Sometimes, of course, financial trauma will hit in adulthood, not childhood.
One particularly pernicious example is being blindsided financially by a spouse. For instance, learning your spouse is having an affair can be traumatic. But that trauma is then compounded if you also learn your cheating spouse blew a lot of money on the other person.
“It is so traumatic and can eclipse the sexual betrayal. It’s a one-two punch. It becomes very problematic because [you] didn’t know,” said Debra Kaplan, a licensed therapist and author of “Battle of the Titans: Mastering the Forces of Sex, Money, and Power in Relationships.”
So, for instance, some people may respond by becoming very risk-averse with their money. “The impact becomes ‘How do I trust? I can’t trust myself because I believed this person. I don’t know what’s real.’ So they end up not spending because they don’t trust,” Kaplan said.
Finding healthier ways to cope
If you suspect you have undermining financial habits that are driven by emotions from a traumatic experience, there are ways to unpack the situation and establish a healthier relationship with money.
Financial therapy is a burgeoning arena that usually combines a licensed therapist’s psychological expertise with a certified financial planner’s skills in money management and financial behavioral changes.
Sometimes you can get both in the same person. But if not, you may want to see a therapist first, recommended Alex Melkumian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles.
“Meet with someone who has a clinical background to delve into your money story and figure out why you behave the way you do. Then when you process those experiences, you can meet with a CFP to delve into the numbers,” Melkumian said.
In any case, always verify a professional’s credentials and experience before working with them.
You may find a professional with financial therapy training at the Financial Therapy Association, or a certified financial behavioral specialist at the Financial Psychology Institute founded by psychologist and CFP Brad Klontz.