How Financial Advice Triggers Painful Money Shame

Money shame. An illustration shows a woman with her head tilted back, both hands covering her face.

Maybe you’ve heard: debt is bad.

I have. I was raised on the conviction that debt=bad. I saw the effects of debt on family members and family friends. Dave Ramsey, the first financial figure I knew, centers his teachings on debt — and getting out of it to “financial freedom.” 

I even heard about debt at church, making it a moral question. Debt was there: in bible study and Sunday school, used as a metaphor for sin — or a topic on its own.

The sum of all these messages I heard about debt was this: getting into debt was unwise, a sign of a weak will or mind. Debt was a form of bondage or slavery, and once you were in it, you were in danger of never getting out.

Fast forward to me, in 2012: 23 years old, in around $50,000 of debt — mostly student loans with a car loan and credit card debt, too. 

I’d tried to make the best money choices from the options I was aware of, from taking out student debt for my undergrad degree to putting half an international trip on a credit card. But now, though, I was second-guessing myself. Would it work out? Could I really pull through? 

One morning I sat at my $40 Ikea dining table in our roach-infested Los Angeles apartment, eating breakfast, unemployed and on a job search. 

A barf sound effect interrupted my thoughts — a regular gag on the local morning radio show I had on in the background. It’d never bothered me before, but today, I felt queasy at the mere sound. Weird, was my first thought. Then, a few dots connected. Oh no, was I…? Three tests later and I knew for sure: I was pregnant.

My money shame: Financially failing at parenthood

This new event doubled my feelings of anxiety and shame about my financial situation. I was excited, but also terrified and ashamed. 

I cried the first time I went shopping for maternity clothes. I started a job shortly after finding out, but I waited as long as possible to tell my manager. I loathed grocery shopping once I started showing. I wasn’t self-conscious about my changing body itself, but rather what I felt it told people about me. They could simply look at me and know the deep, shameful truth: I was pregnant and completely unprepared.

All the personal finance advice I’d ever heard told me I wasn’t ready to financially support a child. It brought up all the old beliefs about myself and money. I was stupid to take on debt. I was a fool for thinking I could afford it. I’d started a cycle that I might never climb out of. 

These old beliefs and noise were compounded by new financial advice I now encountered daily at my new job with an online financial outlet. Bac then the most popular financial experts were Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman, both known for “tough love” and strident, fixed financial opinions. 

When financial advice is the source of money shame

A pregnant woman in an olive green dress stands in front of a wooden door, hands cradling her belly. financial advice and money shame

I didn’t recognize it at the time, but much of the financial content and advice I turned to for help often hurt instead. I felt money shame almost constantly: I’d get hot like I’m angry, but with a sharp ache of emotional pain and hurt.

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Brené Brown

We don’t always think of money and social connection as going hand-in-hand.  But the truth is they do; money, income, and financial security can all affect our sense of value to ourselves and others, our personal identity, and social status. A drop in financial status often leads to social isolation, studies show. And feeling lonely makes us more likely to engage in reckless financial behaviors in bids to connect and find belonging.

For me, the shame over being financially unprepared for parenthood was not about the money. It was about my own “flaws”: I was irresponsible and failing at parenthood before I even started. 

And a huge portion of my money shame came from the messages I’d soaked up about money, debt, and wealth. So many of these messages were inherently shaming. I could barely think about my finances without hearing the voices of Orman and Ramsey, a church leader or parent in my head: “Why do you have all this debt? Where is your emergency fund? You’re bringing a child into this financial mess?”

Why financial advice breeds money shame

As I’ve worked toward a more positive relationship with money, something changed. The messages that made me feel ashamed and inadequate now make me angry. It’s not right that a huge portion of the financial advice offered to people who, like me in 2012, are desperate for reassurance and solutions are instead met with judgment and condescension. Are shamed.

Because shame has two main mantras, as Brown says: “You’re not good enough,” — judgment — and “Who do you think you are?” — condescension.

Let’s get deeper into the relationship between finance advice and shame, so we can better understand how the two interact — and more easily recognize and steer clear of shaming money advice.

Some money advice is shame-based

Can you think of a time someone made you feel small? Most of us can recall a teacher, a parent or caregiver, a coach (or yes, a finance expert) who shamed us in this way. 

Too many authority figures, including financial experts, shame us and believe they are helping. Some money advice intentionally uses shame, implicitly or explicitly, to push us toward the money behaviors the authors think we should have. They may even believe in the motivating power of shame, and intentionally lean on shaming tactics, calling it “tough love” they use to “wake up” or “get real” with their audience. 

Shame is a powerful motivator, to be sure. Which is why some money advice shames us on purpose, intending that the shame will act as a deterrent from unwanted money behaviors. 

But its power to drive us is exactly what makes shame so damaging. Shame is so painful that we have built-in defenses to deal with it, and we often try to avoid it at all costs. Our reflexive responses to shut down shame kick in as — either by avoiding our financial problems, quick-”fixing” them, or denying they exist.

“I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

Brené Brown

Money shame is not a healthy emotion to use a tool for financial change. Using it to push ourselves, or allowing others to do the same deepens emotional wounds. And we are often at the greatest danger to ourselves and our financial health when we feel wounded, trapped, and alone.

Money is surrounded by secrecy and silence

a man sits in blackness, barely lit from one side, looking down and hugging himself. money secrecy

Money is so hard to talk about, even with the people we would otherwise view as closest to us. We feel that if we share too much, it could damage our relationships or invite judgment from others — either for having too much or too little money.

As a result, more than half of people don’t discuss finances with friends or family, according to a Turbo and Harris Poll survey. We closely guard details about our finances, from our credit scores to our income, our debts, and our budgets. And money decisions might be the only big choices we make completely alone, rather than talk our options out with a friend or turn to parent for guidance.

All of this secrecy and silence around money is a breeding ground for toxic shame. 

“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.”

Brené Brown

The things that eradicate shame, Brown says, are empathy and vulnerability. Someone saying, “Me, too.” When it comes to talking about money, finding voices and experiences that echo our own is key to easing our money shame. So we look around for people who are struggling like us, to find an honest voice. 

Instead, we find experts pointing to their own successes and adept money management to bolster their authority. The intent of these glossy stories is likely to be aspirational and encourage us: the story is that we, too, can do amazing and big things with our money.

Except this story so often runs counter to our lived reality and experiences. They paid off six figures in debt in one year, yet I struggled with $5,000 in debt. They became a millionaire by age 30, and by that time I’d barely started saving for retirement.

The lack of vulnerability and honesty, the secrecy around money — it breeds shame. It further isolates us on the topic of money and tells us everyone has it right but us. We make a “stupid” money move and feel like we’re the only one.

Money advice labels and personalizes

So much money advice also includes the third thing Brown says shame needs to survive: judgment. Judgment in financial advice kind of makes sense —  because money management requires analysis and evaluation. We do need to make judgment calls and decisions when dealing with our personal finances.

But instead of helping us make those judgment calls, too many money experts just step in as judge instead. They’re all too quick to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do, or label money choices as good or bad, smart or stupid. By pushing us to view our behavior, choices, and money in labels, personal finance “experts” often engage in shaming. 

The problem with labeling is it takes one characteristic, situation, or behavior from your finances and makes it personal. My experience with debt is a perfect example: I heard that getting into debt was stupid. I knew I wasn’t as financially prepared to support a child as I’d want. These facts were about my situation, but I internalized them into beliefs about myself: I was bad with money and that would make me a bad parent.

Labeling shoves people into these kinds of extremes: we are good or bad with money. We make smart or stupid money choices. Because experts and advice that’s built on these labels is shaming. It measures and judges us, and tells us we’re lacking in self-discipline or hustle. That we’re lazy. That we don’t want it enough. 

It can push us into self-criticism and even self-sabotage. Why bother trying to do better with your money when it’s already such a mess? Clearly, I’m just bad at this.

Money advice can dehumanize people and moralize money

a man and woman face away from each other in a gray ocean, each holding their faces as if in frustration while a wave crashes against them

Another effect of this kind of labeling: it moralizes money. Finances stop being just about resource management and figures. 

Instead, they’re ascribed greater meaning and tied to our personal worth, abilities, and values. Our finances and money choices are personalized: they tell us and other people if we’re high status, whether we deserve respect, whether or not we’re responsible.

You’ve probably seen these kinds of debates: Should you save or pay off debt first? Are credit cards useful or harmful? Should you buy a house or rent? Experts entrench into different camps and divide up their communities. As a result, our money choices become a function of our belonging or isolation. If we want to be good members of the debt, FIRE, or frugal communities and maintain the connection they create — we fall in line. 

Some ideologies take this a step further: money is not just a resource to manage wisely, it’s actually a measure of our own goodness. The belief wealth is a reward for making good choices,makes how much money we have a matter of morality. Our financial success is a measure of how well we do what God or the universe wants us to.

Of course, the flip side of this reasoning is the harmful and dehumanizing belief the people who are poor deserve to be so. Struggling with money is a sign of poor mental discipline and a scarcity mindset. It’s chalked up to laziness, incompetence, lack of merit, or other negative traits that makes a person unworthy of financial security and success. 

Taken together, these dehumanizing and moralizing money takes can be a huge drive for money shame, feeding our perception that we’re inherently flawed and our pain of not belonging.

Money advice triggers pre-existing shame

Reading that book about money, or listening to a podcast from that “firebrand” finance expert — it’s probably not going to create money shame out of thin air. If we’re experiencing shame while trying to learn about money, that can actually be a sign that we have a history or default for financial shame. 

Perhaps money has always been a painful and emotionally fraught subject for some people. For those who grew up class-conscious, taught to draw comparisons between themselves and others based on money. Or others who were shamed by parents for having an age-appropriate lack of money skills and experience.

How much shame we feel can be a function of mental conditioning or traits.In her podcast Unlocking Us, Brown explains that most people are either guilt- or shame-prone; we tend to have a default for one of these emotions when we’re facing a mistake we’ve made. 

Shame and guilt are similar, but with a key difference: guilt says we did something bad, shame tells us we are bad. Guilt pushes our focus to the situation and what we can do to fix it and repair. But shame keeps the focus on ourselves — and how irreparable and broken we are.

Being shame-prone means we often default to shame, even in neutral circumstances. It can turn pretty general and nonjudgmental money advice into an accusing finger pointed at our own financial mistakes. It can turn a budget workshopping session in to an emotional minefield of self-judgment and shame.

Traditional finance advice tries to use shame — but shame doesn’t work

The intention behind financial advice and information is rarely to shame us. Yet for the reasons above, that’s so often the effect of money advice, whether it’s from family members or financial experts.

Maybe these money experts are guilt-prone and can’t see how their ideas might impact shame-prone people. Or they might have their own complicated relationship with shame, viewing it as something that drove them to do better. 

But instead of engaging in the deep questions and mess of being human, offering vulnerability and connection? They use shame to sell us a solution, a product, or surface-level fixes and easy absolutes. 

Shame doesn’t work. The pain of shame drives us from the locus of our problems and where we have power to change them — in reality, in our behaviors — and into our internal story of what’s happening. And our goals shift from the real source of the pain, such as struggling with bills or feeling the weight of debt, to the singular goal of offloading our shame and emotional pain. 

“Toxically shamed people tend to become more and more stagnant as life goes on. They live in a guarded, secretive and defensive way. They try to be more than human (perfect and controlling) or less than human (losing interest in life or stagnated in some addictive behavior).”

John Bradshaw, “Healing the Shame That Binds You”

As Bradshaw points out, shame pushes use toward either end of the spectrum on the scale of our own sense of self value: perfectionism or self-loathing and self-sabotage. If we start out on the self-defeating end, believing this is just how things are, we’re bad with money and that won’t change, so why try? 

Or we might feel we have to do everything right, optimize every aspect of our finances, and get ahead as fast as possible. It can lead to progress — for a while — but is so often followed by a crash and burn. The pressure to perfection can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors, impulsive overspending, and so on.

We deserve better than shame-based finance advice

money shame resilience. five people rest hands of different skin tones side by side on a wooden table.

We need to take shame out of our financial and emotional equations. We need to separate our senses of self worth from our money and the shame that comes with it. 

The greatest antidote I’ve found to my money shame is this belief: that I get to be, simply, human. 

That I am allowed to make mistakes and have regrets. And to think and decide for myself, even if it’s a choice that’s misunderstood or judged by others. That I always have worth and value to offer, no matter what others may think of my money choices, or how much debt or money I have, or how much or little I’m earning.

And as I look for money guidance, information, and motivation —  I’m keeping all this in mind. I’m paying attention to the language my favorite personal finance experts creators use. 

Personal finance creators have to do better. They need to learn more about shame and the deep harm it can cause to their audience. They need to think more widely, empathetically, and imaginatively about who’s hearing their advice, and how it could affect them.

Let’s seek out and keep returning to finance creators and influencers who speak about money with open vulnerability: sharing their experiences and being honest about their humanity and their privilege. Who not only avoid money shaming but talk about finances in a way that breaks down our shame through connection. Who help us feel seen, understood, and less alone in our money struggles. 

Read or learn more:

Main illustration based on photo by Inna Podolska
Photos by Camylla BattaniMitchell HollanderAlex Iby, and Clay Banks via Unsplash

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    Scott W
    September 29, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    This is a great article and I appreciate you sharing it. I went through a very tough financial decade in my twenties especially from 21-27 and I had a ton of shame from my financial and career struggles. I’m 52 now and it all worked out but I agree that shame can cause more harm than good when trying to help people make good choices and get on a more positive path.

  • Reply
    C
    September 30, 2020 at 2:30 am

    It’s not just personal finance advice, though, in some ways. Our consumerist culture rolls by creating a perceived lack and then getting us to fill it with something – if we question or reflect on whether we really need X or if it will actually make our lives more glamorous, that diminishes the effectiveness of the marketing. It seems to me that mechanisms that really teach us to think for ourselves are relatively rare. Since personal finance really is personal, cookie cutter advice is going to leave out necessary nuance that we are not necessarily prepared to fill in ourselves – and we are not even necessarily prepared to question the appropriateness of the advice. Plus, it so much easier to judge and hence stay an expert then it is to admit that there are societal issues that weigh against success, and for SO MANY. At the same time, I think it is true that some people need clear communication because it’s super easy to let defense mechanisms take over so you don’t even get a given message. But for that to be tough “love” it has to be personalized and empathetic, as well as super clear. Otherwise you’re a lazy communicator, really.

  • Reply
    How Financial Advice Triggers Painful Money Shame – Collecting FI/RE Wisdom
    October 13, 2020 at 8:31 pm

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