By Gabrielle Sills with Marlis Jansen
Leftovers are a very polarizing thing. And I don’t just mean cold pizza.
I was reminded of this when my brother-in-law stayed over recently and offered to clear out some items from the refrigerator ahead of some guests we’d be hosting. I thought the refrigerator looked pretty good but was happy to accept his help to take a pass.
I thought he’d target any expired vegetables or leftovers that looked funky. I quickly realized that our definitions of “ready-to-throw-out” varied widely. A couple shots worth of gin still in a bottle? Definitely keep. Enough white rice for one of my work-at-home lunches? Of course. Half of an avocado from yesterday that was browning a little but would be more than ok if you cut the top off? I wouldn’t think of tossing it.
I had a visceral reaction, watching these items head towards the trash. I’m a big fan of his and knew his intentions were good, and yet, I could… not… let him throw out the things I disagreed with. I swooped in with a smile and whisked away the things I felt were salvageable.
“Really?” he said, with a bit of a laugh. I was embarrassed — I didn’t want to be perceived as “cheap” or “gross” or “weird,” but there is something in me that cries out when things are wasted. “I know,” I said with my own chuckle.
Beyond the Fridge
Leftover food is one thing, but we all maintain endless artifacts from childhood. Consider the topics of exercise, cooking, pets, communication styles — chances are high that the ways you approach these things are direct results of behaviors you saw and values you learned growing up.
In the case of exercise, study after study has shown that kids’ activity levels are directly related not only to the parents’ activity levels, but specifically to how much exercise the children see their parents complete (Firger, 2014). We see, internalize, model, and repeat. If you witness your mom going for a walk every morning, chances are you’re more likely to get your steps in, too.
Our identities and differences are largely the sum of all of these learned behaviors, but not exclusively. For by actively discarding any early conditioning or learning that we don’t want to keep, we can actively trim, hone, and forge a self-identity that feels right to each of us. If I like my dedication to not being wasteful (whether through eating leftovers or using reusable towels instead of paper towels), that’s great, but if I realize that I don’t actually care about this goal I’m instinctively maintaining, then I can decide to change it.
This constant dance between figuring out what we like and what we want to discard is at the core of identity formation. Steven Hitlin (2003) explains that our values are what define our personal identity; and while many of our values are instilled by our parents and childhood communities, they are very fungible and we each have the power to determine our own values and the behaviors that come with them. To the extent that these values evolve away from what we learned in our childhoods (what we at Graddha call “values drift”), there’s nothing wrong with that divergence and it just represents an identity evolution as we each decide for ourselves what is most meaningful to us.
Money scripts and Financial Identity
One example of these inherited values and behaviors is our “money scripts.”
“Money scripts,” a term coined by financial psychologists Brad Klontz and Ted Klontz, are “core beliefs about money that drive financial behaviors.” We all have them, and they’re typically unconscious, developed in childhoods, and quite stubborn. And because these money scripts symbolize values, they are often woven into the very fabric of our identity. It can be useful to consider the topic of financial identity, which refers to the parts of our identity that are related to money and finance. Money scripts are pillars of financial identity.
Money scripts are personal and contextual. But here are some common examples:
- Rich people are greedy.
- Money doesn’t grow on trees.
- It’s rude to talk about money.
- I don’t deserve the money I have.
- I won’t ever have to worry about money.
In my own life, I grew up with and have internalized combinations of these money scripts: “waste not, want not;” “everyone needs to work;” “pennies add up.” Our financial wealth varied during my childhood, but these scripts stayed the same no matter how great our cushion was. To this day, I still consider the price of an entree at a restaurant before making my selection, buy certain things only when they’re on sale, and of course… never throw food away until it’s expired.
Intentionally shifting our money scripts
Just because these money scripts and values might be deeply held and automatic , that doesn’t mean they’re immutable. Once we have awareness of them, we can purposefully let go of any that are no longer serving us.
In my case, I’ve internalized some money scripts that I like and others that I don’t. I like that I don’t waste food. When I see gratuitous waste, I think about scenes from the Hunger Games books, where some people are so wasteful that they take pills to make themselves throw up at parties so they can consume even more. Leftovers are one of the ways this strong belief manifests in me.
On the other hand, I’ve internalized other money scripts that I don’t like and that are not adding value to my life. For example, a money script from my childhood is “I don’t throw away perfectly good things that I might need in the future.” My mom’s garage is packed full with blankets, tupperware, free t-shirts, and tons of other items that she hasn’t used for years. I totally get the thinking, but the amount of “stuff” stresses me out and consumes valuable mindspace. Holding on to things that don’t have sentimental or practical value to me at the tradeoff of living with clutter is a habit I can’t get behind — while for others it might feel totally right.
Having awareness of these money scripts puts us all in positions to discard the behaviors that are at odds with our values. While I’m choosing to still be a “leftover lover” because it supports my goal to not waste food, I can simultaneously reject holding on to every single childhood item. And indeed, over the years I’ve become much better at giving away non-food items that I no longer need.
A few words about couples and money
Figuring out your own money scripts is one thing; reconciling them with your romantic partner is another.
We’ve written previously about the importance of talking through financial topics with your romantic partner. By purposefully discussing money in a thoughtful way, couples can create a collective financial identity and purpose, allowing them to build their skills at managing their finances as a team and strengthen their relationship.
Bringing to light each other’s money scripts and reconciling them in your shared household is an important part of these purposeful money discussions. It’s easier to discuss your individual approaches to budgeting and spending and retirement planning when you’re also sharing the reasons why you each do what you do. When I met my husband in business school, he ordered in every single meal; that was a double whammy for me: it bothered me not only because it felt wasteful, but it was also at odds with my family’s belief that restaurant food is less healthy than home cooking. Awareness of these dual scripts made it easier to reconcile our behaviors and agree on a more balanced approach when we moved in together.
Rather than allowing your money scripts to clash with each other, you can take the opportunity as a couple to take stock of your scripts, deliberately decide which you’ll keep vs discard for your combined unit, and understand each other a little bit more along the way.
Take a moment to consider your own money scripts from your childhood:
- What are your money scripts?
- How did you learn them?
- What values do they symbolize?
- How do yours differ from your romantic partner’s?
- Are there any money scripts that are no longer serving you?
- What are money scripts that you might want to internalize and even pass on to your kids?
Your answers might surprise you. The last bullet — figuring out which money scripts you will choose for your life — is what we at Graddha call your North Star and is a key part of living a purposeful life, giving you and your family an ideal to strive for every day.
Money is still a taboo topic and so it’s not always clear how our inner dialogues around money came to be or how they impact us. By developing this awareness of our money scripts and our behaviors around money, we can take a beat to understand the artifacts we carry, whether we want to keep them, and discard the ones that are no longer serving us. So for now, and until I decide it’s no longer working for me, I’ll continue to be a leftovers lover — cold Chinese food anyone?
Firger, J. (2014, March 24). When moms exercise, so do kids. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/when-moms-exercise-so-do-kids/
Hitlin, S. (2003). Values as the Core of Personal Identity: Drawing Links Between Two Theories of
Self. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(2), 118–137.
Jansen, M. & Boyar, L. (2022, September 12). Your money and your honey: tips for getting along. Graddha. https://graddha.medium.com/your-money-your-honey-tips-for-getting-along-87f5c8b510f5
Klontz, B. & Britt, S. (2012). How Clients’ Money Scripts Predict Their Financial Behaviors. Journal of Financial Planning, 33–43.