By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar
Money is a survival resource and something we interact with on a daily basis. It has undeniable power in our lives, from informing our relationships, the way we spend our time, and what we can and cannot do.
Money can influence our expectations of ourselves and conflate our sense of value as human beings. For some of us, money signifies freedom and security. For others, it can be a source of shame and pain. Regardless of our financial situations, we all internalize ideas, attitudes, opinions, and perceptions about what it means to have, or not to have money. Our ideas about it are influenced by our culture, media, family, and lived experience. The emotions money triggers, the rules we create around it, how we believe it should be used, and the role it plays in our lives make up what we call financial identity.
Not sure what I mean? Take these words for example: wealthy, rich, poor, net worth, finance, philanthropy. How do they sit with you? Which words stand out? Which make you recoil? It’s clear we each have beliefs and associations about money, whether we are conscious of them or not.
Asking the Big Questions
Growing up, I had a privileged childhood with plentiful resources. My family was fortunate to have money, which afforded me opportunities to travel, take music lessons, and develop hobbies separate from my siblings. We didn’t worry about money and we were lucky enough that we never needed to discuss it as a family. My parents gave me the gift of truly being a kid, and they left the “money talk” to the adults.
I am deeply grateful for my upbringing and the gifts and privileges I enjoyed. But talking about and managing money was something I just didn’t learn until well into adulthood. By not discussing money and wealth, I didn’t develop the skills I needed to make informed financial decisions. I did not understand what it meant to live within my means. I did not know how to answer questions like; How should money be managed? What does it represent? And how much is enough?
From Instincts to Intentionality
Our identity is created in response to our environment. From the time we’re born, we make meaning of our experience. We each craft stories, or narratives, that help us understand ourselves and contextualize the world around us. Over time, these stories become parts of our identity, and they inform how we behave, often subconsciously.
Our narratives influence the decisions we make and how we operate in the world. We might not like to admit it, but our biggest life choices are emotionally driven, from choosing a life partner, career, or place to live. If we aren’t aware of our perceptions, ideas, and automatic instincts when it comes to money, we might not realize how influential they are in guiding and influencing our decisions.
The truth is, just like our gender, race, or culture, money is only one facet of our identity. It doesn’t define who we are, and we get to choose what it represents. When we reckon with what money means to us, we’re able to use it intentionally and purposefully to build the life we want. Amanda Koplin, CEO and Founder of Koplin Consulting, a concierge behavioral healthcare service, says “Money doesn’t make you who you are. It makes you more of who you are.” When we have a deeper awareness of our relationship to our resources, we become empowered to rewrite our narrative in a way that serves us.
Don’t worry if this feels daunting. Money is a complex and challenging subject for many of us, especially when we’ve been conditioned to avoid the topic altogether. I am not saying this is easy, but it is possible.
Think of forming your financial identity as a process, rather than a destination. As we continue to mature throughout our lives, we develop and strengthen parts of ourselves. Our relationship to money is no different. We shape and reshape our financial identity as we continue to integrate experiences, ideas and values about money into our personhood.
My mother used to say, “It takes a long time to grow up.” For me, it wasn’t until I was working and then raising a family that I began to truly wrestle with these ideas. This felt like arriving late at a party and wishing I had more time to enjoy it before it ended. Understanding who we are and how money fits into our lives helps us make thoughtful and intentional decisions. At the end of the day, our financial identity is forming with or without us, but when we consciously decide what we want it to be, we can live with greater purpose and fulfillment.