What Are Your Money Narratives?

Suze Orman, the personal finance personality on CNBC and author of a number of books about money, shared a story about how she came to understand the value of money.  Apparently, when she was a little girl her father owned a small business.  One evening, his shop began to burn.  Before the flames had engulfed the whole building, he ran into the structure anxious to save whatever he could.  The heat from the fire was intense and the best he could do was grab the old, heavy cash register.  He was able to escape the burning building but suffered severe burns on his hands, arms, and chest as the hulking, metal cash register was already scorching hot.  Suze Orman recalls seeing him writhing around on the ground in intense pain as he dropped the cash register.

What she learned from this episode (and what helped shape her personal narrative about money), she says, was that money is incredibly valuable and it is to be protected, even to the point of endangering your own life.  Now, we can debate whether or not this is a healthy view of money (I would suggest it is not), but the point is that our early life learnings about money and its role in our lives can be difficult to change.  Our experiences early on create strongly imprinted narratives that are hard to shake as we grow older.

As I heard Suze Orman’s story, I thought not only about the narratives that I have about money, but also about the importance of those narratives in our work as advancement professionals.   For instance, I have two overarching narratives about money that I learned early on in childhood.  One is that money is to be respected.  I learned this from my father’s almost uncanny ability to find pennies, dimes, nickles, etc. in parking lots and other public spaces.  To this day he always picks up the errant coins, puts them in his pocket, and smiles when he does.  “Never walk over money,” he has said for years.  It has stuck with me.

The second money narrative that was learned early in life and has stuck with me is that having money is better than having stuff.  It’s the typical, “children of the depression” mindset.  As children my parents learned that that “needs” and “wants” were very different and they carried that throughout their lives.  Sure, you need to spend money on food, clothing, shelter, education, etc., to live and grow.  But during my childhood, when new products and services debuted – like cable television, atari video games, the vcr, and the microwave oven – we were the last family on the block to buy.   Instead, the lesson was that you save money for a rainy day when you really need it.

I didn’t learn a lot about the joys of giving money away in childhood.  Not because my parents didn’t give – I found out later as an adult that they were quite generous – but they never really shared that with us kids.  So, in my personal journey, I have built upon (and reshaped) my early-learned narratives about money (i.e., money is to be respected and having money is better than having stuff).  I have added a third narrative:  “being generous with money brings joy to the giver.”  I believe that.  Not only because I have it seen work in my life.  But I understand the research on giving and I’ve interviewed countless major donors and listened as they described how their giving has transformed them far more than their beneficiaries.

So, what are your personal money narratives?  Think back to your earliest memories of what parents, grandparents, or others taught you about money.  A key component of our work is to better understand the people who give in support of the missions we serve – their values, interests, motivations, and, of course, their views and narratives regarding money.  Perhaps before we ask our donors these questions, we should pause to ask them of ourselves.  We may just find that understanding our own money narratives will help us become better advancement officers.

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