Financial psychologist explores attitudes toward money

By Leslie King | Emory Report | July 10, 2017

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You can evaluate your financial wellbeing by examining your relationship to money at four levels: financial literacy, values, emotional and symbolic meanings, and processes for dealing with money, according to financial psychologist and Emory alumna Mary Gresham. Photo via Thinkstock.

“Money’s Too Tight to Mention” is what the British pop/soul group Simply Red sang in 1985, but money is also taboo to mention, according to Mary Gresham, financial psychologist and Emory alumna.

“Money is one of our taboo topics, topics we avoid because we don’t want to make other people socially uncomfortable,” she says. “And we have a lot of unspoken social rules that we have to follow around taboo topics.”

Gresham, who counsels her clients in matters of the wallet, explored attitudes towards money at a meeting of the Atlanta chapter of the American Psychological Association held June 22 at the Emory Brain Health Center in Executive Park. Her discussion was moderated by Nancy McGarrah, also a psychologist, Emory alumna and guest lecturer in Emory’s School of Law and School of Medicine.

In addition to money, Gresham listed sex, death and bodily functions as examples of other taboo topics.

But there are good reasons for taboos: “They keep the social wheels greased," she explains. "You get together with your family on special occasions and everyone avoids these topics and there will be no explosions.”

Four levels to financial wellbeing

Gresham created a model to evaluate a person’s financial wellbeing by examining their relationship to money at four levels.

The first is traditional financial literacy, or how much someone knows about money.

She cited the situation of one of her clients who was under a lot of financial stress because she was supporting her elderly mother. 

“She did not realize that her mother, because she had been married for 10 years before getting divorced, was entitled to Social Security," she said. "Here this woman for years had struggled to keep her mother supported when her mother was entitled to an income.”

The second level is values. “A lot of times we don’t really talk about what do we most value in our lives,” Gresham says. “What are the most important things to us? For many, it would education, achievement, family care, spiritual use of money.

“If I look at what you spend, can I tell what’s most important to you?”

The third is the emotional-symbolic level, that is, “the impact of your emotions and the impact of what money symbolizes to you," Gresham says.

To evaluate this level, she suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I really understand the impact of growing up in my family and how that has affected how I interact with money?
  • What is my first money memory?
  • What is the first time I remember being exposed to money?

The fourth level is process. Here, Gresham encourages people to "describe your processes around money," offering examples such as "I talk about it openly, only when I’m angry, I avoid it, I am obsessive to the penny about how much I spend and in which category."

Family and cultural beliefs

Basic money beliefs usually begin in the family. “Children about 3 or 4 years old start to realize what this stuff is called money," Gresham says. "It seems so important and it seems so powerful and it seems so interesting — where does it come from?”

She describes a YouTube video of a small boy talking about money: “'Oh, money,' he says, 'where it comes from is you put your hand in your pocket, and money is grown inside of a pocket, and if you have a pocket, then you’re going to have money. And then you just pull it out and then you can get something.’”

“Depending on where you grew up and what your cultural beliefs are, we’ve developed ideas that are very concrete, very simple and affect us very deeply that we don’t realize,” she notes, citing examples such as “rich people are good” or “rich people are bad” or “poor people are good” or “poor people are bad.”

In Chinese families, for example, there are very particular rules about money and how it is shared in the family, Gresham says. But the first generation to grow up in the United States may not want to follow the cultural rules, creating a lot of conflict in a family.

“We have a lot of gender issues around money, too. In study after study, women have lower levels of financial literacy than men,” Gresham says. She likes to help women organize a circle of peers interested in the topic of money to meet regularly, read books together and hold discussions.

“We have no research on the impact of becoming financially dependent. The couples I see in my office are deeply impacted when one partner is financially dependent and feels they are in a childlike role. The other partner feels they are in a parental role,” Gresham explains.

McGarrah notes that financial manipulation is a form of domestic violence, something she sees a lot of in her work involving divorce.

Financial arguments between romantic partners are more negative, longer lasting, take longer to resolve and lead to more negative and painful difficulties towards the breakdown of a romantic partnership than other topics, says Gresham. 

Another area ripe for research is financial trauma — “people who lose everything in a business failure, in a bad investment, to a spouse’s financial infidelity," she says. "These are people who need to come back from this and rebuild their lives.”

“2008 really affected and still affects a lot of people, especially men," Gresham explains. "Many lost everything. We don’t realize until it hits us in the face that that was tragic for a lot of people in business.

“We need research on treating financial trauma so that we are better able to help those who have experienced it," she says.