MONEY STORIES | How Can We Discover and Rewrite Our Money Stories in Order to Nourish Our Collective Wellbeing?

Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

I couldn’t agree more. So much of my work with clients is about clarifying (and sometimes discovering for the first time!) the stories they tell themselves. Specifically, money stories.

Our money stories undergird who we are as financial beings. You can think of them as your personal strategic plan of sorts - even if you are not consciously aware of your money stories, they likely still drive your decisions and behaviors. For example, a creative person may have second thoughts about taking on a lucrative opportunity for fear of living up to the “sellout” stereotype.

And since research has shown that our financial decisions are driven by emotions, the way to ensure your financial well-being is to get in touch with the feelings and beliefs that shape your money behavior. With this newfound awareness, you can shift the story to one you consciously desire. You can discover and rewrite your money stories for yourself, your family, your career, and your business. Basically, anywhere that you may find yourself facing financial decisions.

To explore these ideas more deeply, we hosted two gatherings this spring with folks in the community - the latest in our Modernist Money Stories event series.


We organized the discussion around this central question:

How can we discover and rewrite our money stories, in order to nourish our individual and collective wellbeing?

In guiding the conversation, we followed this arch of questions:

List 10 words or phrases that come to mind about money.

What is the story you’ve been telling yourself about money? Use these questions* to help you in this discovery:

What did my parents teach me about money?

What did my grandparents teach my parents about money?

How did I feel the first time I earned money?

What is my biggest concern about money?

When do I have difficulty talking about money?

How do these stories affect my behavior?

Can you think of someone you can look to as a role model for financial well-being and satisfaction? They can be real or fictional, past or present. What factors contributed to that person’s “success?”

Imagine you have all of the resources you need - what money story do you want to tell yourself and the world going forward?

What needs to shift, as one small step, to get you closer to this new story?


As always, our gatherings yielded fruitful and deep reflections. Some of the words that folks associated with money included future, generosity, attention, fluid, privilege, energy, legacy, freedom, spirituality, and “oops.”

Unsurprisingly, we learned that many did not discuss money in their families growing up. Despite this, inherited money stories were very much present in the room. Some people saw money as a messenger conveying unspoken values in their families. Others viewed money as fluid, “stretchy,” and always believed their next paycheck would be the biggest yet. The most charming example was an attendee who grew up finding money hidden in her grandparents’ garden by the "fairies" when she was a small child; consequently she believed if she ever needed anything, all she had to do was look around her.

The role models we discussed ranged widely. Virginia Woolf advocated for 500 pounds and a room of one’s own as prerequisites for creative productivity. Joe Hill worked to advance the cause of unionization and workers’ rights in the early 20th century. Shepard Faireybecame a successful artist while escaping the trap of “selling out.” Sara Blakely famously shunned investor cash to retain full ownership of her Spanx empire. Tim Ferriss made his name promoting the idea of a four-hour workweek (yes, please!). And, of course, our future selves were the ultimate role models - and led us seamlessly into the next section of the conversation.


The ideal-world money stories were lofty, inspiring, and comforting. We discussed what universal healthcare could do to the start-up environment in this country. Paying employees and vendors generously was a value for many in the room, as was mastering the financial aspects of entrepreneurship. We agreed that math and personal finance should be accessible to everyone, rather than treated as something too complex for most to understand. The idea of “giving now” instead of waiting for some optimal time in the future also resonated strongly in the room, as well as the suggestion of one participant to take our pleasures more seriously.

As a result of these reflections, I have reinforced my commitment to creating wage transparency at Modernist and developing clear career tracks for employees entering the industry through my firm. Other attendees will work on legislating budget transparency in their cities, facing their emotional knots head on during their yoga & meditation practices, embracing their power to say no, learning to ignore the negative self-talk that accompanies perfectionism, trying their hand at next-level ventures, asking for help when they need it, and just taking that slow morning every once in a while.

I am looking forward to staying in touch with these folks and seeing the fruits of their efforts. This process of facing our money stories can really be transformative in the long-run. I hope you will take some time to reflect on the questions above, as well, and maybe even pose them to your friends and family. Let me know what you find.


* These questions are adapted from a tool developed by Money Quotient. This document is available via licensing arrangements with Money Quotient and is protected by federal copyright law. No unauthorized copying, adaptation, distribution, or display is permitted. © 2002-2008 Money Quotient Inc. All Rights Reserved.