Americans need a financial wake-up call

Let's face it: You know what steps to take to improve your finances, but you fail to take them. It's apparently the American way, at least when it comes to money management.

Despite the financial crisis, which should have been a wake-up call in 2008, and the multitude of financial gurus yelling at us daily to save more and spend less, we simply don't listen.

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The result? A nation that remains financially unprepared and illiterate. According to the National Financial Educators Council:

60 percent of adults don't budget or keep close track of their spending.
41 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 21, fail to pay their bills on time every month.
69 percent of parents admit to feeling less prepared to give their teenagers guidance on investing than they do about sex.

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A large part of the problem is the myth that financial literacy is just about numbers. The truth is that to be truly financially savvy, you need to understand how you think and feel about money first. Then, armed with this insight, you can change the attitudes that contribute to unhealthy financial habits.

If you try to alter a behavior without understanding the underlying cause, you are likely to fail. And, collectively, we are failing as a nation.

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In the field of financial psychology, individual thoughts about money are called money scripts. The collection of these scripts makes up your money mind-set.

This mind-set is developed between the ages of 5 and 15 and is primarily a result of watching your parents, caregivers and influential adults interact with money. Because these scripts are developed in childhood, they are often oversimplified and don't adequately factor in the complexity found in most financial matters.

Everyone has a money mind-set, but most of us are unaware that we do. The reason is that these beliefs often reside in the unconscious mind.

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For example, if you had parents who fought about paying the bills every month, you might have developed a money scripts that says, "Talking about money is bad and leads to fighting."

In adulthood, you get married and find yourself avoiding financial conversations with your partner. If your partner has a different money script than you, you mightironically—fight about money. You hope he or she will just stop badgering you. The real solution is talking more openly about money and uncovering the diverse scripts at the root of the issue.

Our society does not help, as the taboo relative to openly discussing money matters persists. This "money silence" contributes to most of us not having a clue about our money scripts, let alone our partners.

The few who are aware of their money mind-sets often have faced a financial crisis that has forced them to look more deeply at their habits and behaviors. Or maybe they attended one of the few courses taught at the graduate school level on the psychology of financial planning. But there are not many of us.

"What can you do to improve your insight into your relationship with money and its connection to your financial habits?"

Most school systems don't teach young people about money mind-sets and literacy. So it is up to you as a parent or as an individual to tackle this task. What can you do to improve your insight into your relationship with money and its connection to your financial habits?

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Here are three ways to get started:

  1. Turn up the volume on your self-talk about money. Self-talk is the running dialogue in your head that occurs as you go about daily living. The next time you are running errands on a Saturday, make a conscious effort to listen to these thoughts as they relate to spending or saving money. Notice the type of messages you are sending to yourself, and then wonder about how this impacts your financial choices. By turning up the volume, you are gathering more information about your money scripts and mind-set.

  2. Talk to your partner about your thoughts and feelings about money. Set aside 20 minutes to talk with your partner or a loved one about money. Don't ambush them with this conversation; instead, ask them if they would be willing to engage in a money talk so you two can learn more about each other. If they agree, set up a time where you will be uninterrupted by cell phones, kids and the doorbell.

    Begin the discussion with each of you taking five minutes to answer the question, "What is your greatest financial success, and what do you think contributed to this victory?" It is vital that you take turns talking and don't interrupt each other. This is a time to learn from each other, not defend your position. Stop after 20 minutes and schedule another time to engage in money chat. With practice you will master this skill.

  3. Real change happens with the next generation. Take time to talk about money with your children and teach them about the basics of financial psychology. Help them develop insight into their actions around money, and teach them that you can change unhealthy financial habits if you want to. This lesson will go a long way toward breaking the money silence in our society (or at least in your family) and making sure that future generations are truly financial literate.