by When Doris Duke was born, the newspapers called her “the richest little girl in the world.” Miss Duke was the only daughter of James Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke University. I met Miss Duke in the late 1980s during a consulting assignment. Over the course of
several years, we developed a close relationship.
We kept in touch till 1992, when all communication was abruptly terminated by her butler, Bernard Lafferty. Shortly after, I learned that Doris had died. Though Doris was the heiress of the Reynolds tobacco industry and was the wealthiest woman in the world, she died alone. At the end of her life, her circle had shrunk to a few servants and a group of doctors and lawyers she had known only a short time. As she signed her last will with a shaky hand and turned her fortune over to her butler, not a single close friend or family member was present.
Doris recalls that in her earliest memories, her father told her to never trust anyone, for everyone is only after your money.
Like Doris, each one of us has experienced moments in our childhood and throughout our life where circumstances, actions, or dialogue have shaped the way we perceive money.
David Krueger and John Mann in their book “The Secret Language of Money,” explain that everyone has a “money story.” They define a money story as “The subconscious tale you continously tell yourself about who you are, what money means to you, and what it says about you. It’s a running dialogue about how much you deserve, how much you’re worth and how much you’re capable of (Chapter 5: Your Money Story).” In other words, we all have an accumulated set of beliefs about money, and these beliefs make up our “money story.”
More often than not, we’re not even aware of the deep emotional hold our money has on us and how it permeates every aspect of our life. We get trapped by our money stories and often aren’t even aware of how negative the emotional grip money can have on our lives.
Krueger and Mann acknowledge that our relationship with money goes much deeper than we think: “Our money story isn’t only about money, but everything. It permeates everything we do. It ghost rides everything we do. What we eat, drink, read, plan, and buy are all affected by our money story. Our health, our jobs, our family, our dreams, they’re all unerringly guided to their pre-plotted destinations by our money story. Day by day, thought by thought, dollar by dollar, our money story becomes our life story.” Krueger believes that our problems with money aren’t really about money. Instead, the problems stem from our relationship with money, and this affects everything in our life, including our financial success.
Can you imagine the effect James Duke’s words had on shaping his daughter’s perception of wealth and ultimately her life! He passed his money story on to Doris, teaching her that no one can be trusted, no one will love her for who she is, and that she will only be loved for her money. This in turn kept her from experiencing long-lasting, intimate relationships throughout her life. Her relationship with money kept all other relationships at a distance.
Because our money story is so fundamental, Krueger and Mann reveal that the only way to make better financial decisions is to change our money story. And step one to doing so is to become aware of our money story and how it’s affecting our decision-making today.
To take an example from my own life, my grandparents lost all their money in the great depression. Because of this, for several decades I was spooked about investing my money and I didn’t even realize it. When my wife Iris and I graduated college and got married, we had money, but I would put it all in a cash money-market account. I didn’t do any investing, because subconsciously there was a money story I had told myself about investing. This specific belief about money made me fearful of investing and losing everything like my grandparents did. I only realized this decades later when I began pursuing a career as a financial advisor. My behavior changed only when I changed my beliefs about investing.
At the conclusion of “The Secret Language of Money,” the authors provide guidelines for living your new money story. They suggest creating a money mission statement which allows you to to make financial decisions based on your deepest values instead of your emotions. As we intentionally re-write our money stories, we may regain control, making sound financial decisions that use our money as a means of fulfilling our dreams and purposes, instead of allowing it to “ghost ride” every aspect of our life.