The Biggest Money Mistake You Don't Know You're Making

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You might call J. Maureen Henderson a one-person empire: Other than being a Gen-Y expert, Forbes contributor, and self-described know-it-all, she also founded Secret Agent Research, a creative content marketing training for small business. You can catch her other musings on her blog, Generation Meh.
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When I tell Amanda Mills that I paid off my monthly credit card balance minutes before our call, she laughs. The Toronto-based Mills is a financial therapist. She’ll ask you about your parents, but it will be less about whether Mommy and Daddy favored your sister over you and more about whether your mother obsessively clipped coupons or whether your father bought himself a new car every year.
“Money isn’t about money; it’s how we feel about it. You can have two people in exactly the same position and one’s proud of where they are and the other feels like their life is in ruins,” she tells me.
Mills is at the forefront of a burgeoning industry. There is a national Financial Therapy Association, which had its third annual conference in September; Mills was a featured speaker. Her own work in this area grew out of her bookkeeping business focused on serving clients in the arts. “I’d tell someone they owed $10,000 in taxes and they’d start crying, not because of the number, but because of how out of control the situation made them feel.” In addition to helping clients with financial reporting, she now helps them to understand the links between the figures and their feelings about them.
And, she’s good at what she does. When the conversation turns personal — I’ve filled out the intake forms and thought exercises she has clients work through — Mills has my number. “For you, if you don’t have money, you’re not safe,” she tells me, correctly diagnosing my inability to part with a bigger portion of my pay check as an attempt to insulate myself from the dangers of the outside world. “You can’t really secure your future. No matter how much money you have, you could still get cancer, a meteor could fall, someone could shoot you on the street,” she reminds me. She recommends I think about self-defense classes as a healthier way to feel in control of my environment than pinching every penny in anticipation of rainy days not seen since Noah and his ark.
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While my own scrimping ways may seem antithetical to the trope of Millennials being entitled and self-indulgent, Mills says that having grown up in politically and financially tumultuous times has actually been a boon to many twenty-somethings when it comes to how they control their spending habits. “They’re good with managing their money now, because they’re scared to death of it,” she says.
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When I ask her about student loan debt, Mills is less alarmist than many financial experts. To her, if the choice comes down to education or debt, foregoing the degree you want for the sake of the price tag isn’t a smart long-term move. And, even after graduation, she says the focus should be on establishing a solid career foundation over simply paying down what you owe as rapidly as possible. “If someone graduates and then starts making all of their life decisions on the basis of money, to me, that’s tragic.”
A bigger financial evil in Mills’ eyes is consumer debt, although she also cautions clients about making digging out of debt their all-consuming priority. When people attempt to stop their overspending and try to pay off past overspending at the same time and in the fastest manner possible, they set themselves up for trouble. “What happens then is that people crash and burn. It’s like going on a crash diet.” Park the debt somewhere with a reasonable interest rate, figure out why you’re overspending and how to live within your means and then start atoning for past financial sins is her slow and steady prescription.
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And, what about the biggest money mistake that you might be making? Just like cliches about other forms of counseling, in financial therapy, it really does all come back to your parents. The thinking goes that you can’t change your current money mentality and habits if you don’t know where they originated and aren’t able to question their validity.
“One of the most useful exercises I give out is to have people do a financial biography of where they’re coming from — mother, father, other caregivers, partner. What you start to see is that so much of what you feel about money comes from other people’s experiences of money. The biggest mistake most of us make is assuming our money lives are going to follow our parents’; they usually don’t. Take a good look at what your parents thought, believed and experienced around money and then remind yourself that you’re probably not going to have the same experience, but that most of what you think is supposed to happen will come from them,” Mills says.

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