How can I avoid making my parents’ money mistakes?

Brianna McGurran

“Ask Brianna” is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college:

Q: My parents have always had an unhealthy relationship with money. How can I avoid their money mistakes?

A: I have a confession to make: I am turning into my mother. Like her, I rearrange the furniture in my apartment constantly, convinced it will breathe new life into the room if I shift the coffee table 5 inches to the right.

Along with quirky personality traits, I also inherited from my parents attitudes about money, positive and problematic. My dad spent Sunday mornings smoking cigars in the basement and scribbling in his checkbook — “Keeping the lights on,” as he put it — which impressed upon me the importance of paying bills on time. Now I have a sterling payment history, but I’m also neurotic about keeping it that way. When I was one day late on a credit card payment eight years ago, it felt like an egregious personal failing I’d never recover from.

“Many of the behaviors that govern how we deal with money are already set by age 7 , which is a bit terrifying, if you think about it,” says Beth Kobliner, author of “Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not): A Parents’ Guide for Kids 3 to 23.”

Maybe your parents taught you to overspend, pinch pennies or fear investing in the stock market. You don’t have to relive their money mistakes. You can take steps to craft your own financial identity.

“No matter what your past is, whether your parents were good with money or bad with money, at a certain point you have to say, ‘OK, this is on me,’ ” Kobliner says.

Step 1: Revisit your formative years

Each of us has a script that dictates how we interact with money, says Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist and certified financial planner. “And many of us don’t know who even wrote it or the circumstances in which these beliefs were determined,” he says.

Start by considering how your parents talked about their finances — whether they avoided the topic altogether, or argued about it — and what behaviors they modeled for you. Try to identify three things you learned about money from your upbringing.

Step 2: Pinpoint your money beliefs

By the time you’re in your late 20s or 30s, you’ve probably had exposure to basic money must-dos like spending less than you earn, building good credit and saving for retirement. If you’ve chosen not to follow such advice, that could be a result of your money beliefs, according to Klontz.

Think through your own experiences with money and note any patterns. Klontz recommends asking yourself the following questions:

■What is your biggest financial fear?

■What is your most joyful money memory? (For example, a trip you saved up for.)

■What is your most painful money memory? (For example, a debt that went into collections.) What lesson did you learn from your most painful money experiences? Did they inspire you to change your behavior?

Klontz says one of his clients shared how her grandmother swooped in to help her family pay housing costs when they were in danger of getting evicted. While this was a joyful memory, its lesson wasn’t as positive.

“As a child, that led to this belief where you don’t really need to worry about it, because something good will happen,” Klontz says.

Step 3: Use your insights to shift behavior

Now that you’ve identified your personal approach to money and how your family might have influenced it, you can focus on shifting those beliefs and changing your behavior.

These changes don’t need to be grand, sweeping alterations to your financial personality. Start by choosing one concrete action to focus on, like saving more or shopping less online.

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Related links

The Money Advice Service: Habit formation and learning in young children

NerdWallet: 4 retirement planning rules millennials can break

Financial Therapy Association: Find a financial therapist