Are Some People Just Wired to Do Money Well and Others Not?

Are Some People Just Wired to Do Money Well and Others Not?

My research in psychology, along with 35 years of experience working with people and their finances, suggests that how we handle money is more instinctual than cognitive. It’s more a factor of our brains' hard-wiring than it is learned intelligence. Apparently, some people are just wired to do money well and others are not.

This can sound like a complete copout. The idea that you either have the money gene or you don’t seems simplistic. Yet I believe there is some truth to it.

Researcher and educator Russ Hudson finds that two centuries of data suggest every human being has three basic instincts that are necessary for survival: social (for getting along with others), sexual (for extending ourselves through generations), and self-preservation (for maintaining our physical life and functioning).

For most of us, these three are not equally balanced. One tends to be dominant, a second supports the dominant one, and the third and weakest one typically creates a blind spot. The dominant and weakest instincts give us the most trouble.

Evidence supports the idea that those with a dominant instinct of self-preservation tend to instinctually be successful savers. They are the people who find it relatively easy to, in the words of the late Dick Wagner, "Spend less, save more, and don’t do anything stupid."

Related: How Your RIA Could Save You Thousands Upon Thousands of Dollars

This doesn’t mean they have a good relationship with money; that they sleep peacefully at night, don’t worry about money, or are not obsessed with money. It doesn’t mean they are happy. But it does mean they tend to be frugal, which is the common denominator of accumulating wealth. They understand instinctually that you can’t spend more than you receive if you are going to thrive and prosper financially. Living life on the edge or focusing on the welfare of others is instinctually foreign to them.

On the other hand, someone with a dominant social or sexual instinct may be living hand to mouth, but be blissfully happy doing so. What's instinctually foreign to them is learning to manage money prudently and take care of themselves financially.

As Jonathan Clements recently wrote in his HumbleDollar blog, "Why is change so difficult? Improving behavior is toughest when it means bucking our hardwired instincts. Intellectually, we may know we should exercise more, lose weight and save more—and yet our instincts keep telling us to stay on the couch, eat Cheez Doodles and shop online." That’s why more financial education or discipline isn’t enough to motivate most Americans toward finding financial wellness.

For those who don't have self-preservation as the dominant instinct, the enormity of learning to practice more self-preserving financial habits can feel depressing and hopeless. Yet it is certainly possible. It just isn’t going to be easy.

One approach that may be helpful is to get assistance and support from others. Clements says he has come to believe the best thing to do is tell friends about your financial goals like saving money for a down payment on a home, paying off a debt, or increasing your retirement plan contributions. This can help motivate you to commit to following through.

Announcing an intention to friends with the hope that the shame of not following through will motivate you to create a new behavior may work for a few. Yet for most, it probably won't help to change a hard-wired instinct. A better idea could be finding and reporting regularly to an accountability partner who would kindly, without scolding or shaming, help motivate you to establish a habit. Even better may be engaging a financial therapist to help you with the hard work of cultivating new instinctual behaviors.

Rick Kahler
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Rick Kahler, MSFP, ChFC, CFP is a fee-only financial planner, speaker, educator, author, and columnist.  Rick is a pioneer in integrating financial planning and psycholog ... Click for full bio

Most Read IRIS Articles of the Week: March 19-23

Most Read IRIS Articles of the Week: March 19-23

Here’s a look at the Top 11 Most Viewed Articles of the Week on, March 19-23, 2018

Click the headline to read the full article.  Enjoy!

1. Multi-Factor or Not Multi-Factor? That Is the Question

Let’s pretend you are a US investor that wants to deploy some of your money overseas.  You think international developed market stocks are attractive relative to US stocks, and you also think the US dollar will decline over the period you intend to hold your investment.  — Chris Shuba

2. The Lies Spread by Bankers About Cryptocurrencies

I had a chat with The Financial Times the other day, and provided lots of background as to why I don’t think cryptocurrencies are the choice of criminals. The comment that was reported was the following ... — Chris Skinner

3. Alternative Investments? You May Need New Shock Absorbers!

During the tumultuous red and green gyrations of the capital markets this year have your clients anxiously called to ask: “What’s going on with my portfolio?” What do you do when the usually smooth ride in your luxury automobile becomes as bumpy as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in the Happiest Place on Earth? What does the average investor do? — Ted Parker

4. Why Fear of Inflation Is Rattling Investors

Inflation is a bad thing, right? It make things more expensive, right? For those of us of, let’s say, a certain vintage, we recall the runaway inflation of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So why does the Federal Reserve – in charge of managing the country’s currency and value thereof – actually try to create inflation? It’s called the inflation targeting and it matters to your money. — Bill Acheson

5. The Best Retirement Investments for a Steady Stream of Income

As you near your 60’s, your prime earning and saving years will transition into a period of time where you get to enjoy the “fruits of your labor,” a.k.a retirement. We call this segueing from accumulation to decumulation, the period when you will be drawing from your accumulated nest egg. Dana Anspach

6. An Emerging Theme In Thematic Investing

Exchange traded funds (ETFs) are popular vehicles for market participants looking to engage in thematic investing. Thematic investing looks to take advantage of future growth trends, including disruptive technologies. Given that forward-looking approach, stock-picking in the thematic universe is equally as hard, if not harder, than in traditional market segments. — Tom Lydon

7. 8 Winning Questions You Should Be Asking Every Prospect

It’s not enough for your salespeople to be product experts, they also need to be capable of having the kind of conversations that position them as business experts and even strategic resources. — Lisa Rose

8. 10 Steps to Successful Strategic Alliances

Business growth doesn’t come from wishful thinking. As you know, it takes a lot of hard work. The growth of your business is not an option – it is a necessity. Coordinating the right mix of strategies to gain market share and improve client acquisition rates is essential to advance your firm in today’s economy. — Michelle Mosher​​​​​​​

9. Keep It Light: Harnessing Humor for Financial Marketing Success

It’s undoubtedly true that investors’ financial security is no laughing matter, and this is reflected in the stolid, dour, reliable imagery and branding that is, by and large, the industry standard. This is hardly surprising—investors need to believe they’re placing their hard-earned money in the hands of experienced, trustworthy professionals. — Alexandra Levis​​​​​​​

10. Do the Economics of a Move to Independence Really Add Up?

The number one question advisors ask when exploring a move to independence is how the economics compare to accepting a recruiting package from a major firm. It’s certainly a valid concern, because while the recruiting deals being offered by the wirehouses are down, it is still very possible for a top advisor to get a really attractive hard-to-pass-up offer. — Mindy Diamond

11. Four Big Reasons Why Short-Term Muni Bonds Should Excite You

Municipal bonds might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a sexy investment. They don’t typically command news headlines like the stock market or bitcoin. — Frank Holmes

Douglas Heikkinen
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IRIS Co-Founder and Producer of Perspective—a personal look at the industry, and notables who share what they’ve learned, regretted, won, lost and what continues ... Click for full bio