Choose Financial Empathy and End Money Shame

The personal finance community is full of people claiming to provide the best advice. Many so-called experts shout from their soapboxes, “Here do this. Don’t do that. Listen to me. You are doing it all wrong!” It’s easy to dish out advice, but what if we tried to listen with understanding and empathy instead?

What if we focused on putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes rather than viewing the world through our limited perspective?

Instead of shaming those who have fallen into lousy money situations, what if we said, “It sucks that you are going through that. Tell me about your financial worries, and maybe I can help.”

If we are kind and empathetic to others, we can begin to understand their money mindsets. We can dig into their past and uncover their financial motivations and obstacles.

By leading with empathy, we allow others to share their financial fears and anxiety. We also learn to talk openly about money without fear or shame.

Leading with Empathy

Many of us aren’t naturally empathetic. Rather than opening our hearts and minds, we declaratively judge those around us. It’s not just a money issue. It happens all of the time.

Here’s a perfect example:

In early September, I wrote a post about arguing with my husband. My story initially felt too raw to publish, but eventually, I pushed the button anyway.

A few days later, I received an email from a reader. “Why would anyone need to argue with their spouse,” it asked, then went on to judge my actions with harsh words.

As I read the sender’s comments, my body felt warm and flushed. Her words made me feel ashamed of my behavior. Later that day, I spoke to my husband about it.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “Maybe that reader’s life is easy in comparison, and she can’t imagine feeling so angry about her circumstances. Maybe she doesn’t have a reason for her temper to flare out of control.”

Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

My husband and I weren’t fighting over simple misunderstandings. We argued as we underwent fertility treatments, ran a small company, faced an unexpected layoff, lost our business, and dealt with relentless narcissistic relatives. All of this happened while I suffered from debilitating bouts of chronic pain.

We weren’t arguing over minor disagreements. We were fighting over major life decisions and problems during the most strenuous of times.

Could my husband be right? Is it possible this reader never faced the same emotional turmoil that I’ve endured? Are her troubles smaller in comparison? Is her life less stressful? Maybe she doesn’t feel the need to argue with her spouse because nothing is going wrong.

We often judge those things we wouldn’t do, but placed in the same circumstances, might we do them? This reader could have approached my words with compassion and empathy, but she chose to judge my behavior and shame me instead.

Financial Empathy

It’s easy to judge others without stepping into their shoes. I’ve done it plenty of times myself, but I’m working to change my ways.

Many personal finance enthusiasts recommend cutting back on dining out when you are struggling with your finances. Over the years, I’ve often recommended the same.

What’s the big deal with this advice, you might ask? Let me explain.

Many years ago, my mom told me she was worried about money, so I did what seemed rational at the time. I told her to stop eating out. My parents spend a lot of money on restaurants and takeout, so cutting out this line item would stop their money leak. Problem solved, right?

Nope. No matter how many times I uttered this advice, my mom ignored me. It may be perfectly sound advice in some cases, but it’s impossible to know unless you step into someone else’s shoes. It turns out that cutting out takeout wasn’t an easy solution for my mom.

If I had stepped back for just a moment, I would’ve seen that cooking made my mom shaky and anxious. My grandmother wasn’t much of a cook, and she surely didn’t pass any culinary lessons on to the next generation.

My mom is an incredible woman, but she lacks confidence in herself. When she steps up to the stove, she worries about the meal she plans to prepare. 

What if it doesn’t turn out well? She might burn an expensive steak or serve raw fish. What if she wastes time and money preparing an inedible meal? What would she do when dinnertime comes, and she has nothing to eat?

My mom believes she can’t cook. Her lack of confidence prevents her from trying to learn.

Being Empathetic

My mom is too ill to cook these days, but what should I have done to help her? Well, for starters, I should have asked why she eats out. Is it because the food tastes good, it’s easier than cooking, she lacks time to prepare meals or something else entirely.

Do you know what else I could’ve done? I could have realized she rarely cooked when we were growing up, recognized her discomfort in the kitchen, and offered to teach her myself.

I could’ve walked into her kitchen and taught her to prepare meals. To help her reduce food costs, I could’ve demonstrated the joy of cooking while reducing her anxiety and calming her fear of making mistakes. To cook at home, she needed to feel comfortable grabbing a knife, cutting up vegetables, and following a recipe. 

I failed to approach my mom’s financial concerns with kindness and empathy. I was ready to prescribe a solution, but I neglected to ask what she needed first.

At heart, I should know better than this. Over the years, I’ve met plenty of doctors who diagnosed me at first glance. Throughout my struggle with chronic pain medical professionals handed out pills without asking me any questions. They assumed they knew the solution, but none of them listened long enough to diagnose the real problem.

In the financial space, we can perform similar actions. We can provide a solution that isn’t a solution at all. We can prescribe financial advice that doesn’t help others heal, because we never listened to the real issues.

Recalling Our Mistakes

Worst of all, I should’ve known how to help my mom because I had been in the same predicament. She never taught me to cook, so I spent my 20s avoiding the kitchen.

For years, my husband and I spent a ridiculous amount of money eating out. We picked up takeout five to six nights of the week. We ate out because we worked hard and lacked time, but most importantly, we had no idea how to prepare meals.

One day a coworker, who was quite the foody, suggested we take a cooking class to improve our skills. From that point forward, we began eating at home.

I should’ve been much more empathetic. After all, this was a problem I once experienced myself!

When high food bills stressed my mom out, I should’ve told her about my progression from ordering takeout five days a week to preparing meals every day.

I thought I needed to tell my mom that she was wasting money, but honestly, she already knew that she spent too much eating out. In fact, she was the one who mentioned in the first place.

Telling her something she already knew wasn’t helping her financial situation. Pointing out her mistakes wouldn’t help. To help her feel better, I needed to ask questions and listen.

Money Shame

Personal finance enthusiasts often shame others for their spending choices, but shaming doesn’t work. Instead, it just makes others feel bad.

We must be careful not to pick apart people’s life choices because we think we know how to fix their problems. We may think the solutions are obvious, but telling people, they are making poor decisions won’t make them change. Solutions aren’t always as obvious as we assume and when we dish out advice that cannot be followed our listeners often feel stupid or ashamed.

Rather than crossing line items off someone else’s spreadsheet, let’s take a moment to understand the motivations that allow them to overspend. We also need to understand the situations that put people into negative spending patterns or permit them to make less-than-ideal choices with their money in the first place.

In the world of personal finance, it’s easy to point the finger at others and blame them for their actions and behavior. It’s easy for experts to say they would make every decision differently and that you only have yourself to blame, but this isn’t always true. For one thing, we don’t have as much control over our financial success as we think we do.

Understanding Our Spending Patterns

To truly help other people, we need to share our stories and understand our motivations for spending and saving. With this knowledge, we can begin to appreciate other people’s struggles and help their financial journeys too.

I’ve explored my relationship with money for the past fifteen years. Interestingly enough, a lot of my worries and concerns stem back to one pivotal moment in my childhood. One moment that shouldn’t have been a big deal at all.

When I was a kid, my parents took me into a music store, fully intending to purchase a piano. We walked up to the counter, introduced ourselves to the salesman, and explained what we wanted.

As my parents chatted, I sat at the keyboard, touched those smooth black and white keys, and listened to the smiling gentleman list prices. Within minutes it was clear my parents couldn’t afford any of them.

How Experiences Impact Our Finances

I saw the disappointment in my parents’ eyes as they took my hand and led me out the door. I was upset about not buying a piano, but I was more bothered by the looks on my parents’ faces.

After that moment, and others that followed, I knew I wanted to save my money. I remember tucking my coin rolls under my dresser from a very young age and hiding them from my brother, who always wanted to borrow my spare change.

For a long time, I held on to that scarcity mindset. I clung to my money and squeezed the life out of it. It took me a long time to realize that my beliefs held me back instead of pushing me forward.

There are reasons for our actions, even if we don’t understand them. There is always a reason we behave the way that we do.

In my mom’s case, she ate out because she didn’t know how to cook. She knew she was overspending on dining out, but she didn’t have the confidence to learn how to prepare meals.

Money Problems are Shameful

Our emotional state, and our relationship with money, can override the logical side of our brains. Sure we should always create a budget and only buy things we can afford, but do we always follow those rules?

What happens when we are unable to control our spending or save for a rainy day? We often feel ashamed. We believe our actions have led us to be less than we should be.

Money problems run deeper than other social issues. They can lead us to feel humiliated, which only makes us retreat deeper from anyone who can help us.

We don’t speak up when we are uncertain. Instead, we believe everyone else understands those things that we don’t comprehend.

When people reach out in financial forums they are searching for empathy and understanding. Yet participants often say things that make them feel stupid, inadequate, and alone.

So-called experts tell others that the solutions to their problems are apparent. That they should start doing x or y, but stop doing z. When they can’t stop doing those things, people who are facing financial trouble retreat into themselves.

Choosing Empathy

As financial enthusiasts, we can provide advice, but we should do so in an empathetic way. We must recognize that what helped us might not help someone else.

What has served me well may not help someone else in the same manner. In general, we need to step back from judging. If we want to help people, we need to lead them to make better choices by listening to them and addressing their concerns. We can’t do that by making them feel bad about the mistakes they’ve already made.

Feeling Worthless and Ashamed

Remember that money isn’t just about numbers on the physical page. It’s not about the rows in your bank account or the figures on your spreadsheet either. A lack of money can lead to a crisis of self-confidence. It can also make us feel worthless and ashamed.

Let’s stop shaming people for their choices. Let’s take a moment to hear them out, place ourselves in their shoes, and address them with understanding and empathy. If we choose financial empathy we can put an end to financial shame.

4 thoughts on “Choose Financial Empathy and End Money Shame”

  1. Off topic a bit, but I agree with your husband on the “don’t be so hard on yourself”. Your thoughts there resonated with me.

    We have kids, a small business, and for many years now end up working an unhealthy amount of hours (way more than our previous 9-5 lifestyle or what I would consider a “normal” life) to keep things running smoothly. AND it’s been a long 2020.

    All of that piles up into a lava field of stress bubbling just under the surface of what shows up on our faces – the faces that we allow other people to see. Occasionally all of that stress erupts into “passionate” arguments between my wife and I. Always respectful, but at times loud and R-rated. Given the context of what’s going on in our lives right now and as long as we don’t cross any lines, I’m OK with occasional “passionate” arguments.

    I would find it odd to never argue in a marriage. I want the best life possible for my spouse. She wants the best life possible for me. Arguments can be a vehicle for expressing what is most important in our lives – the “WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO ME”. Emotions can be a way to communicate when we can’t always find the right words – the “HOW MUCH IS THIS IMPORTANT TO ME”.

    …as long as its occasional, and no lines are crossed…

    I appreciated the rest of the article as well. I have definitely been guilty of providing “you need to stop doing that and do more of this instead” financial advice in the past, with little notable impact. A good reminder to practice pursuing more understanding and empathy rather than giving out “easy answers”. Maybe in time I will be able to reach someone when it matters. Thank you.

    • Mike,

      Thank you so much for your comment and for your heartfelt words. I was really upset about the email I received. It was hard to write that post about arguing with my husband. So many people told me it isn’t healthy to argue, but not arguing was making our relationship unhealthier than actively speaking our minds. Every so often we do this a little too loudly, but when life hands you lemons it’s tough to not let the bitterness get to you.

      Thank you for sharing your story and for letting me know that we are not alone. Your stresses sound very similar to ours. Owning a small business is incredibly difficult with young kids. We started our business a year before our oldest was born and looking back it’s no wonder we were so incredibly sleep deprived and stressed. I was also officially laid off two weeks after my son was born, which certainly added to our stress.

      I was beating myself up about those reader comments until my husband said, “don’t be so hard on yourself.” I suppose it speaks to the strength of our marriage that he was defending me 😉

      I wish you all of the best with your business and your marriage. Those early years are tough. If we started our business now, (when our kids are a few years older), we would have had a lot more success!

  2. I agree that it’s easy to dispense advice, but we should give others some grace. Many financial bloggers achieved financial success and think you should do it JUST LIKE THEY DID. We’re not all in the same situation, and can’t do it the same way. My husband for years wanted us to own rental properties, but this isn’t a good financial strategy for everyone. He’s far too nice, and I am not, but I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t sure I could.

    • That’s a perfect example of financial advice that doesn’t work for everyone. We own a vacation/rental home that doesn’t return much revenue, but we love it. Finances isn’t just about maximizing your return either!


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