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Money & Meaning


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Exploring our complex relationship with wealth.

The well-known business adage “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” portrays a cautionary tale of heirs squandering hard-earned wealth, leaving grandchildren and other relatives left to start the process of building wealth all over again. In an effort to avoid this outcome, many wealth creators take a fear-based approach to financial planning that actually undermines a successful transfer of wealth and values. In fact, new data shows that rigid or overly restrictive estate plans can hinder the ability of future generations to build on past success and even lead to family tension. Behavioral research shows that a more effective approach to equipping rising generations for the responsibilities of protecting and growing wealth focuses on building communication, collaboration and trust within the family.

Avoiding family conflict and ensuring continued success requires wealth creators to be very intentional and deliberate in preparing their families. First, one has to recognize both the conscious and unconscious money messages they have received from peers, role models and cultural surroundings over time. They then need to step back and take a look at their individual and family’s shared values and how those values have informed the money messages and their behavior. Because money is still one of the last taboos for discussion in our society, it is also important to purposefully remove the veil of secrecy and have candid conversations about wealth and its meaning within the family system. Moreover, it is important to recognize the impact of money messages received over time and how they affect behavior regarding wealth.

Money Messages

Money is one of the few universal human experiences that cross all manner of cultural boundaries: We have all at some point experienced the exchange of currency for goods and services, and we subsequently all internalize “money messages” that affect our relationship with wealth. Perhaps you grew up in a family that never discussed money and therefore believe you did not receive any money messages. However, the absence of family conversations about money is a message in itself — usually that discussing finances is impolite, or that money is shameful and to be concealed. Moreover, nonverbal messages can be communicated through the actions of your parents, friends, or other role models. What are their spending patterns? What kind of clothes do they wear, homes do they live in, schools do they attend, or cars do they drive? What are their vacations like, and how often do they take vacations? And as you think about the answers to these questions, what kind of memories and emotions rise to the surface?

Money is one of the few universal human experiences that cross all manner of cultural boundaries.

People often model their own financial tenets on those of their role models. For example, if your role models were very frugal — they didn’t buy the most expensive car, live in the most expensive home or buy the latest and greatest electronics the minute they hit the market — it is likely that you will be more frugal as well. If your role models lived a lavish lifestyle, it would not be unusual for you to feel you should also. If your role models were visible in their charitable giving, you may emulate that same behavior through your own philanthropic endeavors.

But money messages can also be more circuitous. Maybe your parents used to shower you with gifts when they had been away from the home or working late in order to assuage feelings of guilt; in such cases, you may have come to believe that money buys happiness, or that money is synonymous with parental love. You may have watched all of the effort and time your parents put into creating and sustaining the family business, and your instinct now is to reject your inherited wealth because you did nothing to earn it and therefore do not deserve to use it. These messages — although largely unconscious — do affect how we relate to money and how we interact with the wealth in our everyday lives.

It is also hard to deny the messages from our cultural surroundings, particularly movies and television. Money and wealth is often associated with evil or greed, while the poor or less fortunate are seen as good and pure of heart. Consider classic characters like Ebenezer Scrooge of “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Potter of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or the more contemporary Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” features rich, spoiled children pitted against the pure-of-heart Charlie Bucket. And two of the most successful young adult book franchises in history (which were adapted for equally successful film franchises) feature the contract between the “haves” and the “have nots”: “Harry Potter” (the evil, wealthy Malfoy family versus the kind, poor Weasley family) and “The Hunger Games” (the wealthy Capitol versus the poor Districts). Money messages are all around us.

Bringing It Back to Values

So for those of us who have internalized negative money messages, how do we internalize more positive conversations about money that inform a healthy and constructive relationship with money? Not to mention, how do we accomplish this feat when the family wealth is large enough that family members do not have to depend solely on their own efforts to be financially secure? A common practice is to start by defining the values the family shares and cares about, which will inform the use of the family’s wealth over time.

Conversations are not enough, however — actions do speak louder than words, so it is important for behaviors to reflect the articulated values.

The exploration of finding the consensus values in the family is a process that first allows each family member to think deeply about what he or she cares about and what motivates his or her behavior and then allows the family to spend time discussing and ultimately agreeing on common values that will guide the family’s decision-making regarding shared assets. For example, where a family agrees that generosity is an important value, it would not be unusual to see some of the shared wealth dedicated to philanthropic endeavors. Where a family agrees that education and self-sufficiency are important values, the family may decide that every family member should be able to attend private school and/or attain a college or post graduate degree, with the intention that such education will allow each family member to pursue a career that provides them with economic independence. In all of the above situations, the meaning of family money is placed in context and it becomes a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.

Where values are expressly communicated and modeled, the money messages are not as easily garbled or misinterpreted. Conversations are not enough, however — actions do speak louder than words, so it is important for behaviors to reflect the articulated values. A parent who asks a child to be generous in giving and yet does not model the words through his or her own giving sends a mixed message. A role model who talks about frugality but practices “retail therapy” and spends extravagantly is not modeling the behavior articulated by his or her words. In this context, the old maxim “do as I say and not as I do” is not helpful in clarifying what money message is intended to be communicated. It is not enough to “talk the talk” — one must “walk the walk” for those values to be internalized.


Your financial identity is fluid and subjective. The more you explore your money identity/story and become conscious of the messages you’ve received, the more control you will have to change your money narrative. Focus on open, frequent and positive communication about what money means and doesn’t mean in the family, and adhere to the values of the family in word and deed, reinforcing or creating positive money messages that will enhance you and your family’s relationship to money.

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This information is not intended to be and should not be treated as legal, investment, accounting or tax advice and is for informational purposes only. Readers, including professionals, should under no circumstances rely upon this information as a substitute for their own research or for obtaining specific legal, accounting or tax advice from their own counsel.  All information discussed herein is current only as of the date appearing in this material and is subject to change at any time without notice.

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