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Money and the Mind


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This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 edition of Elevating Women Magazine, Money: Friend or Foe? 

As a young child growing up in post-Soviet Ukraine, Stan Treger remembers going to outdoor markets with his mother to buy groceries.

“I noticed that people preferred U.S. dollars over the hryvna,” recalls Stan. “As a four-year-old, I didn’t understand why. I just remember thinking it was odd that they preferred American money over their own currency.” It was decades later, while developing an exercise around money and meaning in his role as Northern Trust’s Behavioral Insights Advisor that he realized the significance of this memory in the context of his own relationship to money.

“Money is the closest thing we have to the concept of ‘value’ as a real tangible object,” Stan shares. This early memory in the market — where the local currency had seemingly no value in comparison to a foreign currency — reflected to Stan the stark contrast in wealth between his home country and the place he would eventually immigrate to, the United States. The disparity would be further illustrated for Stan as he observed his mother work tirelessly to create a better life for her family in their new home country — a formative experience that would instill in Stan the belief that through hard work and determination, anything is possible.

“My mom was probably one of the most influential figures in my life,” shares Stan. “I watched her take charge of the situation to create financial security for us. She worked to build something out of nothing, putting hours of work in without ever complaining, and teaching us about the higher purpose to the work — making sure your children have as much opportunity as possible,” he shares.

With a PhD in psychological science, today Stan uses his expertise to help individuals and families “have conversations on money, find common goals and values, and plan and execute on them,” he shares. Helping people talk about money matters — a difficult and often taboo topic in many relationships, no matter the amount of wealth — is a critical component of Stan’s work. “Money and values are inseparable,” he explains. “When I hear that people are hesitant to talk about money, I really hear that they’re hesitant to open up about their values, what’s important to them and why they make the decisions they make.”

Our values begin to take shape at an early age. “For most of us, every single habit you pick up begins in childhood and then carries through adulthood,” explains Stan. “Early observations matter a lot into how we start forming these cognitive representations of what money is, and how we use it. The first time we see our mom or dad use money is our first ever impression of how money works, and everything after that is augmenting that first impression.” For example, children of parents who demonstrated frugality may be more likely to prioritize saving money as adults. Children of parents who did not have open dialogues about money are less likely to feel comfortable discussing these topics in adulthood. For Stan, seeing his mother’s determination imparted a strong work ethic rooted in the belief that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. These associations and patterns have commonly become known as one’s “money story,” and telling — and sometimes rewriting — this narrative is key to having successful conversations about money, so that we can make meaningful, impactful decisions around wealth.

For women, discussing money matters can be particularly challenging. “Humans are sensitive to social cues and want to fit in. Women are on average more socially conscious,” shares Stan. “This is why women may be more hesitant to talk about money. It carries a greater social cost and has a potential negative consequence if the person they’re speaking to doesn’t want to talk about money or thinks about money in a negative way.”

So how can we begin to improve our relationship to money in order to have meaningful conversations and make a positive impact? Stan suggests the first step is looking within. “Try to be introspective about why you feel the way you feel. If something is making you uncomfortable, if you’re hesitant to talk about something, think about why. It can be very difficult to separate the emotions from something,” he shares. “But the fact that money is an emotional topic reflects that it’s an important topic.”

Next, he suggests recognizing that changing our thought patterns and actions isn’t just possible — it’s in our nature. “Humans are extremely malleable creatures and there’s more evidence in psychology that even just the belief that something is malleable makes it more prone to change,” Stan explains.

Once you’ve examined your thought patterns and recognized your innate ability to change them, Stan suggests taking time to imagine the ideal outcomes you have for your wealth. Perhaps it’s building a philanthropic legacy or ensuring a comfortable financial future for your children — recognize what is meaningful to you and align your wealth with those values.

Connecting on a shared vision for your wealth is especially important in breaking down the barriers that are often present in conversations around money. “The best way to unite two or more people together is to give them a common goal,” shares Stan. An effective way to facilitate this dialogue and overcome its taboo nature is through sharing your own money story, and discussing how your experience has shaped your values and intentions. Reflecting on how you want your shared wealth to benefit your family and community is an especially impactful way to help you align on what success looks like for your family. “Having these critical conversations will help us realize that we often have way more in common with one another than we have different.”

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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.