mother and child eating a sandwich in from of a laptop
A persons relationship with money is almost never about the numbers.

It's no surprise many of our habits come from what we've seen our parents do, while we were growing up - and unless we decide otherwise, we'll probably pass them on to our children too.

Do you need to stop and think about that a little more?

Making good decisions and understanding why we often avoid making them is an essential part of everyone's financial life.

But how do you recognise when an old attitude towards money is no longer working for you and might need to change?

It's actually way harder than you'd think - and there's a good reason why.

Read in this article:

While there are many reasons why people seem to get stuck repeating unhelpful financial behaviours patterns, the biggest problem we see is the ‘When, Then Trap’.

The solution to this wicked problem requires us to engage our emotional brain if we want to change our financial behaviours.

What motivates you today?

No, I'm not talking about World Peace, the end of climate change and a world where everyone will be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the quality of their character – I'm talking about ‘today’ - what is motivating you, today?

InsightA person's relationship with money is almost never about the numbers.

Why motivation can be elusive during times of stress

Motivation is a very personal drive because it provides the pulling power required to get you through the hard times. It's actually the activating force behind making better decisions for a happier and more predictable future.

  • So if your motivation has taken a holiday or is currently eluding you, here's how to check in with it, develop it and even point it in the right direction.

Expectations, Plans and deliberate Fantasies

Motivation is a slippery and often inconsistent concept. Like a teenager trying to make the floor in their bedroom reappear on a regular basis, it can demand an unusual level of attention to make it so.

When it comes to procrastinating about motivation we see people adopt at least one of three avoidance behaviours.

  1. They convince themselves that absolutely everything is so unpredictable and so out of their control, that they could never possibly waste their time thinking about it in any other way.
  2. Others rely more on an unstructured fantasy so they could never know where to begin to actually make it happen, so they never have to take responsibility for trying.
  3. Still other people project their motivation sooo far beyond what they can ever reach, it's conveniently as good as out of sight and out of mind.

Try a motivation that's deliberately closer to home

Let's avoid these three avoidance behaviours (they don't really help you anyway) and let's look at what are your expectations for your next 12 months?

Why do people miss out on ever seeing a better future

There are many reasons why people can find thinking about their financial future really difficult.

Here are two key reasons - targeting our attitudes and habits - we see frequently holding people captive.

  • Until we determine otherwise, when it comes to money matters, our attitudes and behaviours are usually the product of our parents and our upbringing.
  • The corrosive power of maintaining high levels of persistent consumer debt, creates a mental fog that obscures the future by suspending our expectations that it could ever be different. This temptation to normalise the existence of a perpetual debt, constantly absorbs any surplus income - all the while as it nudges us to spend more to simply medicate our perpetual financial stress levels.


More likely than not, we will simply repeat many of the money attitudes and habits — conscious and unconscious —  we've picked up as a child until we stop and reflect upon whether these financial habits are no longer working for us.


One of those self-sabotaging habits is our normalising the existence of high levels of persistent consumer debt that creates a debt fog that obscures our being able to imagine a future that's in any way different to the present.

Our evolutionary history has not been kind to our money mindset

While many of our ancestors' evolutionary habits helped keep us alive, many of their hard-wired hoarding habits have little use today. And while that's generally understood, it's the reason why unhelpful habits are still hard to break today.

When creating new habits, just saying ‘No’ doesn't cut it.  There's no point in telling people to just say ‘No’ if they don’t understand the biological push to always say ‘Yes’.

Our evolutionary programming has hardwired us all to survive as a community group and to focus on today, and not so much on tomorrow.

Our ancestors survived not by saving for a future but by sharing everything they had with others — and shaming those who saved for themselves — a feature that still permeates many cultures and religious communities today.

  • It's fair to say the skill of saving for a better tomorrow and practicing the restraint of delayed gratification, doesn't naturally appear top of the list of our strongest innate personal traits - and the skill of saving still seems often uncomfortably counter to sharing.
  • Learning to save will also require you to come to grips with being comfortable that others may not have as much as you and to temper your sharing instinct. Easier said, than done.

Alas, it seems our innate money mindsets don't naturally provide us with the new evolved skills we need to survive and thrive today.

What do you want your next 12 months to look like?

Having a detailed plan to get ahead is a great way to start - but first knowing who you are and what's important to you, are essential building blocks for a better future. Without them, your plans can become more like only nice ideas.

  • Simply put, if it's too hard, why would you bother?

A strong mindset or motivation to see something better for the future is the force that can propel you, and even pull you, into a brighter future.

Now when I'm talking about the future, I'm not talking about deliberately planning sooo far ahead that you conveniently also don't have to take any responsibility today for it.

I'm talking about today, and then the next twelve months for you and your family.

You need to engage the emotional part of your brain before you can manage the financial side of your brain. We will all face times when we need to change our habits and upgrade our attitudes when they no longer work for us

Where do you start to change a money habit?

1  Know your own money attitude history

We are in large part the product of our parents and our upbringing until we decide otherwise.

  • So it's important to be prepared to understand our own money history (and our partners) so we can see if there are some missing perspectives or needed better ways of thinking about our money matters.
  • We all come with pre-programed attitudes, good and otherwise, hardwired towards our relationship with money matters just waiting to be upgraded.
  • You might realise you could benefit from learning How to have the money talk with your partner or perhaps you’d just like to get a head start and learn what couples can do to learn to talk about money better. You might even discover you have to work through an unconscious Moneyism or two that's automatically directing many of money decisions already.

It's only when we reflect upon whether our attitudes toward money are the identical ones our parents had and passed on to us, can we see what we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for.

2  Make the connection between your money mindset and your future

Simply put:

  • When our money beliefs no longer work for us, we need to change them.
  • To change them we must first be prepared to recognise them.
  • If we want a different outcome for our future, we need to find ways to change our behaviours and the habits that got us stuck in this current position in the first place.

That's the only way we can start to think about setting financial goals, begin actually setting financial goals,and even survive a financial train wreck

3  Avoid the default ‘When, Then’ trap

The When, Then trap is best explained by listening to the common default attitudes many of us express - often unconsciously.

They usually sound like this.

  • When I make more money, Then I will be happy
  • When I have a million dollars, Then I will be rich
  • When I have more money, Then I’ll get life insurance,
  • When I get a promotion, Then I’ll be able to spend more time with the family
  • When I get more time, Then I’ll lose weight
  • When I retire, Then I’ll learn to invest - and our personal favourite
  • When I retire, Then I’ll start to give back to the community in a meaningful way.

The problem of course is that ‘Then’ is a moving target that never really arrives.

The Curse of ‘When, Then’

Like constantly moving the goalposts, the curse of ‘Thencreates a persistent low-level tension that sabotages our hopes and plans for a happier and brighter future.

  • Its subtle evil is that it suspends indefinitely our expectations that life could be any different than it is today - and locks us into living only for the moment, forever.

Is it any wonder many people feel trapped and stuck on the ‘hamster wheel?’

The science behind the Hamster Wheel Syndrome

Have you ever felt like you’re just not making progress?

It's much more common than you think and this is the reason why.

The scientific terminology for this feeling of being stuck on a never-ending cycle of ‘When, Then’ the behavioral psychologists tell us is called the hedonic treadmill.

A habit so powerfully embedded in our subconscious, if left unchallenged, it threatens to keep even the best of us tethered to perpetually striving for more, bigger, better, and well... better and bigger.

A walk on this treadmill never ends — but it does ensure as our happiness levels increase so equally do our expectations, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Are we hardwired to forever say, ‘Give me more?’

So how much is enough?

Evolution seems to whisper the answer to us; ‘It's everything, and then just a little bit more’.

It's like we’re hardwired to be perpetually dissatisfied with what we have - always wanting more. This evolutionary drive to continually seek, ‘just a little bit more’ seems to be tied to our ancestral survival instincts to amass (eat, acquire or hoard) as much as we can because we don't know what the future holds.

Does anyone want to draw a modern-day parallel to the panic buying of toilet paper during a pandemic?

It's never enough to expect people ‘to just say No’ if they don't understand the biological push to always say ‘Yes’.

Nobody really believes this, even when is true

There are some realities in life we just need to accept - this is one of them.

  • The overwhelming evidence is that after we’ve made enough money to meet our basic needs, more money won't ‘magically make you happier’. The best predictor of your future happiness is your current level of happiness - give or take 10%.

What can you do if you want to enjoy your money and your life?

Another reality in life we just need to accept is this - both successful people and unsuccessful people have very different patterns of thinking about their money.

5 Key Motivators to increase your happiness and your money

If you want to upgrade your attitude towards money matters, you need to get to know your own 5 Key motivators:

  • Who you are?
  • What makes you happy?
  • Who do you love and care for?
  • What energizes you? and
  • What drains you?

This personal knowledge is a core behavioural trait of all successful people.

Pro Tip: It's also the antidote to the curse of When, Then

Designing your life depends upon your ability to understand the 5 Key motivators. It's something to reflect upon today, and not wait until you have enough money, time, love (insert whatever 'more of' you are currently chasing).

Do you think being happy doesn’t sound very practical?

For a long time I battled with a purely numerical approach to life, love and living.

It wasn’t long until I had to recognise that my default approach to life and money matters was not working for me - and had to evolve beyond the simple practical.

Know what makes you happy - today

If you don't have a clear view of what gives you joy today, you’ll have similar chances at finding it tomorrow. It really depends on how much self-awareness you're prepared to develop.

Now admittedly, for some people what brings them joy is easily discovered, for others, it can take more time and even seem elusive during hard times.

  • The more you can reflect upon and discover what makes you happy today, what motivates you and brings you joy today, the better the chances are you’ll be able to create a positive expectation for your future - one that's interesting, exciting and worth pursuing - one able to pull you through the current stressful times.
  • For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought with it a time to reset and reflect upon more important issues that should be closer to our hearts.

One client told us they see it like practicing happiness today, so you can get ready for your tomorrow.

The science of happy

There is a scientific underpinning to our developing a happier mindset. Our brains release endorphins when we think about, feel or engage with our favourite things, people, places and - dare I say it, ‘things’.

The Mary Poppins approach to hard times

(Or, a playful way to remember how to recall some of your favourite things).

One of the world's favourite and instantly recognisable musical show tunes of all time is sung by a magical English nanny named Maria – brought to life by Julie Andrews and made famous by the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music.

Now up-sliding banisters, taking umbrellas and bottomless carpet bags aside, the Mary Poppins approach to raising children is not what I'm referring to. Rather it was her ability to adapt and reframe the emotional focus that enabled her to pull through her hard times.

The lyrics of the song, ‘My Favourite Things’, are a reference to things ‘Maria’ loves that she chooses to fill her mind with when times are bad.

"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things"

As the song goes on to explain her motivation;

"When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad"

This deceptively simple approach is sadly not hard wired into our natures and actually requires a lot of mental effort to activate and maintain.

Regardless of whether you like show tunes or not, the proactive approach to learning to change your mindset today so you can focus on a better tomorrow is what's going to pull you through your storm.

Pro Insight: Many of the favorite things mentioned in this song don't cost anything - ‘raindrops on roses and silver-white winters’, for example.

Beware clever advertising that takes advantage of our innate ‘When, Then’ vulnerability

‘But Mary Poppins didn’t have credit card advertising, the envy machine of social media and FOMO to contend with’ - I hear you say.

I get it - times were simpler then, but the studies repeatedly show (and the honest wealthy people will tell you), that once you earn enough money to meet your basic needs, more doesn't always make you happier.

  • I'm not judging, I just recognise the incredible power of hardwired habits.

There's a reason why habits are hard to break; they are designed to keep us alive and make our core decisions faster and more automatic while not interrupting our higher thinking. (All the while ensuring our brains' amygdala region maintains the ability to suddenly hijack our best thinking during times of great stress, emotion and well, whenever it wants to really.)

How to change a financial behaviour looks a little like this

  • Set a goal for the next 90 days and name it. A goal without a name is just, well dumb, and certainly not powerful enough to captivate your attention and worthy enough to justify your effort. Something like, ‘My next long weekend secret getaway’ works wonders for me.
  • Take a picture (or download one) of what the goal may look like and put it somewhere important. Your laptop home screen, your lunch box or your mirror in the bathroom, under the car sun visor (or the place of all family action - the fridge door!)
  • Put a timeline on this goal. Whether it's paying off debt, saving for a weekend away or simply starting an emergency fund. Whatever your goal, set a timeline for when to review it, when to tweak it and when to expect it!
  • Divide the amount of time you have between now and your goal into weeks so you know what's required to get you there. Whether that's saving, paying down debt, reading books or reading blogs (great idea) regardless of what goal you're working with, track your progress over time. A fun way to see saving for a goal is to use our Savings Superstar Colouring Worksheet (we say it's for the kids but we know it's really fun for us adults too).
  • Automate the process, if you can. Automatically transfer savings for a holiday to a different account (preferably one you cannot see on your mobile banking phone app). Sign up for an audiobook membership for 6 months so one new book will automatically arrive every month - so get busy reading. Automate additional repayments to the mortgage (or that evil credit card debt). Automate your dollar-cost-averaging into your investment or automate the pre-paying of your land tax (a plague upon the government department that invented such evil). If you can automate the process, do that.
  • A bonus step if you really want to work on growing a new habit. Share your plan with someone you trust who will support you and ask you regularly, ‘how are you going with that new goal?’

Pro Tip: Avoid those types of personalities who seem to exist only to criticise your efforts and project their own insecurity upon you because they fear you’re moving forward and you're making progress.

It's time to bring forward your ‘Then’ into your present

When you have a clearer picture of what drives and motivates you, of who you are and becoming more off, then you can turn your attention to better understanding what you actually want.

The best time to learn new skills is always before we need them. A bit like good financial habits. So find what brings you joy today, and then find some more.

  • You must engage your emotional brain if you want to change your financial behaviours.

The happiness of discovering your favourite things are really, well not actually 'things'

Finding the right mental attitude will get you closer to your happiness today and become that helpful motivation that pulls you toward a better tomorrow.

The more you can focus on finding what makes you happy today, the more effective you will be at creating a vision for your future; one that's consistent with what you value most.

And it's this vision and expectation for a better future that has the power to pull you through the hard times; even a global pandemic.

  • Start today, right now. Not tomorrow, not ‘When, Then.’

And you just might find that life becomes a little more, 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'.

author pic drew browneDrew Browne is a specialty Financial Risk Advisor working with Small Business Owners & their Families, Dual Income Professional Couples, and diverse families. He's an award-winning writer, speaker, financial adviser and business strategy mentor. His business Sapience Financial Group is committed to using business solutions for good in the community. In 2015 he was certified as a B Corp., and in 2017 was recognised in the inaugural Australian National Businesses of Tomorrow Awards. Today he advises Small Business Owners and their families, on how to protect themselves, from their businesses.  He writes for successful Small Business Owners and Industry publications. You can read his Modern Small Business Leadership Blog here. You can connect with him on LinkedIn Any information provided is general advice only and we have not considered your personal circumstances. Before making any decision on the basis of this advice you should consider if the advice is appropriate for you based on your particular circumstance.

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