How Emotions, Culture, and Personal Values Impact Our Financial Decisions

We reflected on the influences that shape our money stories.


Anne-Marie Kennedy

Do you ever wonder why you behave the way you do when it comes to finances? Maybe habits like saving, budgeting, and paying down debt feel like second nature. Or, maybe these habits are a struggle, pulling you in different directions. You know you “should” do this, but instead you do that.

The reality is that none of our financial decisions is random (although sometimes it might feel that way). Our attitudes about money and our financial habits are influenced by a variety of factors, including our emotional, personal, and cultural values.

Understanding how your history, family, ethnicity, region, religion, community, and access to financial education impact your decisions about your short and long-term finances is an important step to making empowered choices. 

Emotional connections to money

Money is more than just dollar amounts in a bank account. We have emotional connections to money that may be associated with feelings of security, love, family, success, failure, stress or anxiety. Many of these emotions are rooted in how we experienced our formative years.

Luisa Salazar, a Mission Lane Operations Specialist who was two years old when she emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States with her parents, says that as an adult she associates money with security, but that wasn’t always the case. “I took on a lot of adult responsibility at a young age, in part because my parents didn’t speak English. So at age six I was filling out leases and taking care of other finances. I was budgeting, without knowing it was called budgeting.” 

Salazar recalls the financial stress of her childhood, and the sometimes painful memories of having some needs, like new shoes or clothing, go unmet, or having to miss a school field trip because of fees. She also noticed there was little discernment between wants and needs by the adults in her life when it came to how money was spent. “When I became a teenager, I started making decisions about what I wanted for myself. I’d seen money mishandled in our house for most of my life, and I made a conscious choice that I would do things differently. I wanted security. I wanted to know my bills would always be paid, and I’d always have enough.”

Illustration by Kyle Duong

Aaron Montgomery, Chief Strategy Officer at Mission Lane, says his associations with money growing up were also connected to security, “not in the sense of being comfortable, but having enough as protection from the worst case scenario. To not have to borrow, or to be at risk for losing your home or your car. I still think that way as an adult.” 

Montgomery recalls watching his mother handle their finances as a child. “Growing up it was just me and my mom, and every Sunday she’d  pull out the newspaper and clip coupons and organize them alphabetically. She was extreme couponing before that was a thing. And she had a meticulous system for organizing her bills and knowing exactly which day they had to be mailed to be on time. I observed her habits and how she accounted for every dime, because we had to.”

Though there were lean times, he says they always had what they needed, even if those “needs” didn’t include things like cable tv, designer clothes, or vacations. Montgomery says that sense of frugality has followed him into adulthood. “I swear I didn’t buy my first pair of Air Jordan’s until, like, three weeks ago.” 

Personal and Cultural Values Run Deep

We make decisions every day around what we consider to be important, and of course what’s important to one person might be vastly different from what’s important to another. How we spend our time and energy, but also how we spend (or save) our money, are all reflections of our personal values. For example, do you save a tax refund, or choose to spend some of it on your family’s needs or wants? Do you enjoy a restaurant meal, or prefer eating at home? Do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays or holidays with gifts, or do you opt for experiences?

None of these choices is inherently “good” or “bad,” but simply indicates how your personal values shape how you spend your resources of time, energy, and money. 

Illustration by Kyle Duong

Salazar, for example, says she thinks deeply before making a significant purchase and asks herself: is this a good investment? “It’s one of my favorite catch phrases. If I want something, I’ll usually wait at least one paycheck to decide if it’s worth my money.” Salazar and her partner also put the brakes on spending by keeping their credit cards at home in a safe, making it harder to use them. Salazar loves to paint, and says she considers spending $100 on painting supplies a good investment. “If I’ve paid my bills, and put money in savings, and I have extra to spend, I consider it my entertainment. It’s an investment in my mental health.” 

Cultural influences also play a role in shaping our perspectives about money. Western cultures typically value self-supporting individuality, but in other cultures, supporting the immediate and sometimes extended family takes precedence. 

Montgomery knows what it means to invest in family. As a student at Harvard Business School he understood he had different choices to make than many of his peers. “There weren’t a lot of people who grew up in a situation like me at Harvard: African American, single mom. I knew when I graduated I’d have student loans to pay, I’d want to buy a house someday, and make sure my mom is provided for long-term. I knew I’d be starting from scratch.”

His wife is of Indian background, and Montgomery points to the traditional Indian wedding, which often lasts for four days and brings hundreds of family members together from all over the world, as a perfect example of how money can be a way of solidifying a bond. “Money is the traditional gift at an Indian wedding, and couples will receive tens of thousands of dollars as a gesture of support from their families to make sure they start off on solid ground. Hundreds of guests from around the world come to invest in and support these family members.” 

Can you rewrite your money story? 

Once you’ve dug deep to uncover and understand your own money story, can you change it if you discover there are parts to your story that aren’t serving you? 

Illustration by Kyle Duong

Yes, your day-to-day actions are what you can control, and soon enough, what you practice every day becomes a habit.  

Luisa Salazar had the support of a mentor who helped her learn to let go of the negative connotations with money she learned as a child, and that it was ok to use money for enjoyment. “She helped me see that it’s ok to spend on myself every once in a while. It’s ok to get a Starbucks or a new pair of shoes, or go out to dinner sometimes. It’s a great feeling to know I’m in charge of my own future because my finances are secure.” 

Aaron Montgomery says he’s focused on helping his four-year-old daughter write a money story that will be inherently different from his, simply because she’s growing up in a way he did not. “It’s important to us that our daughter is grounded in reality and knows the value of a dollar. She’s growing up in a privileged place relative to a lot of other kids in the world, and we want her to understand that money can do a lot of good, but it can also do a lot of damage. Be respectful and grateful for what you have.”