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Fearless Financial Future

Forgive yourself and overcome money shame

Piggy bank floating in ocean with cloudy weather

When I got my first credit card many years ago, I thought I was ready for all the responsibilities that came with managing this type of credit. Even though I did my due diligence to research the card company and believed I could afford to make my monthly payments, there were a lot of things I didn’t consider. I didn’t realize how having a balance close to my limit would affect my credit score. When I no longer wanted to have credit through that company, I also didn’t think through my rushed decision to close the card. I carried feelings of disappointment and shame from that experience for a long time.

Whether it’s losing money in an investment or becoming a victim of a scam, many of us carry money shame in some capacity. Our money mistakes or the messages we hear throughout our lives can affect how we think about and handle money.

What is it?

Shame is a powerful emotion tied to our identities and beliefs about ourselves. Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

As it relates to money, shame can be a barrier to our financial wellness or well-being. Money shame is an internal feeling, whereas guilt is more external. When applied to money, guilt would state, “I’ve had some challenging experiences managing credit.” On the other hand, shame would suggest that “I’m bad with credit.” It implies a sense of unworthiness.

There are many situations in which money may raise some level of shame. In many conversations with family and friends, I hear hints of secrecy, jealousy, disappointment, and frustration about money. These types of responses show a link between money, shame, and self-worth (Wang et al., 2012).  

Working through it

Money shame can lead to unproductive and even harmful financial behaviors. Therefore, to move forward and overcome it, you can find ways to cope, so it lessens over time.

  • Try to acknowledge and name what you are feeling. Even though it’s hard sometimes to understand why talking about your credit history may cause you to feel sad or why back-to-school shopping brings on high feelings of anxiety. When you try to identify the emotion or a particular response, it may help you understand the causes of that feeling, preparing you to deal better with that struggle.
  • Shame can create a complex cycle. For instance, you may spend money to cope with a difficult situation and feel ashamed because you went over what budgeted for spending. Breaking this cycle means reevaluating how and why you spend and practicing self-regulation.
  • Give yourself time and grace to overcome money shame. Our experiences and expectations sometimes allow us to judge ourselves. I am guilty of this behavior. The feeling that I know better, so I should do better, often nags at me. Moving on from a mistake or an undesirable money outcome takes courage. If this applies to you, take your time and give yourself the space to move on to a better outlook.
  • Find opportunities to talk to others about money to help reduce feelings of isolation. You can also focus on the positive. I created a list of all the important money decisions I made during my first two years of working full-time, and I still have it!
  • You’re not alone in feeling money shame. Many of us experience these intense and painful feelings. Whether it’s compulsively hiding purchases or shying away from conversations about planning for retirement, the drawbacks you have about conversations and actions related to money may sometimes feel isolating. Still, you are not alone in your struggles. You can start working through them by understanding more about yourself, practicing mindfulness or other meditation techniques, and talking to financial professionals who can help you learn more about your money personality.
  • Financial therapy approaches can help manage the challenges you hold about money. Research from Ford and colleagues (2020) suggested that couples who participated in financial therapy wanted to improve their financial planning behaviors. The financial therapy sessions provided a judgment-free environment for partners to talk freely about money and develop a deeper insight into emotional experiences around money. The sessions also had a positive effect on financial behavioral change.

As you think about your money values, beliefs, and hang-ups, consider the role shame may play in your financial life. Employ some of the ideas mentioned above as you work through your approaches for managing your money. 

Check out our Family Financial Feuds podcast on Sound Cloud for related topics!


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Altayb on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Camaya Wallace Bechard is a Consumer Economics Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. Camaya Wallace Bechard provides leadership in financial management to individuals, families, and communities and delivers educational programs that focus on building skills and knowledge about money management and financial decision-making.