Saturday, April 25, 2009

What your wallet says about you

How you literally handle your cash can help you discover your unconscious beliefs about money -- and help you make better conscious decisions.

Your wallet is stuffed with crumpled currency and raggedy receipts, and loose change clutters the floor of your car. That doesn't have anything to do with your ability to build a sound financial future though, right?

Wrong. The way you handle your day-to-day cash speaks volumes about your money personality, according to personal-finance experts.

"Our outer financial life is really created and deeply affected by our unconscious beliefs about money," says Brent Kessel, the author of "It's Not About the Money."

So how do you know what your beliefs are? Think about how you keep your wallet:

Money's there . . . somewhere

You have money in your wallet, but you never have any idea how much. But who cares -- if you can't find it or can't find enough, just whip out one of your many credit cards or debit cards.

"Such behavior is what I call the head in the sand -- an ostrich," says Manisha Thakor, a chartered financial analyst and a co-author of "On My Own Two Feet."

People who don't know how much money they have in their wallets may also be unaware of what's in their bank accounts or even their 401(k)s. "These are people who are afraid to see what the reality of their financial situations is," Thakor says. "You may know where the pile of bills is, but you just don't want to open them."

However, there's a danger in this behavior. You may be tempted to overspend or even pull out a credit card if you aren't aware of how much you have available, says Patrick P. Astre, the author of "This Is Not Your Parents' Retirement."

The key to changing is biting the bullet and facing your finances, Thakor says. You may not have as much money as you wish you had, "but it's really empowering if you know where you're starting from," she says. Try keeping a written tally of how much money you have (and how much you owe) to get comfortable with your financial situation.

Running on empty

Your wallet is usually empty because you can't seem to keep cash in it for long. No matter how many times you go to an ATM, you'll find yourself staring into an empty wallet again very soon and wondering where the money went. Similar to the person whose head is in the sand, this person is making money but has no idea where it's going, Astre says.

However, unlike the head-in-the-sand type, this person likely wants to know where the money is going and may be frustrated by an inability to stop spending. The key to changing is to start paying attention, Astre advises.

It's a stash of cash, but how much do you need? And why should this take priority over other savings goals?

"Be aware of your spending patterns, and keep a notebook," he says. Though you may not change your spending habits overnight, take a realistic first step, telling yourself: Within three weeks, I'm going to know exactly where my money goes.

Chaotic cash

The bills in your wallet are crumpled and in no particular order. There's change in the bottom of your pocketbook or even the floor of your car.

Someone who treats money cavalierly often does not respect money or may not even care about finances, Thakor says. If you leave money around, you're basically saying it's not important enough to put it in a safe and protected place.

Continued: Subconscious sabotage

Sometimes that lack of respect is subconscious, Astre says.

"Very often people sabotage themselves because they think they don't deserve money. It's a thing where, 'My parents worked hard all their lives, and now I'm making $150,000, and I don't deserve it.' So subconsciously, they sabotage themselves," Astre says.

The key to changing this behavior is recognizing the buying power of the money you've been discarding. Try adding up all of the miscellaneous bills and coins on a regular basis. You might amass enough money to start giving your "spare change" a little respect.

Unruly receipts

Your wallet is stuffed with receipts, but there's no sense of order to them, and you never really do anything with them. This is a person who is trying, says Thakor.

"You want to know how to keep tabs on your money; otherwise you would have thrown the receipts away. But you just can't take it to the next step to get them all organized and do something with them. You are like the person that buys all the latest exercise equipment but doesn't get around to using it," Thakor says.

In order to change this behavior, you've got to get organized. Take a day to come up with a filing system for your receipts so you know what to do with them. If you're never going to use the receipts to track your spending, what's the point of keeping them?

File-folder funds

All of the bills in your wallet are lined up from largest denomination to smallest (or vice versa). You have an idea of how much money you have at all times, and you know what's available to spend.

"These are the people who have a firm grasp on how much they are spending and how much they are saving," Thakor says. If you exhibit this behavior, you probably have good financial habits. However, there still may be some potential for financial missteps.

Taken to the extreme -- having all the dead presidents right-side up and facing the same way in order of date, for example -- might mean you "could have a problem allocating enough money toward fun," Thakor says.

It's a stash of cash, but how much do you need? And why should this take priority over other savings goals?

Identifying what your behavior is telling you about your beliefs about money is only the first step. Continuing to monitor your financial habits is key, says Kessel. Note the changes you make to your behavior as well as the times you fall short.

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is they think, 'Now I have this new wisdom about my money life, and therefore my problems are solved,'" author Kessel says. Change takes time, Kessel says, "but the moment you have a new awareness about what was driving your money behavior, your thinking begins to shift."

This article was reported and written by Tamara E. Holmes

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