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They Inherited Bad Money Habits From Their Parents. Here's How They Broke Them

Your financial patterns aren't nature -- they're nurture.

graphic of people walking toward a money tree, away from a dark path
Zooey Liao/CNET

"You're going to destroy your financial future." 

That's what Bethany McCamish's parents told her after she got her first credit card at the age of 18.

Like so much of what we learn as kids, parental advice and admonitions make a strong impression, and they tend to have a lasting impact. Financial therapists say our money habits as adults are deeply rooted in our childhood experiences and observations.

Our family's messages help shape our learned behaviors and values regarding spending, saving and investing, explains Megan Ford, researcher and coordinator at the University of Georgia's ASPIRE Clinic, which offers a range of financial therapy and other counseling services. "The individuals who raise us have a primary role in our financial socialization: what we learn about money, and what we don't," said Ford.

And these habits are particularly hard to unlearn because they tend to make us feel safe, comfortable and functional, even if we know they're not optimal, Ford explained. 

McCamish, for example, had to fight hard to reframe her mindset around credit cards and loans given her parents' adamant views opposing any and all debt. It took years to uproot her childhood shame and fear of money and to start the process of financial re-socialization. "All adults at some point usually figure out that what your parents had to say or how they did things wasn't always the only way," said McCamish. "There were other potential truths." 

Here are three people who broke from the financial behaviors they learned as kids, and some tips on how you can move past financial roadblocks that don't serve you. 


'I was terrified of getting a credit card.'

Bethany McCamish, 29, brand designer, Washington state 

Growing up in a low-income family, Bethany McCamish had parents who were devout disciples of Dave Ramsey, an evangelical Christian radio host who is vehemently against the use of credit cards. Most of the financial education McCamish got as a child involved adhering to Ramsey's extreme view that any kind of debt will destroy you. "I was basically terrified of getting a credit card or anything like buying a car with a car loan," she said. 

Her parents would go so far as to cut up credit cards in front of the kids at the dining room table when a balance was paid off. The family never did nice things like go out to dinner or take a vacation unless some kind of debt had been removed. Debt "had all the power." 

Bethany McCamish
Bethany McCamish

When she got her first credit card at the age of 18, McCamish felt like she was committing an act of wrongdoing, and was nervous she would mess something up. After she made a purchase on the card, she went straight home to log in to her account. "I was sweating," she said. 

Her parents didn't teach her the importance of having a credit score or being able to make responsible monthly payments, let alone what to do if she was unable to make a purchase with cash. 

How she broke from fear of debt: 

It was a slow progression over years, but McCamish started to push past fears of money. She began managing small amounts of debt and felt proud paying off her credit cards every month. 

Realizing how much her parents had financially crippled her with their conservative beliefs, she decided to push back. That also meant rejecting her family's view of women as not needing to worry about money because they were destined to serve solely as wives. "Women are perfectly capable of understanding numbers and making smart decisions," she noted. 

Early in her career as a teacher, McCamish started to meet colleagues who achieved certain milestones, like buying a home. She hadn't considered the idea of taking out a mortgage to purchase a house, but now she started to think about how she might pull it off herself. 

Because McCamish's parents neither saved nor contributed to her education, McCamish was also forced to confront $78,000 in student loan debt after undergraduate and graduate school. At first she didn't want to deal with it, but with encouragement from her partner, she shifted her mindset and strategized ways to actually pay it off. 

She and her partner bought their first home in 2016. Then they renovated it, sold it and used the profit to get an even nicer house. They did the same for their second home. Buying their first two homes became their biggest wealth builder. "Because we managed the debt well, because we made sure it was an appreciating asset, we were able to do so many more things with that money," McCamish said. That included paying off her student loans. 

Through this process, McCamish began to recognize that her mortgage debt was actually an investment tool that could be used to her advantage. Today, as the founder and CEO of Bethany Works, she runs a full-service design studio. 


'I spent money before I had it.'

Jonathan P. Thomas, 36, financial coach, South Carolina


As a child, Jonathan Thomas thought spending money before having it was the norm. Raised by a single mother with three children, Thomas watched her work hard to put the kids through private school. But he also watched her never having enough in her bank account to cover both household bills and essentials like groceries. When they ran out of food, Thomas' mom would borrow money from her sister. "My mom was always behind because of her past decisions," Thomas said.

He remembers when they needed an unexpected car repair before a paycheck came in. Thomas' mom had no choice but to go into the red, and then the family fell even further behind because of predatory overdraft fees, which amounted to close to $700.

Jonathan P. Thomas
Thomas family

As a young adult, Thomas had problems holding onto his money, and would often wipe out his funds in a "spend to zero" fury. In college, he remembers paying $35 in overdraft fees for a $1 bag of chips. When he landed his first job in financial services, he would blow his entire paycheck, knowing he'd get paid again in two weeks. "I got my check on Friday, and it was often gone by Monday," said Thomas. That only continued the cycle of overdraft suffering. Then, in his mid-20s, Thomas got laid off.

How he broke from overspending: 

After being unemployed for a couple of months, Thomas committed to turning things around and no longer squandering his money. "I said to myself, 'I cannot go back home, I cannot let this happen again.'" 

He got a job in a bank, where he was surrounded by financial advisers. He picked their brains on how to get ahead financially.

Thomas made a forecast for his life. He first focused on setting up an emergency fund to cover any unexpected mishap, including to pad himself against potential unemployment. He aimed to squirrel away $1,000, then $5,000, then $10,000. Because he was fortunate enough to have a steady income, it was really a matter of creating a system, and then sticking to the plan. 

"I came up with a tangible, specific goal," he said. He tucked away money with each paycheck, along with any bonuses or extra. To resist tapping into his emergency fund, he put his savings in a separate bank account. 

Thomas described having to stair-step, or ease methodically into his goal. He knew it would take some time to see the fruits of his effort, and it wasn't sexy. "But having the money is sexy," he said. Thomas now works as a financial coach, helping individuals and couples find progress and success with their financial goals. 


'I had no clue how to manage money, let alone save it.'

Amanda Claypool, age 31, entrepreneur, North Carolina

For Amanda Claypool, money felt like a constant shell game -- it wasn't something to acquire or save. Growing up, her working-class parents had both full-time and part-time jobs to make ends meet, but "there was always a feeling of lack and scarcity," she said. Credit cards were used to bridge the cash-flow gaps. 

Amanda Claypool
Amanda Claypool

Claypool had a brother with autism, and taking care of him consumed the bulk of her parents' time when they weren't working. Consumer-based activities, such as eating out and spending money in shopping centers, were normalized as a form of leisure family time. Getting these kinds of "treats" from her overburdened parents became a substitute for receiving attention and acknowledgment.

As an adult, Claypool found herself eating out a lot and putting it all on her credit card. Spending money at restaurants or on takeout helped her fill an emotional void, and allowed her to feel like she belonged. "It was never about being hungry … It was more about the social exposure of meeting friends for brunch or being out in public."

When she got laid off in 2015, she had to lean on credit cards to meet more crucial financial needs. 

How she broke from "social" spending: 

Claypool currently carries about $20,000 in credit card debt, but is working hard to dig out of her debt hole. She started trying to turn around her money habits by researching personal finance basics such as budgeting, investing and early retirement. Then she went even further, learning about economics and the entire financial system writ large. 

But Claypool realized that developing new patterns or redefining her relationship with money wouldn't happen unless she dug deeper through personal introspection. 

"You can't deconstruct bad money habits if you don't have a solid grasp of who you are as a person and your worldview," Claypool said. To chart a new course for herself away from what she was exposed to as a child, she turned to healing and therapy. 

One thing she found particularly helpful was engaging in one-on-one EFT, or Energy Field Tapping, coaching. Using different visualization exercises to help conjure up memories, Claypool's coach focused solely on picking apart money habits she had inherited from her parents.

Now, Claypool is on a mission to radically transform others' perceptions of wealth and consumerism. She works as a freelance writer and runs Millionaire by Next Year, a guide to getting out of a job you hate into a life you love.

How to begin breaking old money habits 

There's no exact prescription for how to break from our ingrained money patterns, according to Ford, but it's not impossible to do. It starts with reflecting on why you want to change, thinking about what you've tried before and determining what worked or didn't. That boils down to some self-awareness and effort. 

Ford recommends envisioning what you want via journaling, drawing or talking with a trusted friend or professional. You should ask yourself: How did this pattern develop? What function is that behavior serving you? Is it helping you or holding you back? You might also consider exploring your relationship with money with an app like Stackin', which helps you track your money patterns.

Additionally, Ford suggests removing any mental or physical roadblocks or barriers that would prevent you from rewiring your habits. For example, if you're triggered to dole out cash when you drive by your favorite store, consider taking another route home. 

Clearing away stimuli also means not allowing yourself to purchase things instantaneously on online retailers with a stored credit card. "Consider hitting 'unsubscribe,' removing credit card information from your browser and setting a time limit for how much online shopping you engage in each day," Ford said. 

Most importantly, don't rush. Acknowledge when you make positive changes and keep focused on growth. You should also expect some setbacks along the way. "Look at missteps with curiosity, rather than shame or blame," Ford said. That way, "we stay more open to the lessons we can learn from those experiences that didn't go the way we expected or planned."