How to start dealing with money guilt
15 Nov, 2023

Therèse Havenga, Head of Business Transformation at Momentum Investo


What is money guilt and when does it become a major issue?


I often compare money guilt with the guilt we feel because we don’t exercise and when we eat too much. “Just after the weekend, I’ll turn over a new leaf,” is what I keep promising myself. “I’ll go the gym and won’t indulge in sweet things every day.”


Money Coach Marnita Oppermann defines money guilt as “dealing with feelings of remorse, shame or anxiety because of financial decisions or circumstances”. She says these emotional responses are often triggered by impulsive spending and financial mistakes such as poor investment choices or being in debt.


I think we often play the compare game, too: Are we doing better or worse than so-and-so? Pressure from society and family members affect us. The way my parents brought up my brother and I still guide my money thinking. We were by no means rich compared to our friends, yet we somehow managed to make ends meet – even when it came to food. But it took some very careful planning. We had to choose between activities, and my mother made all my clothes. The pressure to be frugal and watch every cent, was ever-present.


Oppermann agrees that our money mindset is often rooted in our upbringing, history and social context. She says if you had grown up in a poor community, you will often feel shame for being better off than others.


Mental Health Practitioner Dr Erika Hitge adds that in families where a strong patriarchy is paramount, family members are sometimes expected or even coerced to give money for certain causes, and if they don’t, their money emotions can be overbearing.


I work for a financial institution and often feel guilty when I make a money blunder – because I should know better, right? Also, in my case, we didn’t grow up with guidance on budgets and the importance of long-term retirement savings. Those are things I learnt about in my first job – along with the reality shock of having to pay tax. I also always battle with money choices as a mother – must our household always take priority, and my daughter, or may I sometimes spoil myself? And then, how do I not feel guilty?


Oppermann has an example of a client who had invested her savings in a small business, and then felt guilty about not rather paying for the private education of her children. In the end her business, personal and family life all imploded. The client had to weigh up the longer-term benefits of focusing financial efforts on the business versus a private school for her children or searching for other ways to enrich her children’s development.


Is this an example of money guilt being taken too far? And what can one do, speak to a friend or family member or a money coach? Hitge explains we often just need someone else to see things in perspective. She says all of us get a bit hysterical about things at times. We may need some help to start thinking rationally again. For instance, how dire is the situation really? Can you buy bread? If you can’t pay your water and lights, can you at least pay part of it?


She warns that things get out of hand when our behaviour becomes obsessive: “When you start thinking about your money issue all the time, are losing sleep, can’t concentrate at work or make a stupid mistake in traffic because your mind is on money matters, it’s time to get help.” It may also play out in the form of chronic overspending, financial mistakes, denial and impaired decision-making. When our behaviour or anxiety levels get irrational, we may even need so-called cognitive behavioural therapy.


Guilt is, after all, just an emotion – and emotions can be misguided. We must investigate what lies at the bottom of it.


Hitge encourages the asking of rational questions: For instance, is your child deprived? If yes, you should spend all available money on your child if they are neglected. If not, you may sometimes reward yourself. “We have to enjoy the fruits of our labour, too,” she explains.


A healthy dose of self-reflection is what we all may need, and if that is not enough, one can consider the help of a coach or therapist.




@Therèse Havenga
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