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How to Foster Financial Responsibility

Updated: Apr 30

“If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free. If our wealth commands us, we are poor indeed." —Edmund Burke, economist

Our relationship with financial responsibility can be traced to our childhood, either through general conditioning or specific events like a parent leaving or losing the money you were given in trust. A friend once shared that, as the oldest, she was responsible for her and her younger sibling’s lunch money. One day it was stolen out of her backpack. She felt terrible because she wasn’t careful enough and they all had to go without lunch. To this day, she remembers that incident and believes it contributes to her financial vigilance. 

The Roots of Financial Responsibility

Many women grow up thinking their Prince Charming will appear, sweep them off their feet, and be their sugar daddy for the rest of their happy lives. This is by no means a judgment. Such expectations can be traced back to cultural norms, media messaging, or both. Men can be saddled with the same expectations of being the provider and suffer when they don’t live up to those expectations.

If you grow up without expecting financial support or in a family where financial support was conditional, you may have decided that being financially responsible for everything is ultimately the easiest, safest, and most ethical thing to do. This is often the story of those who start their own businesses or work from a young age. It’s not uncommon to hear about someone stepping up as the breadwinner after growing up in a household put at risk because one parent left and failed to pay child support. This expectation of financial responsibility can be hard to lift off the shoulders of those who assume it’s up to them to take care of others. Such cases can lead to burnout and resentment.

For those of us fortunate enough to have financial support growing up, the line between what we’re responsible for and what we’re not can be a moving target. As parents, we want our kids to be financially responsible adults, and yet we struggle to set and stick to money boundaries such as requiring our teens to pay for their clothes. We think we’re being mean, unreasonable, or creating unnecessary hardship for them, especially when we can afford to pick up the bill.

How to foster financial responsiblility
Positive Money Principles can serve as a guide for financial responsibility

In “The Opposite of Spoiled,” Ron Leiber, a personal finance columnist for the New York Times, talks about the new world of money that families are navigating.1 While we may still want to help our children with a wedding or to buy their first home, that option may no longer be available or puts us in the tough spot of deciding between their needs and our own. Leiber recommends that rather than retreat from this tough conversation or lie about what’s going on, be factual as well as inclusive. For example, if you say “As much as we want to help out, the funds would come out of a retirement account we’ve built so you aren’t financially responsible for us later.” Not only are you modeling how to navigate challenging situations, but they can also come away with the truth. 

How to Foster Financial Responsibility

I recommend starting with the question, “Where am I financially responsible and why?” If you have a simple answer, how can you go deeper? Are you considering all dimensions of money, including earning, spending, saving, and giving? How do you define ‘being responsible’? This is where a conversation with money can reveal more information or insights.

For instance, if you grew up in a household where money wasn’t an issue and you weren’t held financially responsible for much, you might still expect others to carry that burden. If you choose a career based on how much money you can make, you might think you’re being financially responsible yet spend wildly on non-essentials.

Positive Money can help you with this exercise, especially when you have a practice of mental fitness and can stay focused on what matters most. Here are options for conversations with yourself or others that incorporate Positive Money principles:

  • As a family, talk about how your money supports a higher good and how each family member can contribute financially or otherwise.

  • As a couple, explore how choosing Positive Money for each of you changes your relationship to financial responsibilities, if at all. 

  • As a parent, try to model your version of what being financially responsible looks and feels like. 

  • As a sibling, think about how you compare yourself financially to a sibling if at all, and ask yourself if your thoughts cause more harm than good. 

1. Lieber, Ron. The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.


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