Why are we so weird about money? A new book uncovers the truth

The new book by Paco de Leon takes an empathetic approach to getting a grip on your finances.

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By 

Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published February 3, 2022 | 5 min read

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In her new book, “Finance for the People,” Paco de Leon devotes almost as much time talking about emotions as she does money. Before we can take control of our finances, she says, we need to take control of our feelings about money. So de Leon doesn’t just tackle how to save for retirement or make a budget — she explains how to cope with the personal, familial, and societal obstacles that combine to make people so “weird about money.” Policygenius talked to de Leon about the new book and what she hopes readers get out of it.

Pg: Before you talk about interest rates or credit cards or whatever, you ask readers to look back at their childhoods. Why did you want to focus so much on our feelings about money?

PdL: Humans are emotional creatures. Oftentimes we make decisions based on our emotions that we try to rationalize later. For years, I watched smart people make not-so-smart financial decisions. I did this myself. But when I started to finally understand my own emotions, when I started to unearth my own narratives and feelings and beliefs around money, I was able to change them. And once I was able to do that, only then could I make bigger, more impactful improvements in my financial life. It’s one thing to know that you should invest or know that you should raise your rates, it’s another thing to understand what’s holding you back from actually doing it. Understanding our emotions gives us a way to widen the lens of perspective. 

You seem to reject the common financial advice that self-denial can help you change your fortunes. How come? 

Self-denial works for many folks; I’m just here to offer a different perspective for the folks that need a reframe. Personal finance is very personal. I know that sounds corny, but it means that what works for one person might not work for another, so giving folks alternative perspectives allows them to take a different path, but to arrive at the same destination. 

Is there a place for the 'stop buying lattes' attitude in one's financial journey?

I guess this advice was originally supposed to encourage us to not spend our money on frivolous things. And there is always a place for being effective and smart with your limited resources, but the problem with this attitude is that it feels judgmental, and seems to encourage folks to feel shame and guilt; which aren’t things I think we should be trying to further inflict on others and ourselves. 

What are the common emotional hang ups that you've experienced or seen that keep people from addressing their finances? 

Most of us haven’t seen a model of open and honest conversations around money. In the workplace, it’s still pretty taboo to talk about money, which is so gnarly because it’s literally the reason you’re there: for money. At home, many of us were taught that we shouldn’t talk about money for varying reasons. And unfortunately, some of us might have even seen our families and parents fight when the subject of money came up. So in that extreme case, talking about money or money itself, is an unsafe thing. If you ask most people if they think there is this unspoken rule that “we’re not supposed to talk about money,” most would agree. So I think this theme can turn into more than not talking about money; it can turn into not wanting to face it.

This is Policygenius, so we gotta talk about insurance. What makes it so misunderstood?

Insurance is a weird product. You want to have enough, but you kind of hope you never need to use it. In the book I explain that when you buy a tuna fish sandwich there is a reasonable expectation that a tuna fish sandwich will appear in front of you in the near future. But with insurance, you buy it, get paperwork and hope you never have to actually file a claim. It’s abstract and it has to do with risk, which is another thing I think most people have a hard time understanding.

Writing a book seems very hard. Why did you want to do it? 

Ha, it’s a lot of work, for sure. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you feel deeply compelled to share your words with the world. I found myself in a place of privilege, working as a financial planner in LA and learning things that not everyone gets to learn — like how the world of money works and, in turn, how that translates to power. And we only worked with people that already had wealth. I wanted to make everything I’ve learned accessible, and a book is a way to do that. You just need a library card. I wanted to make a contribution to my community of creative professionals. I wanted to take all the information I’ve learned and get it into the hands of as many people as possible. I want to help as many as possible. This stuff in the book is stuff that everyone should know.

What do you hope people get out of this book?

I hope people realize how to find their agency in any situation. I hope people won’t be afraid to make money and to stack it and to use those resources to create the things they want to exist in the world. I want people to realize that money and wealth allows you to amplify your values in the world.

Finally, a true personal finance question: What makes this book worth the $16 retail price? 

Everyone will get something out of it that will be worth more than the $16 they spend. One person might separate their nonessential spending or implement a tip like my buy list suggestion (instead of buying something from an Instagram ad immediately, put it on a “buy list" and give yourself 24 hours or more to cool down and make a rational decision later). That right there is worth more than $16. For the folks who are afraid to get started or who have limiting beliefs about investing, if this book helps get you beyond those hurdles, it’s worth so much more than the retail price. And if you’re already doing great, but you want to keep feeling encouraged and on track, the book will do that for you too.