The Best Way to Handle Financial Mistakes

Isn’t it the best feeling when you get a good deal? When I get a coupon code/rebate/sale combo going or I find an amazing item on the clearance rack, the first thing I want to do is tell the next person I see about my shrewd purchase. Nothing tops the time I found the right amount of engineered hardwood floor in the exact oak color I needed for $.90 per square foot when the big box stores wanted over $4.00. I still brag about that and it was over five years ago.

Whether it’s finding a good deal, making money on an investment or selling your house for more than asking price, there’s a sense of pride that comes along with making good financial decisions. It’s not even the money itself that we’re proud of per se; otherwise wouldn't we go around lauding our salaries or our 401(k) balances? No, I think it’s that these financial transactions make us feel something about ourselves. They make us feel like we’re savvy, like we’ve got a leg up on this whole money thing. 

Why Financial Wins Are So Important to Us

In our society, it’s kind of expected that we all know what we’re doing with money. We deal with money every day, numerous times a day in most cases. I heard a speaker at a financial conference once say that the average person has 20 to 40 financial transactions in a single day, from buying lunch to turning up their thermostat. When something is so ubiquitous, it’s subconsciously implied that we should know how to use it. Money is everywhere, everyone uses money; therefore, everyone should know how to use money. (For related reading see: Do Financial Decisions Get Better With Age?)

Our financial wins prove to ourselves and others that we do know what we’re doing with money, so it’s natural that we’re eager to share them. What is equally natural is wanting to keep our money mistakes to ourselves. Just as good financial outcomes build us up, bad financial outcomes tear us down.  The disappointment in our choices is compounded by the expectation that we should all be money experts. It’s one thing to goof up when you don’t know what you’re doing, but when you feel like you should know better, the mistakes sting even more. Is it any wonder we’d rather save ourselves the judgment and keep these things to ourselves?

It’s normal, even universal, to want to hide something that causes us embarrassment or shame. We’ve been doing it since we were kids and we spilled orange soda on the carpet and didn’t want Grandma to find out (yes, I did that and yes, she found out). But when it comes to money, the consequences of downplaying our missteps can lead to more than a timeout and an hour cleaning the rug. (For related reading see: 6 Worst Financial Mistakes and Why You Made Them.)

Dealing With Bad Money Decisions

Like most issues, money problems don’t generally get better by acting like they don’t exist. As uncomfortable as it can be to fess up to a money blunder, it’s usually a good first step toward making it better. You might have to tell your CPA you missed a tax document or admit to your spouse the IPO shares you bought dropped in price. You might have to accept that you didn’t start saving earlier in life. This is the first—albeit the most uncomfortable—step toward improving the situation.  

Sometimes the right next step is to seek help from a professional. The thought of confessing your less-than-optimal financial decisions to a financial planner is enough to keep many people from ever walking through the door. The entire process of meeting with a financial planner is already revealing enough. It’s often likened to disrobing in a doctor’s office. That angst is only compounded when you know you’re going to have to share the details of a regretful choice. 

It takes courage to share the good and bad of what we’ve done while we’ve been handling these decisions on our own. When exposing our financial life to feedback seems like too great a risk, it’s worth remembering that financial expertise is not common knowledge, and in most environments financial education is woefully deficient. Compound that with the fact that the widely-available information is rife with contradiction, and it becomes clear that mistakes aren’t a sign of some personal flaw. They are a product of being perfectly fallible human beings. 

I doubt we’re all going to evolve to the point where we readily share our mistakes like we do our successes. In the absence of that, I’d happily settle for there being just a little less shame in our money game. 

(For more from this author, see: What Is Your Stress Response to Money Worries?)