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  • Valeria Shreiber

Drawing a Financial Genogram

To really understand the personal meaning of money, we need to go back to childhood. As tiny, dependent creatures, human beings are programmed to be sensitive to the emotions of our caregivers. Anything that pushes grown-ups' buttons, will be noticed by children, and this makes money of particular interest. But, in a child's eyes, money's also a mysterious, somewhat magical force.



Lacking the full context, and understanding of financial matters, children make their own interpretations about money's own inherent attraction or power or danger. In this blog, we'll demonstrate how these childhood interpretations often influence us well into adulthood. We'll use a tool, called the financial genogram, to explore how experiences and messages travel across generations, shaping the family's money culture.



Think of a money statement you heard growing up. Maybe a rule about money, like you can never have enough of it, or only bad people care about it. Maybe the rule was a little more subtle, like, when someone swerved in front of your mom or dad's car, and they grumbled, "Look at that jerk in the Mercedes, who thinks he owns the road." Suddenly, selfish behaviour and luxury vehicles are being linked in a way that may have nothing to do with why that driver cut you off. These early messages and experiences have a profound affect on us, affecting each generation in turn.


Grandparents who suffered and scrimped during the depression, might create such a frugal environment, that parents rebel, refusing to ever deprive themselves or discipline their spending. After growing up in such a financially chaotic household, can you guess who their kids will probably take after? That's right. Just like grandma and grandpa, they'll want to control every nickle.


Our families provide our first lesson in how money works, how people handle it, talk about it, or don't. If childhood circumstances were positive, and our needs were met, we generally repeat our parents' example. If not, like in the situation above, we reject it, and try to do the opposite of whatever mom or dad would do.


One useful tool for exploring your money legacy is the financial genogram. Genograms were first developed for therapeutic settings by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson, in the mid 1980s, and had been adapted over the years to be used in a variety of situations. Our financial genogram is a way of depicting the relationships, events, and conflicts that constitutes your family's financial past. Here's the key for how to draw the central people and events.


Start with yourself, and if you have them, your spouse and your children. Traditionally, when the genogram is used in family therapy, we use squares to represent males and circles for females. This genogram shows a man and a woman. The solid line between them indicates that they are married and the bracket and two circles below show that they have two daughters together.



We can use other types of lines to represent other types of relationships. A broken line means a divorce or similarly terminated relationship. Or an x on the line means a relationship ended because the person passed away.



Now, we move up the family tree to show parents, grandparents and siblings. In this example, we can see that the woman from our first family system, has a sister and a brother, and that her parents are divorced. She has an uncle, her father's brother. And her mother was an only child.



Once the people and basic relationships are in place, we can write a few words about each person's attitudes and experiences with money. We might include how the person earned a living, what his or her lifestyle was like, and other significant events, such as a job loss, inheritance, or medical issue, that had a major impact on his or her financial life.


Now, we draw in how money was a factor in relationships. Let's say that after the divorce, the woman in our example, then a child, of course, went with her siblings, to live with their mother, where money was tight. We can show how the mother may have praised her son for handing over his earnings from a part-time job, while openly complaining about how much it cost to keep the young daughter in ballet lessons.



Why is this type of information important? Because any time there is a strong, emotional dynamic combined with a financial message, you can bet that it's going to be coded into a belief about money. Over time, these become the basis of the identity, affiliation, responsibility, safety, and threat categories for money has meaning. Not every example is so clear and dramatic. At this stage, your financial genogram should just be a place for you to start to jot down ideas, associations, and memories.


Going through this exercise can bring childhood messages and experiences into the full light of adult understanding, clarifying the emotional forces or gaps in learning that may be limiting you in the present day.


Questions about People


For each person in the financial genogram answer:


• What was happening in the world around him/her?

• When and where did s/he live?

• What type of work did s/he do?

• What was his/her lifestyle like?

• What do you remember him/her saying about money?

• What significant financial events happened to him/her?

• What was his/her attitude about earning, spending, managing, saving, and investing money?

• What were his/her goals? Did s/he attain them?


Questions about Relationships


For each family grouping answer:


• How did money play a part in showing love or approval between family members? How was it used to punish or exclude?

• Who was in agreement about money? Who argued or fought?


Questions about Family Culture


• What was your family’s attitude about money?

• What kinds of financial behaviour were admired?

• What were you not supposed to do or talk about in terms of money?

• What was seen as more valuable than money (e.g., education, art, passion)?

• Is there a particular story about the family’s financial history?


Questions about You


• What’s your earliest memory of money?

• When did you have your first job?

• What were you expected to do with your income? Did you do that?

• What were you taught about money?

• Did you understand and agree with how your parents approached money?

• Did you feel frustrated with your parents for their financial circumstances or choices?

• Were you and your siblings treated equally and taught the same things about money?

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