Sarah McMurray used to add up every single item on her credit card because she couldn't believe she had spent that much money.

Then she would go into what she calls "starvation mode" - stopping spending on every little thing down to 20c for a lollipop for one of the kids.

"'I thought - I have been to university, I have pieces of paper that say I am quite smart and yet I couldn't understand where all my money was going."

The former teacher set out to understand why she couldn't get to grips with her spending and ended up retraining as a money coach.

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Now she runs her own business helping successful women get a handle on their finances.

McMurray says money is a tough thing for people to talk about because it means different things to different people.

"It can be love, security, or power."

And often the only time people will talk about money is when they are spending it on something nice such as a holiday or a new car.

But she believes it is understanding the feelings connected to money which allows people to get a better grip on how to manage it.

"When you are imagining a holiday what does it feel like? It's about getting that need met without spending that kind of money."

She says people joke about retail therapy but it's very real.

"People don't binge shop at the beginning of the week. It's mainly Thursday or Friday.

"They justify it by saying, 'Well, I've had a hard week, I've earned this.' They do it to feel better."

She likens shopping with a credit card to playing with chips at a casino.

"If you were putting down a $20 note on a table you would bet less." "The thing I most often see is the experts saying 'just be rational' but human beings are not always rational."

She says getting a handle on your money is about becoming aware of what you spend and noting how it makes you feel like keeping an eye on what you eat when you're trying to lose weight.

"People don't want to admit to eating that king-size block of chocolate but if they take a photo of themselves doing it they can't deny it."

Tracking what they spend allows people to see where all their money is going and to then plan where they would like their money to go.

Then it's about enjoying spending on the things you do need.

"If you take care of those things that are hanging over people. If you eat a nourishing meal, you can turn down dessert."

McMurray says it's as if our lives are houses and the plumbing is broken and the electrical wires are coming out of the walls.

"We know we should get life insurance or go to the dentist but we are worried about how much it will cost. So we just end up buying cushions instead."

She says affording to go to the dentist comes up a lot with the people she sees. "It is a choice for a lot of people not to afford it."

She says parents wouldn't fail to take their child to the dentist so why would they do they same for themselves?

While money issues affect both sexes, women are more likely to ask for help.

"It's acceptable for women to say to their friends - I'm quite scatty with money.

"Men are supposed to be the providers. Men are supposed to be good with money but men can be just as irrational. They just like to kid themselves."

Kiwis urged to take good, hard look at finances

Kiwis are being encouraged to get a financial health check-up this week as part of Money Week.

Organised by the Commission for Financial Capability, formerly the Retirement Commission, the annual event includes a host of activities throughout the country to help people get better at looking after their money.

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell said the week was a way of focusing people's attention on those things you keep saying you'll do but never get around to because life gets in the way.

"It also creates some talk around money, which we are often reluctant to do."

People can check out how well they are doing by going to www.fightingfit.org.nz.

They can enter a competition to "define wealthy with a selfie" by taking a photo of themselves and posting it to www.woobox.com/zq9dcc.

The Financial Markets Authority is also offering a KiwiSaver health check at www.fma.govt.nz/consumers/kiwisaver/kiwisaver-health-check.

The BNZ is offering scam-savvy workshops to teach vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, about the different types of financial scams and how to avoid them.

Free financial advice will also be available over the phone from members of the Institute of Financial Advisers.

The full list of events is available at www.moneyweek.org.nz.

Getting moneywise

•Track your spending - take photos of everything you buy.

•If that feels too hard, pick one thing to track such as how often you buy snacks for the kids, or how much you spend on shoes.

•Take note of how you felt at the time.

•What are your needs and wants? McMurray's definition is that a need when met sustains you, a want entertains you.