Accountant Baubre Murray knew as soon as she met clients whether they'd succeed at their financial goals or not. It was the language coming out of their mouths.
Those who spoke in negative language such as "we can't afford that", "we don't earn enough", "banks are robbers" and so on, tended to believe subconsciously what they were saying and found financial matters stressing.
The other group who used positive phrases such as "what can we do to be able to afford that" and "we earn enough" had more successful outcomes with money, even if they earned no more.
Unfortunately, those with the negative self-talk over money infected their children with the same thinking.
Since selling her Wellington accountancy practice, Murray has been compelled to start writing the lessons she learned from her own life and clients and raise the financial awareness of Kiwis. She has written a book: Stop Worrying About Money: a simple guide to creating a financially sustainable future for your family.
Murray noticed that while clients' language often affected their outcome, she had to be a bit more circumspect in getting them to change. A very common example was the young person who walked in overwhelmed by student loans and saying: "I am never going to be able to buy a house."
"If they keep talking like that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Murray. "If they turn that around and say 'how can I make this happen?' then you start seeing (steps to take) such as cutting down expenses, putting more into KiwiSaver, buying in (a different) suburb."
When Murray suggested I write this article, YouTube had been hounding me all the way through lockdown with the same advert from lender Harmoney. I have seen that ad 50+ times and the language compelled me to watch.
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"I've got a mortgage," it began. "That's a loan. I have a student loan. Travelled, I put that on the credit card ... I've done debt consolidation. Who wants to be in debt? I don't want a mortgage. But there are times to save and times to spend ... So when it makes sense I borrow. You know?"
The words are designed to normalise borrowing. Yet consumer debt stops many people get ahead financially and drives others as far as suicide. You know? The advert's only saving grace is that it replaced another continuous loop from a woman with an English accent badgering me about how selling on Amazon was going to change my life. Yeah, right.
Normally I'd interview a psychology or behavioural finance academic for an article like this. Instead, I asked the advice of AUT associate professor Sharon Harvey, a linguistics expert, about how language changes our behaviour and thinking.
When I called she had disappeared down a rabbit hole thanks to the YouTube link I'd sent as an aside to my questions. "They [Harmoney] are a very effective deployer of all the language tools that are available to bring people in," says Harvey. "It's very seductive, that ad. Even the word 'Harmoney' makes you think of things that work together and are lovely, not the horrible gripping reality of debt. It's one of the most effective lending ads I've ever seen."
Language, says Harvey, and discourse are used to create your version of the truth. The language of the advertisement compares taking out a mortgage with personal lending, which says Harvey are completely different things. Good borrowing and bad borrowing were placed in the same framework thanks to the language.
Harvey cites French philosopher Michel Foucault, who talks about the construction of discourse as ways of constituting knowledge. So the language we read and see actually starts to construct the way we think about the world.
In my words that means negative language around money, breeds negative outcomes. Positive language and thoughts may not make you a millionaire overnight, as Murray points out. It can get you on the right track. Just don't get led astray by the misuse of positive language encouraging you to do dumb things with your money.