The Five Money Lessons You Need to Unlearn, According to a Finance Expert

Financial journalist and educator Vanessa Stoykov shares her five pillars for unlearning money and reinventing your life in her latest book The Breakfast Club for 40-Somethings.

Written a bit like a fictional anthropology of financial lives, Stoykov’s book follows the lives of six 40-something-year-old friends, detailing their life decisions, both conscious and unconscious, how they grew up, what place they hold in society and how they view themselves. Brought together at their 25-year high school reunion, the six friends, plus one handy financial planner, take a seat in the gym and start learning how to manage their wealth by unlearning the habits that were holding them back.

Below is an edited excerpt from the book:

Chapter 12: The unlearn pillars

He drew a large circle on the board. He wrote a heading that said ‘The 5 unlearns’ at the top of the circle. The first word was DESIRE.

“Have you ever wondered why we stopped building churches and started building malls?” he asked. “Our ode to stuff – consumerism – is one of the biggest traps of the western world. When our church is a shopping mall, what are we encouraged to do? We’re encouraged to spend. And this spending comes at a heavy price – the freedom we don’t have, because we’re in debt. We’re leveraged. And we have to keep working to pay for it all.”

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They all knew Josie was the most obvious candidate for unlearning desire.

“Josie, it’s not just you who needs to really think about this. Who here has a big mortgage? Who here is trapped in a lifestyle they can barely afford? Who is miserable because of it?”

Karen and Russ both shot their hands up. Looking at each other, they laughed. They felt like school kids again, both confessing they didn’t know the answers.

“Pretty normal stuff, guys,” Ben continued. “Most of Sydney would confess to the same thing. Yet we stay here, and pay up and stay miserable and change nothing.” Ben had many clients from the most affluent middle class suburbs, and he knew these suburbs often held the most miserable of people.

“Trying to look like you have it all but then peddling like crazy to keep it all going is a real misery trap. And the desire trap is just that – the trap that keeps us in a life that ultimately brings us misery.”

Ben continued his writing in the circle. The next word he wrote was FOCUS.

“This is a big one – and it’s the reason most people don’t get what they want in the long term. Because what you focus on is what you get.” Ben underlined the word. “Too many people focus on what’s in front of them. The next holiday. The next job. The next party. The next crisis. Whatever it is; next is the order of the day. They forget the bigger picture of what they really want from their life overall.”

“I’m suspecting this one is aimed at me,” said Jasper a little glumly. Everyone had heard his confession that he was a life loser – still living with his Mum, going from job to job. The truth was he’d never had a bigger vision for his life. Not since high school, anyway, when he dreamed of being a professional footballer. When that didn’t happen, he didn’t set himself any other big dreams – and so his focus remained small. Looking for the next party, or the next good time.

“This is a lot of people, not just you, Jasper,” Ben explained. “The funny thing about life is you usually get what you spend most of your time thinking about.”

“You know, that’s my issue too,” said Jayne. “I was so focused on getting married, getting a husband and having kids. When that fell apart, my focus ever since has been on survival. Outside of finding someone else to love, I don’t really have a bigger focus at all.”

Ben nodded encouragingly. “There are no right and wrong answers when it comes to this stage of our lives – only realisations, and understanding what you want and what’s not working for you anymore.” Ben knew from experience that, too often, people expected other people to bring them happiness.

“When your goal is a husband and kids, then there’s a lot of expectation on that to be the biggest happiness bringer in your life. Without a focus on what you want for you, expecting other people to bring you happiness and fulfilment becomes impossibly hard.”

Ben went back to the board again, this time writing the word TIME in another segment of the circle.

“This one is perhaps the hardest one of all to master,” said Ben. “Because time can’t be stopped. You can’t go back and you can’t get more.” Ben shook his head. “So many people think they have all the time in the world. To get what they want. To have that great relationship. To plan for their retirement. But so many of us leave it too late.”

It was here Brad nodded. “That one’s mine.”

Everyone looked at him, amazed. If anyone had made a good use of their time, it was Brad Malone. He was, after all, a billionaire. “I’ve spent all my time working. No wife, no kids and no real relationship with my family,” Brad admitted quietly, suddenly embarrassed by how short-sighted he had been.

“Well, if money is the only measure of success, you are successful,” said Ben. “But, if you value love, human connection and family, then, yep, you’ve used up your time on other things.”

Josie looked at Brad and smiled sadly. “I totally understand what you mean,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure my mother ruined it for me,” Brad admitted, quickly giving the group a rundown on how much he’d always resented his overbearing mother for pushing him so hard.

“Brad, I know your Mum,” Ben interjected. “She belongs to our Rotary group. And, I have to say, she talks about you nonstop. She is incredibly proud of your achievements.”

“I bet she is,” said Brad bitterly. “That’s all she has ever been to me – someone pushing for me to achieve, to make her look good. I got over trying to please her a long time ago. Now I just try to forget, and avoid her.”

“I’m going to finish the circle,” said Ben, moving back to the board. The next word he wrote was BELIEF.

“This one is fascinating,” Ben explained, “because it comes from both how you grew up and how much confidence you have in yourself. Look at Josie and Brad.” Both squirmed a little with the spotlight suddenly on them. “Why do you think they have been so successful financially? Does anybody remember what they were like at high school? I know I do.”

“Josie was incredibly driven and determined,” said Karen. “I always admired her for that.”

“So was Brad,” Josie piped up. “That’s what attracted me to him.”

“That’s right,” said Ben. “Do you think they both believed they would succeed? I know they did – in fact I wrote that in the school yearbook.” He turned back to the rest of the group. “But let’s look at everyone else’s beliefs. Jasper – did you have any beliefs around money and your financial success?”

Jasper thought about it for a while. “You know, I believed I was good at sport, and I wanted to have a good time. But I never believed I would make a lot of money. I guess Dad ground into me that you had to work really hard to make money – and that sounded pretty boring to me. So I avoided it.” Jasper looked like he was having a major realisation as he was saying this. He had never thought about his financial situation this way before. Who would have thought that those beliefs set up by his father could be a big reason he was in his current predicament, at his age?

“I bet we could all think of situations from our childhood where we developed beliefs that have limited us. You’re certainly not the only one Jasper.”

Each of the group sat there thinking about how they grew up. It was a little shattering to realise that, while they were all grown up, they were still a product of their childhood.

“I guess I figured I would never be good at earning money,” Karen mused. “My mother never worked and I always expected I would be like her. I always put all my belief in Russ. I guess that’s been a lot of pressure for him.”

Ben looked pleased that the group really seemed to be embracing the principles of unlearning money and life.

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“Now for the final part of the circle,” he said, writing the word ACTION on the board.

“I mean the kind of action that people take to get their lives in order – both financially, and from a life plan perspective. And, believe it or not, even if you have all the other unlearn pillars down pat, without this one, people will end up not having the life they really want.”

The whole group leaned forward at this. Ben was making sense – taking the right action was what it was all about. And, at their age, making wrong decisions had more than dire circumstances.

About Vanessa Stoykov

Vanessa-StoykovVanessa Stoykov is the founder and chief executive of evolution media group, creator of No More Practice Education, Channel Nine’s Learn from the Money Masters: The Investment Series and the author of The Breakfast Club for 40-Somethings. She has spent the past 24 years working in the financial industry, and has been dedicated to helping professionals and financial advisers learn to grow wealth by focusing on ‘educating the educators’.


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