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As a researcher, I’ve spent years studying people and the systems we live within. One prominent focus of my research has been people and money—how they feel and think about money, why they spend or invest it, and what influences and informs their money behavior.

I’ve had the privilege of talking with humans across socioeconomic status, segments, and geographies. One thing remains undeniably true—humans are deeply irrational, highly emotional, and incredibly inconsistent. And, yet, we are at the center of the economic activity of our world. Here are five things I’ve learned about humans and money—and what they mean for the financial industry.


Myth—Humans are logical. When it comes to money matters, we like to believe that humans make logical decisions based on facts. It’s easy, right? How much to save, spend, and invest really depends on how much money you have coming in and what jobs you need that money to do.

  • Truth—Humans are deeply emotional. When money happens, it’s emotional. When money doesn’t happen, it’s emotional. When money is waiting to happen, it’s emotional. In Rebel’s Customer Journey Through Finance report, 42% of people, irrespective of income, reported that money makes them feel stressed.


Myth—Humans rely on experts for financial advice. We want to believe that when it comes to money, humans rely on experts for advice. I mean, after all, when our car breaks down we go to the mechanic, we stand in line at the Genius Bar at Apple when our computer stops working, and when our home has a leak we call the plumber. So, it makes sense that when we have big money decisions or goals, we seek out the experts, right?

  • Truth—Most people rely on their networks for advice. Even if they do rely on experts, chances are, the expert voice isn’t the only one giving them advice. Ask any seasoned wealth investment advisor who has experienced the calls of a panicked client who has fresh advice from their friend about how to handle a down day in the market. In the Rebel Consumer Journey Report, almost half (48%) of financially stressed individuals ask their network for financial advice, over and beyond experts or advisors. The reality is that, for better or worse, people depend on their trusted network—friends and family—to help them navigate money.


MythIf it’s too confusing, they will ask questions. In general, there’s an overarching belief in finance that states when people encounter something they do not know or understand about money, they will reach out to ask questions. Eh, not so much.

  • TruthPeople are more likely to ask questions if they know they can act. Individuals will not seek out clarity or ask questions when it comes to money matters—unless they believe they can act on the recommendations. In short, if they don’t think they can do the thing the answer recommends (e.g., save 20% of their income)—they will avoid asking the question.


MythGoal progress is a good measurement. There’s an industry-wide belief that humans measure their progress based on the goal. For example, if our goal is to save X dollars for retirement—we’ll judge our own performance based on our progression toward that goal. That is total bull sh*t.

  • TruthComparisons are used to judge progress. Humans learn by watching others. It’s how we learn social interaction, language, work, and play. It stands to reason that money is no different. Humans judge their progress based on how well they are doing—in comparison to those who look like them. So, if our goal is to save X dollars for retirement—we often measure how well we’re doing—based on what humans who are similar to us have saved.


MythHaving money must mean they know how to manage money. We seem to equate having money with understanding money. Which, on the surface, seems like it should go together. Understanding money certainly can help one have money.

  • TruthHaving money does not mean understanding money. But alas, having money only means having money. In fact, Rebel’s X Factor report highlights that 32% of individuals who make over $200K annually actually have a below-average financial literacy level. Just because they have it does not mean they know what to do with it.
The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

The reality is the relationship with people and money is wrought with emotions, challenges, and blind spots. So often in working with financial brands, this quote from Richard Thaler comes to my mind. It isn’t about what the financial industry doesn’t know about our audiences that gets us in trouble—it’s what we think we know for sure that just isn’t reality.