The Psychology of Money:  Understanding the Role of Financial Self-Efficacy

In his long career at Stanford University, Albert Bandura, world renowned psychologist, has made tremendous contributions to our understanding of human behavior and motivation.  One of his main areas of focus has been the concept of self-efficacy, a person’s belief in his/her ability to succeed in specific endeavors. 

In fact, Bandura’s research has demonstrated that self-efficacy is the most powerful determinant of an individual’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and accomplishments.  He found that people with a strong sense of their capabilities 1) view difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered; 2) develop a deep interest in their activities; 3) set challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to them, and 4) recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments. 

In contrast, individuals with a weak sense of self-efficacy 1) view difficult tasks as threats to be avoided; 2) quickly lose confidence and dwell on personal deficiencies and other obstacles to achieving desired results; 3) have low aspirations and weak commitment to goals, and 4) are slow to recover from setbacks and disappointments.


Because self-efficacy has been shown to be a powerful catalyst for positive change, a number of researchers and educators have been exploring the connection between this psychological precept and higher levels of financial well-being.  In fact, one researcher concluded that financial self-efficacy appears to be the missing link between knowledge and effective action.” 

Nonetheless, it is important to understand that financial self-efficacy is not only related to one’s level of financial knowledge and skills.  A number of studies have demonstrated that a several subjective factors—such as personality, family history, social and cultural norms, and frames of reference—all shape an individual’s sense of financial self-efficacy. 


According to Bandura, there are four major sources of self-efficacy:  experiencing success, choosing good role models, responding to encouragement, and managing physical and emotional responses.  Therefore, because self-efficacy is task specific, it is important to consider how these four strategies can be applied to personal finance and utilized to nurture and strengthen your clients’ sense of financial self-efficacy. 

1. Experiencing Success

The most effective way to build a strong sense of self-efficacy is through performing a task successfully.  One example in the world of personal finance is creating a plan to reduce spending and pay off a large credit card balance.   The skills required to manage cash flow and the discipline needed to stick with the plan will inspire pride and motivate additional action steps towards financial well-being.  In other words, successfully completing one important financial task will increase confidence in one’s ability to tackle the next one!

2. Choosing Role Models

Witnessing friends and family members successfully completing a money management task is another important source of financial self-efficacy.  According to Bandura, “Through their behavior and expressed ways of thinking, competent models transmit knowledge and teach observers effective skills and strategies for managing environmental demands.” 

For example, if a close friend of one of your clients relates how he/she researched several auto insurance policies before making a purchase, your client would likely do the same, trusting that he/she also has the skills and resources needed to do effective comparison shopping.

3. Responding to Encouragement

Bandura also asserted that people can be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed.  Hearing and accepting encouragement from you will help your clients to overcome self-doubt, and to focus instead on giving their best effort to overcoming financial challenges and achieving their financial goals.

4. Managing Physical & Emotional Responses

Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how individuals feel about their personal abilities in a particular situation.  However, by learning how to minimize stress and elevate mood when facing difficult or challenging tasks, your clients can improve their sense of self-efficacy.

For instance, paying monthly bills can be an anxiety producing activity for couples and touch off arguments regarding each other’s spending habits.  As a remedy, you can assist in establishing mutually defined ground rules for financial conversations that will help client couples to facilitate respectful communication and shared financial goals.  

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