It’s that time of year again – the kids are back in school, the leaves are turning colour, and soon Thanksgiving and Halloween traditions will be playing out in many homes. It’s a season steeped in ritual beliefs of old – giving thanks for a bountiful harvest and warding off goblins by lighting bonfires and wearing costumes. While the meaning of many rituals may not be front-of-mind, it is helpful to stop and think about how rituals help us in our daily lives.
Rituals help athletes and they can help you too
Sports psychologists1 are some of the first to have studied the power of rituals because they show up on the court, in the bullpen, and on the pitch. Many athletes – some as well-known as tennis great Rafael Nadal – have specific rituals that they perform before they compete. Nadal famously lines up the labels of his water bottles to face his opponent’s end of the court, and attributes much of his success to this pre-game behaviour. What research reveals is that the power of ritual is real. Rituals help athletes get their head in the game and visualize success. They also change the athlete’s physiology – relaxing them and loosening up their bodies so they aren’t swept away by adrenaline and are able to focus their energy.
Rituals are performance-enhancing, and it’s not just athletes who benefit from them. Rituals can help us with our money. They can also help families come together over their finances.
What is a ritual and how can families harness their power?
A ritual is a set of actions that we perform at specific times, in a very precise and intentional way. Family rituals usually involve two or more family members and are rooted in the identity of the family. They can include celebrations (e.g., graduation), traditions (e.g., summer camping trip), and patterned interactions (e.g., Sunday dinner).
The benefits of rituals in the family are many – they guide children’s behaviour, provide an emotional climate to support learning and development, and contribute to family stability, particularly in the wake of challenges.
Families can amp up the impact of the rituals that they already have by assigning special roles to children – a specific solo activity or contribution they can make to the celebration or tradition. For example, they could be assigned to make artwork to mark the occasion or prepare a simple food or beverage for the meal. When children feel they are central players in family rituals, this supports their development and fosters autonomy. They know they have a role to play, they have an opportunity to perform and perfect it, and so, they build confidence2.
Building family money rituals
As for money rituals, they work their magic on multiple fronts. Money rituals help kids build a money vocabulary, learn what money housekeeping looks like, and normalize talking about money, in both good times and bad. If financial challenges come about, a family’s money rituals serve as their anchor and “lessen the burden of change”3 by bringing the family together.
New Zealand educator Karen Tui Boyes suggests clever starting points4 for building family money rituals, including two that are rooted in behavioral economics principles:
- Create family money challenges: Set a challenge that the whole family can get in on, such as “No Spend Thursdays”. Plan out actions or a ceremony that comes before and after Challenge Day. For example, on the Eve of the Challenge, the family gets together and decides if there are any necessities that are exempt from the challenge (e.g., paying the utility bill) or actions to be taken to avoid spending (e.g., dad rides his bike to work instead of paying for the subway) Meanwhile, Post-Challenge, the family might keep a Challenge Log that tracks how the family did each week. Finally, to get the most out of the ritual, the family might assign roles to different family members – perhaps the youngest child maintains the Challenge Log and another family member is selected at random to set the following week’s challenge.
- Celebrate (even small) acts of saving: Create a specific set of actions that can be used to celebrate moments when the family chooses not to spend or finds a way to save money. It could be a little dance, a complex handshake, or a series of code words that only the family knows – something that can be exchanged on the down low in public and played up at great volume at home.
Why this works: Some money behaviors, such as saving, are hard to see and often get overlooked when they should be celebrated. This is partly because other money behaviours get all the limelight. Take spending for example – it’s obvious when we do it and we often get lots of recognition for things we buy – a new jacket, a fancy car. Rituals around saving can help families do more of it.
In sum, there are many opportunities to embed money rituals into family life – be it how a family works towards and eventually celebrates that long-saved-for purchase, or how it plans out the week’s spending together. From there, rituals can help families with their money behaviours and give children an opportunity to develop their own money thoughts and chops.
1 Schippers, M.C. & van Lange, P.A.M. (2006). The psychological benefits of superstitious rituals in top sport: A study among top sportspersons. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(10), 2532–2553.
2 Spagnola, M. & Fiese, B.H. (2007). Family routines and rituals. A context for development in the lives of young children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284-299.
3 Spagnola, M. & Fiese, B.H. (2007). Family routines and rituals. A context for development in the lives of young children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284-299.
4 Boyes, K.R. (2023). 5 Family Money Rituals. Teachers Matter Magazine, 56; https://issuu.com/karenboyes/docs/tm56_-_web/s/18268829
Vice President, Strategy at BEworks
Michelle Hilscher, Vice President, Strategy at BEworks, holds a PhD in cognitive science from the University of Toronto. In her role, Michelle co-leads the global financial services portfolio and helps clients apply behavioral science to solve challenges ranging from improving debt management and combatting fraud to improving clients' financial well-being. Michelle has been an invited speaker at events coordinated by the OECD, Gates Foundation, American Bar Association, Ontario Securities Commission and Portfolio Management Association of Canada. Prior to BEworks, Michelle advised institutional investors about how to improve governance and group decision-making.