What a 500-Year-Old Saint Taught Me About Money

Here’s a mental tool for improving your relationship with money that I learned from a saint. 

Money plays a major part in all our lives. Yet, no one really masters it. Even the richest among us are prone to inconceivable financial blunders. You just get a little better at it as time goes on. A major reason why is psychology, for which most prescribed financial tools are terribly inadequate.

This is a fact that became more apparent to me when I started a religious conversion to Catholicism, which introduced me to the saints. (For some of you, don’t worry. This isn’t some kind of attempt to evangelize.) Turns out, even the most pious of people commit sins. 

Cognitive biases and bad habits are not mental accounting errors. After all, our relationship with money is not based on simple calculations, but the perpetual stew of our economic situations, millions of years of evolution, mindsets, family history, DNA, neighbors winning the lotto, last night’s sports scores, our boss’s mood, random luck, and just about everything else in between. All of which doesn’t fit well in a nice organized spreadsheet.

One saint in particular taught me the secret to improving our relationship with something is through honest self-reflection rather than callous self-restriction. And, he had a simple five-step method for doing that, which is what I want to share in this post.

The saint in question is Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who lived in 16th-century Spain and had aspirations to become a decorated military leader and ladies man until he found himself in the path of a speeding cannonball. While convalescing in his family’s castle tower, bored out of his mind, he read a book about saints and became inspired to give up his life of adventure and chivalry to live a more meaningful life of God, going on to found the Catholic order known as the Jesuits. 

St. Ignatius popularized a prayer he called the “examination of conscience,” which is most commonly known by its original Spanish name — the examen.

Basically, the examen is a daily prayer designed to help believers find the workings of God in their lives. But it is more than that: it is a practice for heightening your attention, identifying your weaknesses without judgment and developing creative solutions for a better future. All of which makes it a useful framework for non-believers, too, who want to improve a relationship — be it with their work, an object of addiction, and, yes, even money.

To better understand how it works, it helps to first take a brief look at its original form.

St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Examen

The examen consists of just five simple steps. Yet for hundreds of years people have found it to provide profound benefits. St. Ignatius regarded it as so important to a person’s spiritual life that out of all Christian prayers it was the one he believed you should never neglect.

If you were to pray the examen, here’s what you would do:

1. Gratitude: Give thanks to God

Thank God for any favorable or positive things that happened to you during the day.

2. Ask for the grace to recognize your sins, or faults

Identify where you acted contrary to your better judgment, or what you’d recognize as turning away from God. Maybe you lost your temper with someone or didn’t lend a hand to help when you could.

3. Review of your day

Start at the moment you got out of bed and try to recall all that happened up to now. Review every event, as if watching a replay of your day. Notice not only what happened but also your emotions. What made you happy or angry or confused, or helped you to be more loving. The Ignatiation tradition labels the positive moments as “consolations” and the negative ones as “desolations.” 

4. Ask for forgiveness

At this point, ask God for forgiveness for any specific faults or sins committed throughout the day. 

5. Resolve to amend your faults

Lastly, ask for God’s grace to resolve your faults tomorrow.

As you can see, the examen is a meditative practice. Over time, the consistent reflection of your positive and negative experiences adjusts your mindset. Like mindfulness meditation, it can provide a greater awareness of your thought habits, which you can then steer toward more constructive patterns. But the examen has a more direct focus than the abstract goal of quieting your mind. For believers, that means growing closer to God. 

The beauty of the examen is that it is malleable to other areas of our lives. So, let me now show you how I have implemented it into my financial life. 

The Financial Examen

This is what I call “the financial examen.” In contrast to traditional money tools like budgeting, it is something that is self-reflective rather than restrictive. While the goal may be the same, to achieve wealth, the focus is on building habits rather than restricting actions.

Before going through each step, here are a couple suggestions for practicing the financial examen:

  • Since most of us don’t make noteworthy financial decisions every day, consider practicing it on a weekly or monthly basis. Any longer, you’re liable to forget events and overlook important experiences and emotions shaping your relationship with money. Keep in mind, this takes only 5-10 minutes to complete.
  • Use a journal. Writing down your thoughts and reflections not only lets you keep track of your progress, but it also helps you think more deeply.

Now, here are the five steps of the financial examen:

1. Gratitude

Write down what you are most grateful for in the past week or month. This isn’t much different than keeping a gratitude journal. Here’s the thing though: Don’t feel obligated to simply note what you think you should feel grateful for — food, health, job, etc. That stuff is fine, but make it personal. Maybe you’re grateful for the way the barista remembers your name and coffee order each morning. Maybe you appreciate the pithy way your boss acknowledges your performance on a project. 

Ultimately, you may find that living a certain lifestyle or surrounding yourself with certain people is what you value most, or that money isn’t even a factor in the places you most feel grateful. 

For me, I’ve come to realize how much I cherish walking my kids to school every day. Therefore, I can’t imagine taking on work that would not allow for that, no matter what the financial reward. That’s a financial revelation, one I couldn’t have imagined saying only a couple years ago. 

The point is that gratitude comes in all shapes and sizes. And, it is as physiologically uplifting as it is spiritually uplifting. As the writer Melody Beattie wrote: “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Research suggests that gratitude is a powerful quality. Studies by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough show that people who counted their blessings had a more positive outlook on life, exercised more, reported fewer symptoms of illness and were more likely to help others. This is further supported in work by psychologist Nathaniel Lambert that finds stronger feelings of gratitude are associated with lower materialism. 

Perhaps, most important, giving thanks tempers our innate desire for more — from which many financial mistakes are born. 

In the words of Aesop:  “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

2. Review your days

Pick yourself up in your mind like the little Google map figure and plop yourself back in time to the beginning of last week or last month. Now, run through that period of time and jot down any positive moments and any negative moments that you feel are noteworthy. Explore their financial ramifications. What things did you do that were aligned with your financial goals? What about the things that were contrary to those goals? How did they make you feel?

Using the words of St. Ignatius, these are your consolations and desolations. For example, you might note how relieving it felt to increase your retirement savings contribution. Or, on the other hand, you might feel guilty for buying a new car without shopping around first. 

What’s most important about this step is that it can develop your ability to pay attention, which is no small thing. In the Art of Noticing, journalist Rob Walker makes the point: “Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight.”

Our past experience can offer more insight and clues about our relationship with money than the size of a bank account or investment return.

Over time, you will become more aware of your habits, which will help you anticipate them in the present. Reflecting on your past is a way to “apprentice yourself to the present,” as the poet Maggie Smith puts it. And, with enough reflection your true values will reveal themselves like diamonds in the minutiae of life. 

3. Identify your faults

Here, take an honest look at the actions that were not in your best financial interest. Perhaps, like many people today, you fell victim to FOMO or overconfidence bias and bet big on some risky investments that didn’t pan out.

It may sound unhealthy to marinate on your faults, but it’s actually a productive exercise in humility. Remember, no one is perfect; not even a saint. It’s good to have a good dose of humility in life. As Bob Seawright writes: “If we turn the light of humility inward, we’ll see how much of our success — such as it is — is due to others and luck.”

What’s more, naming your faults is the first step to overcoming them. It is an acknowledgement of your desire to grow. After all, these are the things standing between you and your better future. Take it from Dorothy Day, potential saint in her own right, who wrote: “It is always so good to write our problems down so that in reading them over six months or a year later one can see them evaporate.”

4. Reconcile with your faults

Now that you know where your faults lie, it’s time to imagine a better future and devise steps to make it a reality. In other words, what can you do to reconcile those faults with your financial goals? What specific steps are within your power to alleviate or eliminate your problems in the future?

It could be something as simple as increasing your emergency fund. Or, maybe it is as big as rearranging your lifestyle. Maybe you would be better off living a more minimalist life, or maybe you need to work harder to increase your income. 

Some solutions that come to mind may seem impossible, but keep trying. To look for solutions to your faults is an act of hope, which can benefit you in many ways. In one of his columns, Arthur Brooks says hope “is a conviction that one can act to make things better in some way.” He explains that research shows “high-hope employees are 28 percent more likely to be successful at work and 44 percent more likely to enjoy good health and well-being.”

Hope compounds. Hope begets hope. A courageous commitment to hope paves the way to a better place.

5. Resolve to make better decisions

Last but not least, the hardest step of them all: decide what steps you are going to take and commit to taking them. 

Remember to be kind to yourself. Because if this exercise reveals anything to you, it’s that you’re not perfect. And, the goal isn’t to become perfect, it’s to move forward in life gracefully with your imperfections.

The challenging part is accountability. A consistent practice of the examen can help. Sharing your goals with someone else is another way to keep yourself accountable. 

For lasting change though, consider building what James Clear calls identity-based habits. Essentially, you imagine yourself as the person you want to be and then manifest that identity with the acts that would be attributed to that identity. 

Or, just think of yourself as Batman. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. 

Hopefully, this introduction to the financial examen encourages you to explore the psychological side of your financial life. At the very least, it can help you notice the progress you’re making when it often feels as if you’re not moving at all. 

It is said, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. The actions of your past are not who you are today. But they can help you become the person you want to be in the future. Recognize the inner spirit we all have to build a host of better possibilities for ourselves. 


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