How Your ACE Score Affects Your Money Habits

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This feature by Eugenié George is the latest in the Intersectional Money series. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek your physician’s advice or another qualified health provider with any questions regarding a medical condition. 

Economic inequity takes on many forms. One of the forms it takes is through trauma. This article will discuss Adverse Childhood Experiences and how they can affect Women of Color’s economic inequity. We will also cover steps to address the past with the present. 

Money Triggers

Imagine grocery shopping one sunny afternoon. You have all the right ingredients in your grocery cart, and you’re ready to purchase. 

But you have a taste for Honeycrisp apples. 

You look at the price tag and see that the apples are $3.49 a pound. That’s, like, a dollar more than any of the other apples! You have money to purchase the product, but you experience a weird uneasy feeling in your gut. Your brain is running several ideas: 

Girl, don’t waste your money on that! You can get cheaper apples at Kroger.

But on the other hand, apples are healthy, and you know what they say about apples and doctors.

You don’t have any money at all. 

If I had a man (or woman) who supported me, I could buy apples. 

I bet White people don’t have this problem. 

We can’t afford that because papa is looking for a new job. 

Now in the 35,000 thoughts that we run through our brain, which thought was the weirdest?

It was probably, “We can’t afford that because papa is looking for a new job.” 

Why was that thought in your brain, you might ask?  It’s because even though we are deciding on an action in the present, our minds can be triggered by Financial PTSD

Our money triggers can help us.

We experience money triggers from our traumatic experiences in the past. In many ways, these triggers help us avoid a lot of terrible situations. 

When I was little, my family told me never to walk in a check-cashing business because many of them engage in predatory lending. 

And I’m glad that they did because, according to the National Associates of Consumer Advocates, payday lending could ruin your credit and charge you five times more than cashing your check at a bank. 

This warning was given to be because my family did go to the check-cashing place and learned from their experience. 

Our money triggers can hurt us.

On the other hand, our money triggers can hurt us. They can stop us from getting the things we want. 

It can be as little as not purchasing Honeycrisp Apples — even though you can afford them. It could manifest as accepting less pay than you’re worth, even though you’ve attempted to negotiate your pay. 

Trauma and Money Habits

On a personal level, the most challenging thing as a writer is to convey to readers the urgency around money and trauma. Using trauma as a reflective-interactive tool can help Women of Color process their cultural beliefs around gender and race. 

As I was looking for more scientific research to support this case, I stumbled upon a TED Talk by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke entitled Adverse Childhood Experiences.  

What is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)? 

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are the traumatic events that occur during childhood between the ages of 0-17 years. Some examples of these traumatic events are: 

  • Experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse — including neglect. 
  • Witnessing alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Divorce or family separation.

ACE scores are formulated on a one to four scale. A score of one means you’ve experienced one form of childhood abuse. Four or more means you had many hardships to overcome. 

It’s also important to know that ACE scores don’t talk about racism. They don’t talk about coping strategies or how someone overcame adversity. 

So if someone has a high ACE score, they can also be dealing with environmental trauma, such as gender and racial inequity.

The Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente investigated childhood abuse and how childhood abuse and neglect can impact adults. It turns out that most adults have experienced trauma in their life. 

According to the Center for Youth Wellness, about two-thirds of study participants had experienced at least one ACE category. The higher your ACE score, the higher the likelihood of developing long-term health problems like heart disease or cancer. 

Could ACE Scores be the missing link to personal finance?

When I stumbled upon this research, I kept asking my personal finance friends if they had heard of ACEs, and many of them scratched their heads in disbelief. This research meant that we could find out adults’ long-term health habits if we learned about their trauma. 

It also meant that I could find the relationship between ACE scores and socioeconomic patterns.

A 2014 study explained that the monetary hardship on women who had an ACE Score of two or more had a history of economic adversity. A UK study found out that women with an ACE score of two or more have a higher risk of premature death than women with lower scores. Many of these women had premature deaths from lack of health planning and budget prioritizing.

So what does this mean? 

It means that our trauma can have an economic impact that can affect our future lives. When we experience trauma as children, it can create barriers around future health and opportunity if not addressed early. 

The pathways associated with ACE scores could increase the likelihood of adopting harmful health behavior, impacting one’s ability to achieve upward mobility (i.e., education, employment, and income.) It also means that our ACE score can create an awareness of how vital social connections are to our overall health. 

Because we know that most Americans have experienced trauma, we must start the conversation around our behavior and emotions. 

My Family’s ACE Story

In my book, Our Money Stories, I go through a journey of understanding my ACE score through my father’s eyes. It occurred to me that my father had a high ACE score. Still, he managed not to endure all the adverse outcomes associated with high ACE scores: Violent behavior, incarceration, and premature death. 

But my dad did have one addiction that I was able to identify: His soda addiction. 

Coping with one’s emotion through addiction is a common practice. According to reporting done by Tulsa World, soda and cigarettes help people soothe and regulate emotions

The larger problem is that many adults with high ACE scores didn’t develop the ability to soothe and control emotions when they are stressed.  So as adults, they create ways to relieve their feelings either through food, soda, or cigarettes. 

On the economic side, the cost of any addiction is expensive AF. When I sat down with my father, it occurred to me that my dad spent money on soda every day. 

How ACE Scores affect your spending 

Prior to 2016, money was the number one cause of stress in America. The American Psychological Association reported that 72% of Americans stressed out about money at least some time during the previous month. 

ACE scores are the aspirin to your money headache. Why is this? 

It’s because the way we handle stress stems from our childhood. The adversity that we experience as a child — like divorce or neglect — can alter how our body reacts to all situations. In a recent discovery, ACEs Too High explained that our ACE scores could create long-term changes in our bodies without us even knowing it. 

Let’s go back to our example earlier in the article:

If I had a man (or woman) who supported me, I could buy apples. 

We can’t afford that because papa is looking for a new job. 

These ideas may stem from ACEs. 

ThoughtThe potential link to ACEs
We can’t afford that because papa is looking for a new job.Because the family dealt with financial insecurity, the child feels neglected.
If I had a man (or woman) who supported me, I could buy apples.You might be a child from a divorce who fixates on ‘what-ifs’.

Our past can unconsciously help us make decisions. Paying attention to our thoughts and behavior patterns with money can help us create reflective money habits. Sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find what’s going on.

3 Action Steps to Understand Your ACE Score 

Take the ACE Test 

Let’s be real: Taking the plunge of learning your ACE score can be a traumatic experience. 

Sometimes many of us block our traumatic experiences. They can be overwhelming. If you are comfortable taking the ACE test, you can do so here. You can also take it with a therapist or a specialist. 

Write in a Journal

One of the most healing forms of understanding one’s trauma is by writing it on paper. Take out a piece of paper and start writing about your past. Hannah Brame, author of The Year of You wrote a series of money journal prompts, and we’ve found the best ones to get your ACE brain activated:  

How do you talk about money with friends and family? (Do you?)

What does it mean to you to have “not enough” money

What does it mean to you to have “too much” money?

Write a Money Brain Dump 

A quick money stress reliever is creating a money brain dump list. 

A money brain dump list is the act of setting a timer and writing down all of the things that are bothering you. You can make your brain dump money-specific and write out a list of financial stressors. 

Getting your fears on paper can relieve your current money stress. It can also help you make a mental note of why you are stressed, so you can work through it and process your stress in new, healthier ways. 

Eugenié uses her 10+ years’ experience in tech, education, and finances to lead high- achieving individuals to understand their money habits. She works as a financial wellness strategist and is the author of Our Money Stories.

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1 thought on “How Your ACE Score Affects Your Money Habits

  1. Elyssa @ Brave Saver

    Wow, what a powerful piece. Thank you Eugenie for laying it out so well. I know that grappling with the adversity in my background helped me get past blocks to choosing more passion- and purpose-based work — rather than defaulting to whatever job would pay the most. Understanding and processing our traumas is so important to making more intentional and purpose-based choices with our money, rather than reactive and fear-based behaviors. Thank you for this post.

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