Money quirks: The weird things we do with money

Chances are great that something about your money or credit management system is, well, a little odd. Maybe you must whisper a special prayer to the ATM gods before withdrawing funds, or only pay your bills on a Thursday. Such actions aren't rational, says Pandora MacLean-Hoover, co-founder and clinical director of the Think-Diff Institute, located in Lexington, Massachusetts. They’re quirks, she says, and everyone has some.

To each his own, right? Absolutely. Unless, that is, your financial quirks are actually damaging your life. Then it’s time to reassess your “It’s just the way I do things” ways.

Common money quirks
A quirk, by definition, is simply an unusual habit or way of behaving. Whil the action itself may appear ludicrous, the cause for it is usually legitimate.

“Most people have money fears and vulnerabilities,” says MacLean-Hoover. “They adopt personal strategies to contend with them.”

Although many eccentricities may be amusing to outsiders, don’t laugh without first examining your own actions, says Judy Reisner, author of “Admit It, You're Crazy! Quirks, Idiosyncrasies, and Irrational Behavior.” You probably have at least one money quirk – and there may be a good reason to embrace it.

“Quirks are comforting and reassuring,” says Reisner, “They’re harmless, offbeat habits and rituals that help us cope.” Financial management is rich with them, Reisner explains, having interviewed thousands of people on the subject. Among the most common are quirks having to do with money, such as:

  • Bills must be placed in wallets in a particular order or face in the same direction. Some people order them by denomination and even by serial number.

  • Always wrapping the smallest bill around larger bills.

  • Only picking up a coin when it is heads-side up. Some will even turn the coin in that direction for the next person who sees it.

  • Buying everything in “twos.” If they have one, they’ll need a spare item to balance it out numerically. People tend to prefer even rather than odd numbers.

Thomas Faupl, a San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist, specializes in financial issues and agrees that money quirks are usually benign.

“They’re self-soothing rituals developed to deal with mild anxiety,” says Fauple. “Holding bills a certain way or turning your credit card over a few times before using it can alleviate stress. It gives you a sense of control. It’s unconscious; it helps people feel good about some sort of underlying worry about money.”

Understand where your money quirk comes from
So how did you get your quirk? Over time, says Reisner, and family superstitions and cultural influences are a major foundation.

“In the Jewish religion, when we want something good to happen, we put money in the charity box,” she says. “In many parts of Asia, the number eight is considered lucky, but four is unlucky. (For example, a home for sale may be listed at an auspicious $888,888.) After a while, though, it becomes a subconscious thing; you just do it without thinking. The quirk develops around the superstition or what you grew up with.”

Other quirks may originate from personal or professional experience. Alex Reichmann, CEO of the Monsey, New York, currency security company, says his is a result of being in the industry. As the owner of a business specializing in counterfeit money detection, Reichmann is acutely aware of what money is handed to him.

“I always look over my bills after going to a bank or getting back change in bills that are over a few dollars,” Reichmann says. The process has become automatic. He’ll check anything over $5, looking for sketchy borders, oddly sized serial numbers or missing watermarks. Hundred dollar bills get swiped with a counterfeit detector pen. His process is hardly the norm, but Reichmann says the U.S. government does not have a reimbursement program. If you receive a fake bill, you will probably be out the cash if it’s discovered. Worse, spending counterfeit money is illegal, so you could be in trouble if you tried to use it.

Denise Delvis, a communications specialist from Kingman, Arizona, has a banking background, and developed a specific way of foiling identity thieves. “When I destroy an expired card, I cut it into three pieces,” says Delvis. “I then make sure each piece goes into a different trash bag over the course of a week or so to make sure no one can reconstruct the card.” She admits she may be a little paranoid, “but it’s a ritual I go through every time. It sounds so ridiculous when I say it out loud! But I get a sense of completion, safety.”

Retired trucker John Hall lives outside Fargo, North Dakota, and keeps every credit card he's ever had in a lockbox with other important documents: “I have over 30 by now. They are all closed, but I opened them when I started driving at 19 and can't throw them out. I like knowing they are there even though I can't use them.”

Hall often takes the cards out and spreads them on his desk, explaining that it makes him feel accomplished. “We were poor. My parents never had money, no credit. It was always hand-to-mouth. All my credit cards show I’ve come far from that. I like holding them. I guess that's weird, but it’s not hurting anyone, and I’m too old to care about what people think.”

Conversely, youth is more concerned with public opinion, causing millions of those in the millennial generation to adopt a relatively new money quirk. Sebastian Fung, vice president of crowdfunding company, says most of his customers are young adults who are compelled to seek validation from their friends and peers. Prior to making any business or borrowing decision, they take it to social media.

“It’s a quirk among millennials to get validation from Instagram or Facebook followers first,” says Fong. They often need a lot of “likes” before pulling the trigger. This is not necessarily a negative habit, says Fong: “I think quirks are helpful if they save you money and prevent you from making transactions you otherwise wouldn't have rationally made.”

How to know if your money quirk is destructive
While some quirks may be innocuous, others can be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The result can be severe anxiety as sufferers fixate on a task. When there are psychological repercussions for not following through with a certain behavior pattern, OCD is a possibility, warns Faupl. “You may have to turn the credit card over in your hand six times, 10 times a day, and if you don’t you will experience great emotional discomfort.” According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 2.2 million people in the U.S. are afflicted with OCD.

Being a bit compulsive isn’t always debilitating, says Reisner, who explains that dedication to extreme cleanliness, especially regarding cash, is prevalent. In fact, she says, messy, smudged bills are a no-go for her: “I have to spend dirty money first. If the bill is wrinkled, old, the corners are folded? No. It’s disgusting! Sometimes I even ask for a clean bill in exchange for the one I’ve been given.”

Reisner’s research has found that such literal money laundering is one of the more typical obsessive financial idiosyncrasies. “I had a colleague who, when he was playing the tooth fairy for his child, would iron the bills first,” says Reisner. “He was getting rid of germs, but it was also about aesthetics.”

To determine if your financial behavior is a quirk or evidence of something needing attention, Faupl suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Is this quirk affecting my life in any kind of negative way?
  • Can I stop the quirk without too much trouble?
  • Has anyone I love or respect told me that my quirk is worrying them?
  • Is my quirk impeding my work, friendships, or family?
  • If you answer “yes” to any, interpret it as a sign that you may need to explore why you’re doing what you’re doing. “You can get a handle on it by checking in with a mental health practitioner,” says Faupl. “Take it seriously, because it can result in personal conflicts and poor financial decisions.”

    On the other hand, if the answer is “no” to all, you can relax. When you’re sure the quirk is neither a crutch nor an obsession, and no one is getting hurt, all it is doing is soothing your nervous system, says Faupl. “It’s interesting. You can even feel empowered, more relaxed. Doing little things that don’t make sense to anyone but you might just make you feel better, more calm, and in control.”

    See related: 5 financial cleanses to break bad money habits, Financial heuristics: Money rules to live by