Stuart Tyson (Magazine)

I've always remembered the advice my father gave me when I was a bookish middle schooler, considering writing as a career. "Do what you love," he would tell me. "The money will follow." This was remarkably generous: My family had recently arrived from Central America, cash was tight, and my dad was, of all things, an economist. He didn't take money matters lightly, and while his words were meant to be freeing, they came with a tricky subtext: If money simply "followed," then I really didn't need to worry about it.

That message became part of my "money script"--a term financial therapists use for phrases that reveal our core beliefs about earning, saving, and spending. "Your money personality can be directly related to the things your parents said," says New York--based psychotherapist Kachina Myers, who specializes in helping clients with money issues.

Myers says that many children who get talks similar to the one my dad gave me adopt a financially careless attitude ("If money isn't important, why know anything about it?"). I grew up to earn a nice income as a writer and editor, but I saved very little and didn't bother to think about investing or retirement until my late 30s. Then the recession hit. I can't help but wish I'd put even a third of the money I blew on happy hours and beach vacations into a savings account. Then I'd be guaranteed mojitos during retirement, right? "It's never too late to change how you think about money," says Myers. In my case, she suggests I start by reading all my bank statements. "Money isn't the most important thing in life, but your cash needs to be working for you, and that won't happen if you ignore it," she says. While shaking off deep-rooted ideas about money won't be easy, pinpointing the language that has you operating at less than your full financial potential is exactly where you should start. Get a new take on the most familiar money lines below.

THEY SAID: "We can't afford it."

YOU HEARD: "We have no control over what we can buy."

YOU MAY BE... in major debt.

Among all the unintentionally harmful money messages, "this phrase is the biggest offender," says Liz Weston, author of There Are No Dumb Questions About Money. "It implies there's some greater power dictating what the family can and can't buy, rather than presenting money decisions as choices." If your parents said this often, you're less likely to use budgets as an adult, so you're either the type to charge big-ticket items without a plan for how to pay for them ("What the hell, I can't afford anything anyway"), or you go to the other extreme--paralysis--like refusing to use your dishwasher ("Think of what that'll do to our water bill!"). To take back control, Weston suggests you change your inner dialogue. "Instead of thinking, I can't afford it, you can say, 'I'm choosing not to buy that right now so I can purchase something else that's more important to me.' Once you frame purchases as options, you'll feel empowered."