The inner monologue worrying about finances might be wreaking havoc on your mental health. Here is some advice on shifting that negative outlook and how you can live free from the fear of finance.
When my alarm clock goes off at 7:15 a.m. each morning, the first thing I do is roll over and grab my phone from my bedside table. After turning it off airplane mode and checking for any missed calls or texts, I cautiously tap the blue icon with the white envelope. For the most part, I painlessly breeze through emails notifying me of sales, news, and meetings. But as soon as my thumb scrolls to the balance alert from my bank, my heart begins to race. I start wondering, “How many times did I eat out yesterday? When is that client going to pay me? What if they don’t? I have to make rent. Did my healthcare payment go through? Wait, did I send it? English, why are you so irresponsible?”
It’s 7:19 a.m. I haven’t even been awake for five minutes and I’m already anxious.
This continues throughout the day. When my partner asks if everything is OK, I force a smile and nod. I’m too embarrassed to tell him that I may not be able to cover my portion of this month’s rent. I get an automated text reminding me that my credit card payment is due. At dinner, I spend an absurd amount of time squinting at the menu and carefully calculating an inexpensive order. Later that night, I beat myself up for caring more about the check than genuinely connecting with my friends.
Sick of the cycle of negativity and shame, I sat down with Alicia Eggen, a licensed therapist with seven years of experience, to learn more about what I know many other people go through, as well—financial anxiety. Desperate for a shift in mentality, we talked about the pathway to start seeing my glass (or rather, checking account) half full. How can I work towards a mental space where money is not the end all, be all, but rather just a tool?
Based on your experience, what does financial anxiety look and feel like? Is what I’m experiencing normal?
Eggen: With any life transition, it’s normal to have anxiety about finances. Let’s face it—change is scary, and life is always changing. People who experience financial anxiety may have a fear of the future and the unknown and worry about having enough money to provide for themselves and their family. It can be difficult to talk with your partner about finances. It’s natural to feel uneasy around things you cannot control, like investing in the stock market, job loss, or sudden illness. But you may have difficulty developing a plan around things you actually can control, like budgeting and retirement.
What can people like me do to cope with financial anxiety?
Eggen: I recommend focusing on the things you can control. There is no use is worrying about things outside of your control; this just wastes your mental and emotional resources on something you cannot change. Instead, focus on creating a budget and deciding how much money you want to put away each month for retirement.
I think I need a mentality shift. How can I stop seeing finances as the end all, be all, and rather as a tool that helps me create the life I want?
Eggen: Live out your values. I find that we often experience anxiety when we are doing things that contradict our values. Write down the three things in life you value most, perhaps family or travel, and let these inform your goals about finances.
What’s your advice for managing the shame and negativity associated with financial anxiety?
Eggen: First, remember that these are normal feelings. When things feel overwhelming, it’s natural to focus on the negative. But in order to allow yourself to see the whole picture, it’s important to remember the positive things you’re doing as well. Writing these down as well can be a helpful reminder of what’s actually going right.
This can even be something along the lines of spending in accordance with your values, as we just discussed. Reminding yourself that you’re spending money on what’s truly important to you can be reassuring and empowering.
To put Alicia’s advice into practice, I started by coming up with a list of what I truly value in my life. I tried my best to lead with my heart instead of my wallet. Exercise, nutrition, and mental health were three topics that appeared on the page. I recognized that I rarely beat myself up over spending money on my weekly therapy session. Deep down, I know this type of self-improvement and discovery is incredibly important to me.
On the other hand, I always feel guilty when I spend money on heavy food and alcohol at restaurants. Plus, I rarely drink and don’t enjoy it. I love nothing more than preparing my own food and eating healthfully at home. I realized that eating out and alcohol may be activities and purchases that aren’t as aligned with my values.
After reflecting on these values, I tried using them as a lens to inform my purchasing decisions for the next week. On Thursday, I didn’t feel as regretful saying “no” to happy hour with a group of former coworkers. Previously, I would have experienced FOMO, gone to the bar, spent $12 on a glass of wine, drank only half of it, and beaten myself up for it afterwards. Instead, I texted a few of them to see if they’d want to grab coffee and go for a walk on Saturday or Sunday—two activities I felt genuinely excited about since they’re aligned with what’s important to me.
Per Alicia’s advice, I also tried writing down a few things that were going well for me financially. To be honest, it was challenging. At the time, all I could focus on was a client who recently dropped me and that my business was sure to fail. After a few minutes of this intense negativity, I practically forced myself to jot down: I have a budget. (I restrained myself from adding in parentheses that I struggle to follow it.)
Surprisingly, a few seconds later, I added: I hired an accountant to help me with taxes. Next came, I spent $20 on yoga class, which supports my values of exercise and mental health. Within the next few minutes, I had a list of four positives. But more importantly, I felt better—even grateful and in control. Since I was clear-headed and optimistic (instead of spiraling helplessly into negative thoughts), I set a calendar reminder to pay my healthcare bill next month.
Alicia’s exercise showed me that no matter how many things I may be doing right, the negative tends to take center stage, and this is true for a lot of us. I’m too focused on my debt to pat myself on the back (let alone notice) that I resolutely chip away at it each month. By recognizing these small, proactive behaviors, my mental and financial health benefit.
To be honest, I still struggle to pay attention to the positive and remain loyal to my values. Some days, it takes 15 minutes to come up with a single encouraging thought or phrase. Some days, I head to happy hour and order a drink because I want to spend time with my friends, which is also important to me.
But when I come across that daily account balance email, my muscles don’t always tense up. If I had to guess, it’s because I give myself kudos for (mostly) spending according to my values and being financially responsible by signing up for these alerts.