“Even if you are financially responsible, an unexpected expense or event could be all it takes to send you into financial duress, especially if you’re not prepared to cope with it,” says Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a board certified psychiatrist who specializes in addiction psychiatry.
Yep, money stress can feel like a solitary experience. In 2015, 72 percent of Americans reported feeling stressed about money — and we can only imagine how, in the current global pandemic, it’s taking a bigger toll on our mental health. So let’s talk about it. For solidarity.
For some, shame and avoidance may be causing a bigger issue than the reality of their financial situation.
“Money and shame are deeply connected,” says psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW, creator of an online platform for therapy called Your Therapist. “Often people develop anxiety related to finances [because] they’re avoiding looking at their money […] when, in fact, the worry and fear often lead us to avoid looking at our finances altogether or to obsess [about] every penny.”
If that’s you, then it might be time to take two steps back in your ritual before even opening a bill. Getting one’s finances in order is already intimidating enough, so let’s make sure your mind is ready first.
“Learning to cope with financial stress and how to manage your financial situation can help you feel more in control of your life, reduce your stress, and build a more secure future,” says Dr. Ivanov.
“Being hard on yourself isn’t going to solve the financial stress,” says Neidich.
And Dr. Ivanov agrees. “Research has shown that self-compassion, unlike self-esteem, has been a key factor for individuals to motivate themselves through pain, failure, and feelings of inadequacy,” he says.
So before you crunch numbers, do something nice for yourself first. Dr. Ivanov suggests:
- setting hard boundaries on when to start and stop work
- practicing deep breathing, meditation, and one’s religious faith
- talking to someone for emotional support
- listening to soothing music
- taking a hot bath or soaking in a hot tub
- distracting yourself from the source of your stress by doing something creative, such as drawing, singing, dancing, gardening, or journaling
When beginning to tackle finances, Neidich recommends starting off with a declaration. “I am now acknowledging that my finances are a mess. I feel _______, and yet, I’m still choosing love myself. I’m going to start to work on this now. I am taking control.”
“Most people avoid logging in to their bank accounts or opening statements from the bank due to being paralyzed from fear,” she explains. “For folks who are looking to improve their situation, avoidance will only bring more suffering.”
So if or when feelings do arise, Neidich encourages individuals to “grab your journal and write it out.”
You can also keep track of these emotions in a journal. Looking at these declarations weekly, while you review your finances, can help “take emotion out of the process and look at it in a very practical way,” she says.
Here are some questions she offers as reflection prompts:
- How did it feel to examine the reality of my finances?
- Where is my money going?
- Where can I plug up holes? (This is a good time to see which recurring services you’re actually using.)
- Where can I do better next week?
- What am I proud of this week? (This may be money you’ve saved, a great deal you found, or an investment you made.)
“Making a habit out of 100 percent awareness of where your money is going lays a very strong foundation for improving anxiety about your financial situation,” says Neidich.
If you don’t have a budget yet, you’re not alone. The reality is most young adults ages 23 to 38 don’t have one. While it may seem scary to get started, you can begin the process of creating one within a few minutes.
Whether by using a pen and paper, some type of personal finance software, a simple spreadsheet, or an app like Mint (which Neidich recommends), make your budget simple. Note your paycheck, your monthly responsibilities (bills), and your debts. From there, Dr. Ivanov says, “Take small steps and take a break… once you do get some numbers down, don’t panic!”
If you opt for an app or service, find one that can be easily set up one time and can be automated so accountability is built in. Services that send email notifications when individuals go over the spending amount they set are a good example.
KonMari’d your life? You can do the same with money too. Although it is more challenging to manage money, admits Dr. Ivanov.
But the concept is similar: Only you will know what matters and has value to you (and what doesn’t).
Dr. Ivanov recommends asking yourself:
- which purchases are essential* and which aren’t
- which non-essentials aka “invisible spending,” you can cut (cable TV, an unused gym membership, fees for extra data on a cell phone plan)
- if you can set up automatic bill payments to avoid paying late fees
*Think about what will help your mental health in the long run too. Researchers have found people who have debt are three times more likely to have mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Therapy or gifts to yourself may be necessary to get you through the day. Don’t let other people define what’s a necessity.
“No matter which method you use, paying off debts will reduce your number of monthly transactions, simplifying your finances,” explains Dr. Ivanov.
To start paying off debt, Dr. Ivanov explains there are two common strategies:
- Debt avalanche method. With this approach, individuals use the money they have left over — after paying bills and other expenses each month — to pay down the debt with the highest interest rate first.
- Debt snowball method. Here, individuals use their leftover monthly income to pay down the smallest amount of debt first, regardless of interest rate. For example, a credit card or student loan with the smallest amount yet to be paid off.
One way to reduce the stress of checking one’s finances is to do it every day. “I have had clients who checked their bank account balances daily for 30 days as a way to shock themselves out of the avoidance,” says Neidich.
While that’s one method — one that isn’t necessarily needed — checking more often can help increase awareness and enable individuals “to make data-based changes” to how they manage their money, she notes.
“One of the practices that I have clients who are anxious about money and have debt implement is a gratitude practice for their debt,” resulting from activities such as pursuing an education, purchasing a home, or starting a business, says Neidich.
The goal is to focus on “what the money has brought you, rather than seeing it as a deficit.” Doing so can help to address negative feelings related to money, she adds.
Dr. Ivanov recommends checking with lenders to see if 0 percent loans or late fee waivers might be available and seeking out support from state and local agencies, particularly for those affected by job or income loss related to the covid-19 pandemic.
- Consolidate (bring together in one monthly payment) debt from credit cards, car payments, a home equity loan, and so forth. This makes managing the money easier. “There are factors that must be considered beyond just simplifying your finances, such as interest rates, the term of the loan, recourse, and so on,” says Dr. Ivanov.
- Combine insurance policies. “Just as having multiple accounts at multiple banks overcomplicates your finances, having insurance policies with different companies may create unnecessary financial stress,” explains Dr. Ivanov. “If you bundle all your insurance policies together with the same company, you can potentially save money and simplify your financial life.”
- Consolidate your retirement accounts. For those with multiple retirement accounts from various past/current employers, merging them into one account may help streamline things, says Dr. Ivanov.
Both Dr. Ivanov and Neidich caution against making rash decisions related to one’s finances — particularly if feelings of anxiety arise.
“Absolutely no financial purchases or decisions should be made in a state of anxiety or fear,” says Neidich. “If you’re feeling afraid or uncertain it’s a sign that something may be off.”
Dr. Ivanov recommends trying the relaxation techniques to create calm while Neidich suggests waiting 24 hours before acting and both recommend running ideas by trusted friends who can offer support and feedback.
If you’re looking for help getting mentally prepared to tackle your finances and eventually manage your budget, a mental health professional can provide the support you need to get started, says Dr. Ivanov.
“For more complex financial support and debt and credit management, seek out the help of a financial planner,” he advises.
As a journalist with 15 years of experience, Mary Kearl’s work has been published internationally by Forbes, HuffPost, Business Insider, Popular Science, AOL, and SheKnows. Follow her on Twitter.