7 Strategies to Manage Your Financial Anxiety
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Do you worry about having enough money — to pay the bills, to go on vacation, to retire, to provide a cushion if you’re laid off? Do you lie awake in bed stressing about your credit card balance or how you’ll pay off your student loans?
Financial anxiety does not discriminate. It can affect men and women of any age, race and socioeconomic group. In a 2014 survey conducted by NPR, over half of the people who reported experiencing a great deal of stress over the last month identified finances as a key contributor.
Where Does Money Get Its Muscle?
It’s the classic gasp/giggle scenario: You look away for a second, and that’s all it takes for your 18-month-old niece to reach onto the counter and grab a $20 bill. As she begins to rip it into shreds, you gasp and she giggles. To your unwitting niece, it’s just a piece of paper, no different than the napkin she just watched you toss into the recycle bin.
Money doesn’t take on meaning until the age when we realize its power. It is exactly that power — in unhealthy amounts — that can result in financial anxiety.
In a perfect world, you would always have ample money in the bank to cover your expenses, leaving you in control of your finances. However, the world is imperfect. Whether caused by large-scale, external events such as the recent credit crisis, or by long-held money beliefs, the imbalance of control — feeling that money has more power than you do — can cause a host of emotional challenges.
What is Financial Anxiety?
Experiencing financial anxiety shouldn’t be confused with having realistic money concerns. If you lose your job, for example, it would be natural — almost expected — to feel some amount of trepidation about your future. Concern that prompts action is healthy.
Difficult financial situations happen. From gambling debt to unexpected medical expenses and corporate downsizing, the scenarios vary as widely as individuals’ reactions to them. While these circumstances might trigger financial anxiety for some, others might take it in stride. Why?
In reality, it’s not the amount of money — or lack thereof — in the bank that causes financial anxiety. Rather, it’s one’s thoughts about money that can produce financial anxiety.
As with generalized anxiety, the degree to which you might be experiencing financial anxiety likely falls somewhere along a continuum, from mild to extreme. Common symptoms of anxiety include feeling nervous; having panic attacks; sensing danger or doom; breathing rapidly or hyperventilating; sweating; trembling; or being unable to focus on current tasks.
Financial anxiety can be produced by a number of feelings centered on money, including self-worth, guilt/shame, autonomy, security and control — to name a few. Think back to your childhood. Was “bill night” full of yelling at your house? That might explain the racing heart upon the arrival of your monthly credit card bill — even though you charge a reasonable amount to your credit card and pay your bill in full every month.
Understanding the root of your financial anxiety, as well as where you fall on the continuum, can be the first step on your path to financial peace.
7 Strategies to Manage Your Financial Anxiety
1. Develop a positive money consciousness. People often sabotage their finances due to their negative mindset about money. In her book, The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom, Suze Orman devotes the first three chapters of her book to this topic. “The road to financial freedom begins not in a bank or even in a financial planner’s office, but in your head. It begins with your thoughts,” she writes. Positive affirmations about money (“I always have everything I need” or “The universe is abundant and there is plenty for everyone”) are thoughts that, with some practice, can become engrained beliefs.
2. Take the negative financial news in the media with a grain of salt. Don’t let yourself get swallowed up by the “doom and gloom” economic reports. If you find yourself getting caught up in stories of pension shortfalls and budget crises, remind yourself of the story of Chicken Little (“The sky is falling, the sky is falling …”). Don’t bury your head in the sand, but try to maintain a balanced, realistic view of the economy and its impact on your daily life.
When searching for a job during times of recession or a financial downturn, it’s very tempting to surround yourself with people in similar situations who can sympathize with your feelings of fear and worry. But here’s a much more effective approach: Stop reading the newspaper. Stop watching TV. Stop spending time with people who are focused on how hard it is to find a job. You’re sabotaging yourself if you buy in to the mass media and overgeneralize with thoughts that include “always,” “never” or “none.” Focus on finding one job — that’s all you need.
3. Take a long, hard, truthful look at your values and priorities. Sometimes we stand in our own way of financial security, according to Larry Winget, author of You’re Broke Because You Want to Be. How we choose to save or spend money is a result of our own desires, values and priorities. Are yours in alignment? You may tell yourself that having a financial cushion for retirement is a high priority, yet your spending patterns reflect a higher concern for the “here and now.” If you want to clean up your debt, now is not the time to pay for a new set of golf clubs with your credit card. It may be time to closely examine what really matters most to you (not your neighbors) — now and in the future — and to make sure that your finances complement your values.
4. Examine your anxiety. Instead of fighting your financial anxiety, explore it. What messages are behind the negative feelings? Are you afraid of something? Are you assigning blame or judgement? Are you reliving something from your past? Whether we carry around less-than-ideal money messages from our families of origin, or are afraid to forgive ourselves for past mistakes, sometimes we need to recognize thoughts that no longer serve us well in order to move forward. If you’re suffering as a result of how you’ve handled money in the past (gambling, accruing debt, etc.), it doesn’t help to beat yourself up! Let go of the past and the self-blame. It’s never too late to choose a different path.
Here are two of our favorite books on this topic: Your Money or Your Life: Nine Steps to Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez, and The Energy of Money: A Spiritual Guide to Financial and Personal Fulfillment by Maria Nemeth, Ph.D.
5. Have a short-term plan. What can you do to improve your current situation? Are there ways to cut spending or increase income (work more hours, take on an “extra” or part-time job) to get through the pinch? Focus on this week — for now. Ask family members for input; you might be surprised at their creative answers, and their involvement will, more than likely, foster their cooperation in whatever plans you adopt.
6. Create a longer-term plan. Planning puts you in control, and can help keep financial anxiety at bay. Whether you plan for retirement or for next year, develop a plan that is reasonable, attainable and that will help you lead the life you want. Create a budget and use whatever tools will help you track your goals and maintain accountability.
7. Cultivate gratitude. When you’re caught up in a flurry of financial anxiety, it’s so easy to focus on what you don’t have or might not be able to afford. Try to remind yourself of — and appreciate — the smile of a best friend, the beauty of a sunset, the enjoyment of reading a great book, the unconditional love of a pet, the roof over your head, etc.
“Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough.” – Oprah Winfrey
Imagine your pontoon boat capsizes five miles from shore. You have a choice: reach for a life jacket or a weighted vest to wear as you attempt to swim to safety. Think of financial anxiety as the weighted vest you may have unconsciously adopted at some point on your journey through life.
The good news: You can choose to trade it in for a life jacket. Financial anxiety isn’t something you can simply switch to the “off” position. However, by changing your thoughts, beliefs and behaviors surrounding money, you can successfully keep your financial anxiety at bay.