Math has never been my strong suit. It appeals to me in theory. I like that it’s the same in every language. That it’s dispassionate. There is only one right answer to an equation. There’s no ambiguity. Something is comforting about that.
Except when it comes to money. Because what do you do when, despite your best intentions, the number you need and the number you have don’t match? That is slightly less comforting. Alright – it’s downright terrifying.
Financial fear is the silent cloud hanging over our generation. We are the first to be less secure than our parents, and thereby able to give our children less. The cost of homes and childcare have increased exponentially while salaries for everyone but the top earners have remained comparatively low.
When I look up financial fear online, it tells me it’s normal to be afraid of not having enough money. I should just save up six months of expenses. And then, of course, be maxing out my 401k. I’d laugh but I’m too busy hyperventilating. (And God forbid you discuss any of this. It’s a faux pas. You might make someone rich uncomfortable.)
I am not going to solve any of that here today, though I wish I could. What I am going to do is explain how I have learned to make financial fear less crippling. Because as much as I wish worrying about money made me earn more of it, well it just doesn’t work that way. I do offer a few practical suggestions towards the end, but the goal of this is to show you how to move through your fear so you can find a solution, rather than drink over it.
It’s all well and good to say “don’t worry” but it’s about as effective as telling someone not to think of an elephant.
Instead of pretending to shrug it off, I ask myself these questions:
What am I really afraid of here?
What is the worst outcome?
How likely is that to happen?
Half the time I don’t even really know what exactly I’m afraid of. I just keep thinking “I need X amount of money and oh-my-God-I-don’t-have-it!! What will I do? What will happen?” These tend to repeat on a supremely unhelpful loop. So here’s how I got it to work today –
“Shit! I thought I could afford this preschool, but they want me to pre-pay! While I’m still paying for daycare! This is the only place I can afford with a spot left and there is no freaking way I can afford both at once!”
What am I really afraid of here?
“That I won’t have anywhere to put my son next year! I can’t quit my job to watch him! And a nanny is even more expensive!”
Okay and what happens then?
“I don’t know… Children’s services comes and takes him because he is being left home alone?”
Really? You think this is how that’s going to end? Do you plan on leaving him home alone?
“Okay, no. But I don’t know what to do!”
Do you have to know that immediately? Do you have to pay them tomorrow?
You are future tripping
Look around. Right this minute, do you have what you need? A roof over your head, food on the table, heat etc.? If so, you are technically making yourself miserable when nothing bad is happening.
I know. You think it’s going to. There is a threat on the horizon and our primal brain is programmed to scan for threats and zone in on them. But that was when the threats more immediate. If you see a cheetah charging, you have my permission to freak out. If you are this moment being forcibly removed from your home, yup it’s ok to lose it.
Until then stay in the moment. Feel your feet on the floor. Look around you. See that nothing terrible is happening THIS moment. Repeat as needed.
Worrying is not the same thing as solving problems. Calm down a bit so that you can give yourself a chance to figure this out. You can do it. I know this situation sucks and was not in your plans. Let’s work on how to fix it.
Write it All down – Then Take a Break
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a big fan of writingthingsdown. You don’t have to keep them, but getting them out of your head and onto a piece of paper helps your brain process everything better. A big part of the anxiety and the thought repetition comes from a feeling of urgency – it’s your brain saying, “This is important! You don’t want to put this on the back burner, so I’m going to remind you over and over and over…” As if you could forget. But the brain is pretty literal. Put it down on a piece of paper and your brain gets that you are serious about it. You have it written down so you don’t forget.
So write out the problem, your big fear, why it’s not necessarily true. Fold it up and do with it what you will.
Now it’s time to take a break from it. Unless this is a financial situation that needs to be rectified in the next 48 hours, give yourself two days not to think about it. I know this sounds crazy and like you can’t do it, but try. Worrying is not the same thing as solving a problem. It overwhelms the brain.
If you believe in a higher power, now’s the time to ask for a little help – not to solve your problem for you with bags of money, but to guide you in finding the right way through this, and to give you a little peace. I find that helpful, but it’s optional.
Either way, put down your piece of paper and let your unconscious mind go to work on this for a couple of days. Particularly while you sleep, your brain is busy filing things. It looks at everything new in your life and tries to categorize it so it makes sense with everything you’ve seen in the past. In doing so, your brain is working on helping you figure out how to solve the problem, even if it doesn’t feel like it. (This is actually how I solved the daycare issue. I remembered that I could borrow against my 401k and would have the funds to pay in back in January. Thanks, brain!)
The other reason for taking a break is to keep you from doing anything stupid. It’s unlikely you will immediately know what to do, and in a panic, you might sign up for various scammy things that promise to make or save you tons of money. (Ask me how I know…)
One-off or Recurring
You’ve had your 48 hours. Your brain has had time to file the new information you’ve given it and you can now start moving forward. The first thing you need to do is to frame the situation – is this a surprise one-off? Something medical or something with your car? Or is it a situation where you are just living beyond your means month after month?
Now I understand that a one-time expense can stretch out and make it so that your monthly expenses are too much to handle, but it’s helpful to know these things to formulate a plan.
Eat the Frog
“Eat the Frog” means to do the hardest thing first. No one wants to make a budget. Especially when you know it isn’t going to work out in your favor. But you need to in order to make your plan. I used to use Mint.com but while it showed me where my money was going, it didn’t help me spend it any differently. I can honestly say that You Need A Budget (YNAB.com) has helped me budget and save. It made me figure out a way to afford things I never thought I could before, and it was pretty painless. Maybe even kind of fun. I get nothing if you join this, I have no affiliation. It just helped me.
Once you know how much money is coming in, and decide where exactly it’s going, you can see where you need to fill in the gaps.
A lot of the trouble with financial fear is that it’s mixed in with pride. We don’t want to be of lesser status. We feel bad and lazy or inept in some way if we can’t do what it seems like others are able to. For me, it particularly smarts that my parents were able to offer me advantages that I am not able to offer my son. I start telling myself I squandered the changes I was given. But the times are what they are. And my life’s not over yet. I’m not out of chances.
I don’t know anyone else’s story and how they are managing to make ends meet. In my mind, it’s all simple and rosy and while I was drinking money away, they managed to save up a nice little nest egg and now don’t have to worry about anything. But reason tells me that’s unlikely. We are all just acting like everything is fine.
Call the People You Owe
You hate this idea. I know it. It feels horrible – like you are begging. But I can guarantee you that the people on the other side don’t see it that way. I deal with contracts every day. You know what a customer has to do to get a discount? Ask. That’s it. And we give it to them. While this is not the case everywhere, it’s shocking how frequently this applies. I have gotten a lower interest rate on credit cards this way, a lower price for my internet, my phone… and yes the bigger things like daycare too. You are never the first to ask, and as long as you do it kindly, people will try to work with you.
Even if you shake a bit while doing so, in your heart do you really care what the account specialist from AT&T thinks about your financial situation? Will you ever think about them again after this conversation? (It’s okay, they won’t be thinking about you either.)
I am hesitant to put this in here because I haven’t tried it myself, but I have read a lot in my research about people who have turned their finances around using Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover”. I plan on reading it and giving it a shot, but not having tried it myself, all I can say is that I’ve heard enough good buzz about it that I thought it was worth passing on.
The Myth of the Side Hustle
Don’t get me wrong, if you can manage a side hustle, good for you. But if you are already working and have kids, if you’re like me you struggle to find time to shower, never mind have a side business. (Though maybe if it got bad enough people would pay me to shower?) Often times side hustles require a pretty good investment of time and money up front, so while it’s certainly an option, I have never found it to be somewhat of a false promise. That goes quadruply so for anything that promises a “passive income”.
I got this idea from the bullet journal community and I have found it an easy way to spend less. Two days a week would be great, but I find I can always hack at least one. For some reason, Tuesday works particularly well. It’s such a blah day. All you need to do is just get by on whatever you have around one day a week. Eat the leftovers in your fridge, make your own coffee… just make do for one day. If you need to buy something, just wait until tomorrow. I can’t tell you how many times I have decided “Nah, I don’t really need that” by the next day. The idea is not to buy a ton of things and stock up on Monday. We are trying to save here remember? It is relatively pain-free and it really adds up over time.
I Don’t Wanna
So much of the financial fear angle is a combination of pride, and having to do things we don’t want to do. When it comes down to it, my constant fear that I will become a bag lady is pretty unlikely at this moment. But the possibility of me having to move from the home and town I love in order to live within my means is a very real one. I don’t want to deal with that. It’s uncomfortable.
It’s almost easier to think about the bag lady scenario – it’s one where I have no choice. I don’t have to make the hard decisions. I don’t have to take any next steps towards something that I just don’t want to do. But the truth is, I hate the anxiety more than the suburbs.
Most of the time it’s not that there’s nothing you can do in your situation, it’s that you don’t WANT to do the things you CAN do. That’s fair – but call it what it is. And while it may suck, it’s less overwhelming than a situation where there is no answer. Just because you have to do something right now that you don’t like, that doesn’t mean it will be that way forever.
Know it’s Going to be Okay
It’s not going to be as bad as you think. None of it. You will make it through. Even if you lose your job. Even if you lose your house. Even if you lose your love. You can move through it. You can do more than you think. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing. I’m not saying that working hard, being honest and kind will get you everything you ever wanted in life. But it will get you enough. You will have enough people who will root for you and help you, and you will know that no matter what, you have the integrity to face your problems clear-eyed.