Feeling uncomfortable with finances is very common. A 2018 study found that Americans would rather talk about anything else (marital problems, politics, sex, etc.) than money.
It can show up in a variety of ways: avoidance, fear, frustration, overwhelm, uncertainty, or general stress. Here are some ways to move past these feelings and get more comfortable tackling your finances.
Are you a financial avoider? This is most common when we fear what we might find out when we look at our finances. A lot of times our avoiding tendencies can be traced back to experiences we had when we were young or how people around us treated money when we were growing up. If you’re an avoider, know that this is a very common response to finances and financial stress. It’s ok you’re feeling this way and if you’re ready, you can ask for help from a professional. If you’re not ready — don’t force it. Try to find some small areas to make progress in.
Solution: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Start small to learn new things, develop new habits, and automate where you can. For instance – you could set up auto savings of $100 from your checking account with each paycheck so it happens in the background.
NOTE: While avoidance behaviors are often a symptom, some of the feelings below can be part of the root cause of why we’re avoiding in the first place.
As I mentioned — most of us have fear around our finances. Avoiding can be one way to push away the fear. But sometimes there’s no avoiding at all. If a medical bill comes in and we have to find a way to pay it — we may have fear, but it’s pretty hard to avoid the bill altogether. Fear — a lot of times relates to what we don’t know. In the example above, we don’t know how we’ll pay or how it will impact our other financial priorities. Most of us with fear are reactive to our finances. We focus on whatever comes up in the moment, but there’s never time to do a deeper dive or think more strategically and plan ahead. This works against us living the live we truly want to live.
Solution: Get organized. Take some time to pull out all your bills and log them into a spreadsheet along with the due dates and payment amount. Take a look at your paystub and make sure you understand what deductions are being taken out and why. Tally up your take home pay by paycheck and by month so you know what you’re working with. Take the time to inventory all your accounts from savings to retirement and insurance. Shining some light on where you are currently can help take the fear out of digging further and then coming up with a strategic plan.
If it’s not fear you’re feeling — perhaps it’s frustration. When we try hard but feel like we’re not getting results or think we’ve put in some time to get organized but still fee stuck that can lead to frustration. When we’re frustrated it’s hard to be motivated to be strategic and stick to a plan with our finances. In that case it may be time to seek wisdom outside ourselves.
Solution: Ask for help. Get someone, like a CPA to help you plan your taxes and take filing off your plate. Get someone like a CFP® to help you get organized and then help you review money coming in and money going out so you can figure out how to give your dollars a job. Then you can look at longer term savings goals like saving for a house or child’s education or your own retirement and arm yourself with knowledge about how you’re doing on those savings goals. It’s hard to do it alone when you’re stuck in frustration.
Sometimes there’s a certain aspect of our finances causing stress. Perhaps it’s a marital disagreement over how to handle something financial, or a health crisis, helping aging parents with their finances, or something more devastating like a job loss. When we focus on the thing out of our control and causing our stress it can become impossible to find solutions. The important thing to do during these stressful situations is to look at what you do have control over — then find resources to help.
Solution: Focus on what you can control. One thing that is possible in this moment is to research and seek aid such as unemployment insurance, resources from AARP, health assistance groups, a mental health counselor, state/local support, or simply support and love from friends and and family. Sometimes stress is an indicator we need to get something off our plate or reallocate responsibilities – figure out if there’s anything along those lines which you can control.
When our stress and frustration gets taken too far, it can look more like overwhelm. Overwhelm at work can lead to burnout, health problems, and even depression. Overwhelm with our finances can look much the same. Something has to give. My recommendation is always to get some space from the situation causing the overwhelm. Getting some space and a break (even if it’s doing something temporary like taking a walk or getting a good night’s sleep) can provide space for our brain to problem solve when we’re not even trying.
Solution: Take a break and take stock of the situation. Deliberately NOT focusing on what is causing us the overwhelm can have an unintended effect: it frees up space in our brain to think of solutions (without intending to). When there are tasks I’m avoiding or when I’m feeling stuck — I love changing my location: going outside when I’m inside or going for a walk instead of sitting at desk to take a break. Surprisingly solutions start sprouting from my brain. If the overwhelm is more deeply rooted take some time and space to take objective stock of your situation as mentioned above in the “getting organized” section or ask for help from a friend, trusted counselor or financial professional.
Often the biggest problem we have with our finances is managing uncertainty. Getting more specific: there are two types of contingencies we need to plan for with our finances.
- Infrequent: things that come up 1 to 3 times per year or maybe once every few years. The amount is more certain, but without planning it can feel like a surprise expense every time. Dental or vet bills and car/house maintenance, or even paying twice annual insurance premiums fall into this category.
- Incidental / emergency: things that we know can come up but the timing and amount can’t be predicted with certainty. A fender bender, a forced furlough at work, a tree falling on a window during a storm are good examples of this.
Solution: Build in buffers. Budgets alone can’t account for all financial contingencies, so you have to build in buffers for uncertainty. One buffer you can create is within your checking account. Month-to-month our expenses will never be exactly the same. So if we keep a little extra in our checking account (perhaps up to one paycheck’s worth of cash) as a buffer even after we’ve paid our bills for the month, then we’ll always have the ability to cover an unexpected/infrequent expense. The second buffer you can create is with a savings account or emergency fund. This fund is money we can draw from when there’s an incident or emergency related to our health, our job, or for emergency repairs on our house or car. About 6 months worth of your expenses is a good target for your emergency fund.
How would you like to try and get more comfortable with your finances?