Financial anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a low-income household, and as an adult, I have yet to earn $40,000 annually. I live in a scarcity mindset. My fear of financial ruin and my belief that I’m always one step away from it informs my money decisions.
This is a hard thing to admit as a personal finance blogger. Shouldn’t I be out here talking about my hustle, my profits, and my growing business?
But that would be the wrong picture of me. I deal with this anxiety regularly. How do I break out of the cycle? Figuring out how to not stress about money is difficult.
What Is Financial Anxiety?
Financial anxiety — or money anxiety disorder — is a feeling of stress, worry, or concern about your finances. In 2014, a study by the American Psychological Association found that 72 percent of Americans had felt stressed about money at least occasionally during the previous month. I feel that stress almost daily. And I'm not the only one who deals with a money anxiety disorder.
Where My Money Anxiety Comes From
For me, my financial anxiety stems from childhood. I grew up in a single-parent household with two siblings. There wasn’t a lot of money to go around.
My family exclusively shopped sales, and we spent our summers at the local beach. We also spent several years on welfare to help with food costs.
Growing up, it was always an unspoken rule that money was tight. My mother never directly addressed it, but her attitude about what we could and couldn’t afford trickled down to me. I became aware that money was finite, and that having it was the difference between struggle and comfort.
After college, I was left with over $25,000 in student loan debt, and I couldn’t find a decent job. The only full-time work I could secure was waiting tables for low wages.
Then — around age 26 — I buckled down on learning about money and paying off my remaining $18,000 of student loans. I was debt-free 10 months later. I even started saving for retirement and building a large emergency fund.
If you're new to saving like I was, apps like Stash Invest can help you save as little as a dollar at a time and build up.
You’d think that, with my debt gone, my financial anxiety would leave me, too. But no.
I’ve been debt-free for two years, and I have nearly a year’s worth of living expenses saved in my emergency fund. Still, each decision I make today comes from a place of fear, rather than one of joy.
How My Financial Anxiety Affects Me
I rarely go out to eat. And I buy all my clothes second-hand, or else pick them up at clothing swaps with friends. I walk and bike as much as possible, and I get my hair cut for $18 at a beauty school by current students. These are great ways to save money, but I make these choices from a place of fear — fear that if I spend more than the bare minimum, I will fall back into being broke.
I constantly worry that my next paycheck will be my last, or that if I spend money, I won’t be able to replace it.
This is harmful not only to my ability to grow wealth, but also to my everyday happiness. When you’re focused on worry, there’s no room for joy. By letting my stress control my life and my decisions, I have no opportunity to be happy.
How to Not Stress About Money
I’m a work in progress, but I've begun to deal with my financial anxiety. Today, people dealing with this anxiety can meet with a financial therapist to help them learn how to not stress about money.
Financial therapy is relatively new, and focuses on the personal and social aspects of money as they relate to people's lives. Therapists work to help clients create a healthy money and life mindset.
I spoke with financial therapist Michelle Bohls about my own financial anxiety and the mission of financial therapists. What she had to say was illuminating. The best way to overcome a money anxiety disorder is to examine where it comes from, according to Bohls.
“Emotional responses are embedded in a memory network that’s created through an experience. What are the experiences that are so overwhelming that the emotions became trapped?” she says. “It’s similar to PTSD, where vets hear loud noises and hit the ground. Money stress is embedded in those past experiences. Money becomes a trigger.”
So those dealing with a money anxiety disorder should ask themselves, “What are my financial anxiety triggers, and what created them?” Once you’ve identified the financial triggers in your life, you can work to avoid or eliminate them. Remember, having anxiety attacks over money can be debilitating.
Other Ways to Stave Off Money Anxiety Disorder
Examining your mindset and core beliefs provides another way to fight your anxiety and learn how to not stress about money. For example, if your core belief is, “I can’t keep myself safe,” then that can easily lead to the thought that, “There will never be enough.”
That’s what happened in my case. My financial anxiety is rooted in a belief that I incapable of continuously providing for myself.
“That core belief comes from an early memory and has been re-enforced over time,” says Bohls. “Dealing first with that memory by confronting it allows you to clear it away. Then you can process your other emotions more clearly, without the haze of anxiety.”
Financial therapy is a fantastic option for those feeling strangled by their money. And remember: You're not alone. I’m just one of thousands who also deal with a money anxiety disorder.