Turn financial panic into peace one step at a time
By Richard Goulde
Throughout the entire seminar on debt management, Ann Haffas of Dallas, Texas appeared to be on the verge of sobbing. During one of the breaks, still near tears, she said, "I lie awake at night worrying about the bills. I work overtime and it's not enough. I try everything I can and it just seems to get worse. I just want to scream! It's gotten to the point where I can't stand thinking about money, but I can't stop thinking about it either." Her words were reminiscent of an unrequited crush - the ever-present obsession, longing, and feelings of powerlessness.
If you've ever eyed that stack of bills with trepidation, you know that money means more than the number in your checkbook register - there's an emotional component to the way you approach your finances. You have a relationship with money - healthy, unhealthy or somewhere in between - just as you have relationships with friends, family and coworkers. But while you wouldn't dream of neglecting the emotional fabric of your relationships with your loved ones, you may ignore the feelings that come into play in the way you handle your money.
Although you may believe that your money woes would abate if only you had more of the green stuff, it's likely that your relationship to money has little to do with your financial status. Even women in the highest tax bracket can feel the emotional tug of financial anxiety. Eileen Dorsey, a Certified Financial Planner in St. Louis, Mo., says, "If you make $20,000, you spend $25,000; if you make $500,000, you spend $600,000."
Jennifer (who asked that her last name not be published), a connoisseur of financial classes in Austin, Texas, says, "I'd get a bill and feel panic, despair, hopelessness. I didn't believe I could make [my finances] work. I felt at the mercy of everyone else." Like many women, Jennifer associates money with control. A bad money situation, such as unexpected expenses or tremendous consumer debt, can trigger feelings of powerlessness. Jennifer's downward spiral led her to feeling both powerless and victimized.
The question, however, is whether Jennifer's financial woes created her emotional state, or her emotional state created her money problems. According to Iris Fanning, an accredited Success Coach in Albuquerque, N.M., many women "substitute money as a way to take care of themselves." In other words, instead of nurturing and loving themselves, they buy a new dress.
But spending money as a temporary fix for your emotional needs is a no-win situation: after the high of buying the dress, you'll again feel an emotional void - plus, you'll be further in debt.
Money is a partner in life. Your relationship with money (just like a love relationship) cannot be divorced from the way you manage the partnership. If you use money the same way you might have a one-night stand, afterwards you are left feeling empty and deprived. On the other hand, consciously using positive techniques (such as budgeting, automatic bill payment and cutting expenses) to achieve financial priorities-working with your financial situation rather than against it-can improve your quality of life, just as better communication will improve your partnership with your mate.
Certified Financial Planner Eileen Dorsey says good money management "pretty much revolves around a spending plan, and then doing those things to simplify your life." Don't be afraid to seek help by attending classes or seminars, consulting financial planners, surfing the Internet, and reading books. These resources can help you develop skills to relate to money successfully.
Once you have the tools to begin making informed financial decisions, you stop being a victim and start taking control of the situation. Fear and hopelessness quickly lose their hold. As Dorsey observes, "People who go through a complete financial process come out of it happier, less stressed." Education can help you define your relationship with money.
Difficult financial situations inspire negative self-talk, like "I'm going to be ruined!" These dark thoughts inspire terrible feelings, which lead to more negative thoughts, until you find yourself in the great abyss. It's time to change the tape playing in your mind.
Confront your feelings: Jennifer once received a medical bill for $500, almost twice what she anticipated. She had a long moment of panic, then took a deep breath and embarked on a new approach.
Jennifer listed each of her emotions on a piece of paper, and then jotted down the thoughts behind each feeling. She wrote that she felt desperate, frightened, and helpless. Her fears included, "I'll lose Dad's respect! I'll be trapped into a mediocre life! It's never going to get any better!"
Then she wrote what she'd rather think, including the complete opposite: "All things are possible in God. I'm enjoying greater freedom than I ever have before. I'm finding new options, and everyone, including me, is amazed and awed."
Find the silver lining: Jennifer spent some time focusing on that affirmation. After calming down, she looked for the silver lining in the situation. She noted, "The medical care kept me healthy. This bill will help force me to develop a budget." She remembers that, at the time, the positive thoughts provided only a glimmer of hope, but that just listing it helped.
Avoid lingering on fear or hardship. Immersion in positive images can blast away the negativity. Reading books that are uplifting and inspiring, working at a craft or hobby, or watching a beautiful sunset can keep anxiety at bay. As soon as you feel the upset mounting, turn to your affirmations and indulge yourself with something that inspires you.
Find the Answers: It's okay to be upset about an unexpected bill or other financial woes. But immediately turn around and ask yourself questions like, "How can I make this work?" or "What can I do right now to make this better?" At first, you may need to ask these questions over and over, until your brain finally deigns to answer, but finding solutions gets easier with practice.
In working with her clients, Success Coach Fanning encourages them to look for the payoff to their behaviors-how, for instance, avoiding bills makes them feel better. Using that knowledge as a foundation, she coaches her clients to devise small steps that enable them to begin the journey to money-related emotional peace.
Jennifer listed every possible solution for paying her health clinic bill, however unlikely. Her list included asking family and friends for money, taking out a loan, using more credit, cutting back on movies, negotiating a lower payment, getting a second job, working overtime and asking for a raise. Jennifer then called some like-minded friends to brainstorm other ideas.
Don't Go Solo: Financial difficulties can isolate you. You may feel ashamed of your financial situation; you don't want to talk about it because you think it will reveal how stupid, foolish or incapable you really are. In reality, though, sharing experiences and support with other people in the same or similar circumstances can be liberating and can give you the inspiration you need to make choices that will bring you closer to financial well-being.
Support groups, such as Debtor's Anonymous or the www.ivillage.com/money Debt Support Group, provide wonderful opportunities for women to share their turmoil and fear about money. Feeling connected as a community, participants find the power to face their difficulties. One-on-one support helps, too. As a financial planner, Dorsey often suggests that her clients find a therapist to help them work through money-related emotional issues.
Choose Carefully: On the other hand, beware of people who constantly bemoan their finances. It'll be too tempting to commiserate and return to your bad feelings, instead of focusing on positive solutions. While some people may even actively oppose your new approach to money, remember that you can't live your life according to other people's financial standards. If the topic comes up, just say, "I don't feel like talking about money today." Most people will respect your wishes.
Go Higher: Don't underestimate the influence of a Higher Power in your journey toward financial peace. In fact, stop thinking about money altogether! Take a walk in nature and appreciate the solidarity of the trees. Pray to whatever Higher Power gives you comfort, or just meditate. Those positive thoughts you wrote earlier make excellent prayers or meditative affirmations. Remember that money is just a tiny piece of the Big Picture of life, one relationship among many.
The easiest way to fall into money anxiety is to just sit there and do nothing - throw the bills in the backseat, keep using those credit cards and keep worrying. Indeed, money anxiety can cause a kind of emotional paralysis, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of fear and inaction. To avoid that trap, develop your step-by-step solutions and implement them one at a time. Jennifer, for example, was able to re-work her budget slightly and negotiate a comfortable payment schedule with the health clinic. She also refused to allow the bill to eclipse her dreams, which helped keep her from sinking into despair.
Follow through! Discouragement and frustration are unavoidable at those times when it seems impossible to find any silver lining, or when the situation just seems overwhelming.
In fact, you can actually use the stress to help you. Fanning says, "Enough pain around money issues makes [you] willing to take action, and that's a strong motivator to change." Dorsey concurs, saying, "Willingness is an important component to get through the problems."
When all is said and done, you have to make your feelings a priority. Don't concentrate on making more money, concentrate on feeling better! Remember that you get to decide what role money plays in your life. The bottom line is amazingly simple: Take care of yourself and respect your feelings. All else will follow.
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