How To Handle Money Stress—Financially & Emotionally
“Money can’t buy happiness,” we’re told.
In some ways, that’s correct. Money can’t purchase community, understanding, or compassionate love for one another. But it can buy the building blocks. And no amount of quotes from billionaires about “what really matters” can change that.
Worrying about money is valid—we live in a world where money means resources. From the basics like food, housing, and healthcare to “luxuries” like electricity, internet, and transportation, most of us need money.
And we aren’t alone in our worries. In the past three years, nearly two out of three Americans have reported finances being a significant stressor in their life, according to a yearly survey by the American Psychological Association.
This stress can impact how we make future financial decisions and even our physical health. But what can we do about it?
Because money is tied to nearly everything in our day-to-day lives, we can’t just take a singular, pragmatic approach to it. Our emotional relationship with this resource matters, too, even if it sounds absurd. Aside from a regular mindfulness practice or choosing to live a minimalist life, what else can we do to support our financial wellbeing? Here’s a step-by-step, guided by my own research and experience, on how to find a better balance.
Take Inventory of What You Have
Start by taking a financial inventory, noting your debt, savings, income, and assets on paper or a spreadsheet. Don’t forget HSAs, 401ks, and fixed assets like cars, laptops, or maybe even jewelry.
Seeing all these numbers can be terrifying, but the only way to change the way things will be—you guessed it—is to know where they’re at. To care for yourself emotionally during this step, remind yourself that money isn’t a moral qualifier, and it doesn’t make you good or bad.
Believing the stories we tell ourselves about our finances can impact our health and send us into a shame spiral that prevents us from taking real action.
So, celebrate this first step! We’re no longer ignoring our money stress and hoping that the gods of automatic payments will handle our expenses for us.
Review Your Spending
Next, evaluate your recent spending—three months is usually a good span of time to review for expected and unexpected expenses. As a fan of spreadsheets, I like to download CSV records from my bank and credit card institution and label and color code to my heart’s content. Or, you might even connect to a budgeting app like Mint.com, which can help you sort expenses automatically.
Judgment and self-critique can come up during this process; that’s okay! Try to remind yourself that these are just your current circumstances and that you are creating an opportunity to change. Rather than criticizing your past self for irresponsibility, it’s more helpful to make changes moving forward based on what you now know.
Looking at a record of all our credit card swipes can feel gut-wrenching, but break it down into digestible categories. Whether it’s takeout on a busy day or a mortgage that supports your family, each purchase was made with a purpose. You might even journal through your personal goals and values and line up your expenses with those. Not every expense will line up, so those will be easier to cut out moving forward!
Some positive questions I like to ask myself when reviewing my spending are:
What problems am I solving with my money?
Does my spending support my values and personal goals?
Are there purchases I am excited to have made?
Focus On What You Can Control
After you’ve identified your spending habits, focus on what you can control most easily. Start with the most immediate actions, because taking action right away is empowering and encouraging in times of overwhelm.
Which one step can you take today that will make your spreadsheet look more manageable next month? Maybe it’s putting more into your savings each month, canceling the subscriptions you no longer use, or switching to homemade cleaning products.
So much of the advice online tells us to find ways to diversify our income, and while that can be a great way to increase our available resources, this might not be in our realm of control. If you can’t casually become a landlord or drive for Uber in your spare time, that’s okay.
We can think through any opportunities to expand our income, whether it’s pitching ourselves for worthwhile promotions or fighting for higher—or just livable—wages. We can also focus instead on making our existing income work for us by couponing, purchasing items on layaway instead of credit, and renegotiating bills or refinancing debts where we can.
Plan For The Future
Keep a forward-focused mindset by setting smaller goals that you can meet in the coming year or two. (You can always create a larger plan later, but focus on approachable goals first!) These can look like finally getting a savings account, building an emergency fund slowly until you have three to six months’ worth of expenses, or changing banks to find interest rates and customer service that works for you. And even when resources are tight, setting up even $10 to auto-deposit into our savings can offer a bit of reassurance.
Re-visit your personal goals and values monthly when reviewing your budget; are you continuing on the right path? If not, you can course-correct.
It’s important to note that being smart with your money doesn’t just mean never spending any of it. Instead, it looks like making purchases and plans that support our wellbeing in addition to the most basic needs.
We can support our emotional well-being by directing our spending towards positive things, such as tools for hobbies, experiences that fill us up, and solutions to everyday problems. And in turn, a healthy self creates a foundation for a healthy bank account.
Don’t just divert your spending away from the nonessentials—put your money towards the essential things that support your humanity. Consider even setting up a small recurring donation (even if it’s just five dollars), to remind you that how we spend our money does matter and make a difference.
Ask For Help
Remember, it’s okay to reach out for help, especially when it comes to saving and investing! Some banks and credit unions offer financial counseling, and you can seek out a financial advisor to support you as well. There are free credit counselors, though make sure to find someone who is highly rated and well-accredited, perhaps one who works through a local nonprofit organization. It’s okay to ask advisors how they get paid, which products they’re selling, and any affiliations they have so you can enter into a conversation transparently.
You can also recruit emotional support during trying times. Perhaps it’s a therapist, parent, spouse, or friend—it’s okay to loop them in on what you are currently struggling with. Most likely? They’ve been there before, or they are there right now, too.
The most important thing to understand is that money is personal. To be able to support ourselves means ditching the comparison game and focusing on what we have instead—and how we feel about it. Having more or having less of this resource is not indicative of your worth, and it doesn’t come with a moral qualifier. Income, expenses, and debt do not define us.
Wherever you—or your bank account—are at right now, take a deep breath. Then take the first step, even if it’s as simple as opening a spreadsheet.
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits, or gaming.