I’ve always been a mama’s girl. I was “foot to foot” behind my mother, as Antiguans would say. So when my father unexpectedly abandoned my mother, my brother, and me, I not only carried my hurt as a fatherless daughter, but I also assumed my mother’s hurt as a woman scorned.
I convinced myself that one of the best ways to show my mom that I wouldn’t be like my father (someone who would hurt her, leave her, and forget her) was to be painstakingly perfect. I forced myself to mature and do away with all my childlike wants — indeed, with any wants at all.
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Dealing With My Childhood Money Anxiety
Even though I made it my duty to make my mom feel safe, my most vivid childhood money memory involved me hurting her, albeit unintentionally. One day, Mom took me shoe shopping after school. Our mission was to buy school clothes and shoes.
I knew the drill: Never, ever pick sneakers that were nicely, deliberately displayed on the walls. No — those sneakers and their prices were for other, richer families. Like a good girl, I scouted out a bin or bucket with thrown-about footwear.
Quite honestly, digging for the bargain deals didn’t embarrass me. In fact, it empowered me. By the time I was 8, my mother crowned me her “good little saver,” based on my stamina for piecing together cheap finds.
But my superpower for saving wasn’t strong enough to keep my mom from experiencing pain that day, when I selected a simple white pair of Kangaroo sneakers tied together by their shoestrings. The purchase — and my choice of shoe — caused my mom to wince, lick her lips, and white-knuckle a few crisp dollar bills before handing them over to the cashier.
The message was crystal clear: Spending money on me was causing my mother pain.
As the message sank in, so did the money anxiety. As a teenager, I never allowed myself to buy anything designer. Instead, I opted exclusively for thrift-store finds because I didn’t want to place any unnecessary financial stress on my mom. I wouldn’t even go out with my friends if I thought the outing was too expensive.
When I started earning my own money, I continued with this pattern. I would often allow my appearance to take a hit in order to save money. From getting my hair done to buying toiletries, I always searched for the cheapest options. And when I could, I tried to find a way to get around buying these services and products at all.
It would take years of therapy sessions and personal development to overcome a deep sense of shame and failure that drove me to deprive myself of basic niceties — and to question why others didn’t do the same.
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How to Deal With and Overcome Money Anxiety
Whether your money shame stems from childhood or adult financial trauma, healing from the pain is essentially the same. Here are five key steps to help you not only process and deal with the money anxiety, but also overcome it.
1. Decide to Leave the Past Behind
Once I realized I wanted to transform my relationship with money, I decided to shift my focus away from thinking about what my mother owed me and focus on what I wanted for my financial life as an adult.
This meant ending the blame game and no longer clamoring for the position of “best victim” when it came to childhood angst and loss. In other words, I determined that my financial past didn’t have to — and would not — determine my future.
There are no shortage of resources available to get into this mindset. Books like Heal Your Relationship with Money and Money Harmony to help you distance yourself from your former financial mindset and deal with money anxiety.
2. Choose Compassion Over Criticism
Walking around blaming yourself for money mistakes won’t do you any good when you begin the process of healing. Instead, ask yourself questions like, “What’s the most financially compassionate thing I can do for myself right now?”
This can help you move toward a more self-affirming relationship with money. It can also lead you to take actions that align with your new financial identity.
Being financially compassionate may mean clicking out of a browser, abandoning a cart, or walking out of a store. Other times, it may mean bringing yourself to buy something that you really want and can afford without doing a price comparison or asking for a discount.
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3. Embrace the Mess
When you decide to tackle your feelings about money, you open yourself up to a range of conflicting emotions. The key to dealing with and overcoming money anxiety is acceptance. Accept that your feelings may swing from one financial decision to another, or from one money memory to the next.
Rather than judge your feelings, your job is to observe, note, and name them.
Once you’re able to place some distance between you and your feelings, a natural next step will emerge.
For example, let’s say that after a stressful week at work, you feel the need to browse online for shoes. You become aware that you’re just trying to allay anxiety with shopping. Once you make this observation, you can decide to sit with your anxiety and let the emotions pass through you, create a non-spending alternative to deal with your anxiety, or both.
4. Explore Your Financial Identity
Each financial identity has its strengths, and it’s your job to uncover how your money identity has benefited you. For example, those handling money anxiety through shopping and overspending can admit that they enjoyed the pleasures that fine dining or globe-trotting have brought them. On the other hand, those handling the issue through money hoarding can see that this behavior provides a financial cushion and sense of peace.
When you have a more precise perspective on your money identity, you can decide to keep the parts of it that work for you and eliminate the parts that don’t.
5. Seek Help
When the word “help” is uttered, there’s usually a reference to a therapist or other trained professional. Therapy can be helpful when dealing with money anxiety, but sometimes you need help in other forms. Resources like personal finance and self-help books, workshops, videos, podcasts, and even blogs may be the only support that you need.
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Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.