Financial anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a low-income household — 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, but doable.
What Is Financial Anxiety?
Financial anxiety — or money anxiety disorder — is a feeling of stress, worry, or concern about your finances. I feel that stress almost daily. And I’m not the only one who deals with a money-anxiety disorder. Sixty-percent of Americans suffer from occasional stress about money, according to a 2019 study by the American Psychological Association.
You may suffer from financial anxiety if you exhibit any of the following symptoms:
- Anxiety and/or depression over personal finance
- Obsessing over frugal spending
- Repeated overspending
- Being uncomfortable with accumulating wealth
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 a low wage.
Then — around age 26 — I buckled down to learn about money and paid 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.
So, pass on my story to anyone who tells you it can’t be done. Not only did I do it, but I achieved this all while earning in the $30,000 range. How? I reined in my spending big-time.
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 my clothes secondhand, 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 constantly worrying, 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. It focuses on the personal and social aspects of money as they relate to people’s lives.
Financial therapists usually have a background in finance, a mental health-related field (such as psychology or social work), or both. And while this young industry is currently unregulated, these therapists are already working 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.
“Emotional responses are embedded in a memory network that’s created through an experience,” Bohls says.
“What are the experiences that are so overwhelming that the emotions became trapped? 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,” she continues.
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 slowly confront or eliminate them. Having anxiety attacks over money can be debilitating, but with time, you can overcome them.
- Check out the Financial Therapy Association website, where you can search a database of financial therapists by location and find a professional that works for you.
- If there’s no financial therapist in your area, many of the Association’s therapists offer services remotely, via video chat or phone.
- When seeking professional mental health services, be sure to speak with either a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), preferably with a financial background, if possible.
Don’t have time to sit down and chat? There’s a number of web-based resources to help you get help on your own time.
- Talkspace allows you to text a certified therapist at your convenience, with the option for live sessions via video chat.
- 7Cups offers self-help guides, support chat rooms, and therapist messaging for an affordable price.
- Theravive connects you with available therapists via email and offers specialists with wide-ranging expertise.
Other Ways to Stave Off Financial Anxiety
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 the belief that I’m 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 fears. And remember: You’re not alone. I’m just one of the thousands who also deal with a money-anxiety disorder. While not an official diagnosis found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM-5), let me assure you, it’s real, and there’s no shame in seeking treatment. I am glad I did.