MONEY HAS ALWAYS caused me stress. As a child, I worried my parents didn’t have enough, even though I had no idea what sum would have been considered enough for our family of six. In college, I worried about accumulating debt. I ended up living so frugally that I managed to save nearly all of the Pell grant that the government awarded me. I not only graduated debt-free, but also had a sizable emergency fund in place as I moved into adulthood.
In my 20s and 30s, mortgages and car loans burdened me with anxiety. I fretted about not saving enough, while simultaneously worrying about how much I should spend to appear outwardly successful to friends and family. As a perfectionist, with a hint of OCD, I would sometimes spend hours combing over bank statements and checkbook registers, making sure my accounts balanced to the exact penny.
Divorce plunged me into an entirely new relationship with money. Initially, I feared I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I reverted back to the extreme frugality of my college years. Once I realized my income was more than adequate for my lifestyle, I began saving nearly 50% of my paycheck. I believed if I ever wanted to retire, I needed to be in extreme savings mode. My anxiety shifted to the investment decisions I was making. Was I being too conservative? Was I being too risky? Every major stock market fluctuation, whether it was positive or negative, had me questioning my choices.
These days, my personal net worth hovers close to $500,000. Just two years ago, I believed hitting that number would make me feel secure. Now I realize there’s likely no number that will make me feel completely comfortable. I’m capable of imagining numerous disasters that could wipe out the exact sum of money I’ve accumulated.
And so, as I enter the new year, I find myself committing to change my emotional reaction toward money. I’m hoping to shift my focus from one of fear to one of calm. I know it won’t be easy. Unlike a commitment to increase physical activity, there’s no Fitbit to measure the incremental improvements in our emotional state.
For now, I’ve vowed to check my retirement account balance once a month rather than once a day. I’m trying not to obsess over the Zestimate valuation of my home, knowing it isn’t likely to fall or increase $20,000 overnight. I’m also allowing myself to enjoy the money I have. I remind myself it’s okay to go out to lunch occasionally. I tell myself to go ahead and buy the book I’ve been looking forward to reading, rather than waiting months for it to make its way to the library shelves.
The next 10 years of my life are likely to contain some major financial upheavals. I’m hoping to leave fulltime work behind. I’m planning to relocate to a different state. I doubt I’ll ever be completely at ease with money. But I’m hoping that—with a little attitude adjustment—I’ll embrace these changes and even relax a bit.
Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college. Her previous articles include Few Absolutes, Why FI and Pet Project. This is her 50th article for HumbleDollar. Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and their three dogs.
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An exercise in which one writes a “Love Letter to Money” was very helpful to me. It provided insights into deeply held but hidden beliefs and emotions which are reflected in the ways I save and spend money. Google it, I think this exercise might help you find what you are looking for.
Great article – I related to a lot of this. Money = safety to me…not ending up homeless or at the mercy of others, being able to walk away from a bad job, the ability to leave a troubled marriage if needed.
I was taught the importance of a safety net early on by parents who both struggled through terrible personal and health challenges through no fault of their own. I’m thankful for their wisdom. But it created more anxiety than is probably healthy.
I’ve gotten better – don’t agonize as much over vacation spending, higher quality, costlier food. But I still fight that feeling that every time I spend a chunk of money, I sacrifice a little more security.
Paraphrasing a quote I heard that applies to me and maybe others: “Do you own your money – or does your money own you?”
I can relate to your views, perhaps obsessions. I am the same way even though I have no reason to be so. I can’t help it, I want all basis covered, all contingencies planned for. Being retired ten years hasn’t changed much, but I have to admit at 76 there is a bit of loosening up. I actually spent a recent dividend check rather than have it reinvested. I cope with my obsession by compartmentalism. That is, there is money for this and that in separate accounts be they bank or investment. I have no trouble spending the money in the travel account, but money from another account will never be shifted to travel expenses. Easier to manage the stress instead of lumping it all together in one big pile of money. I check my 401k regularly, but only because I have a target balance as a goal and I want to be sure that is maintained after each RMD which I reinvest. It’s my own psychological game. I also do not count cash from interest or dividends as part of my net worth. That way I always have emergency cash that will not decrease my net worth if used. Crazy right?
First, I hope you can look in the mirror and see, objectively, that you’re on the “better side” of having a financial “problem”, i.e., you sound kinda like a compulsive saver, versus a compulsive spender. And you also sound and write like someone who sweats the details and the pennies. In and of itself I hope we could both agree that all in all that’s not a terrible predicament. But… and this should not constitute unlicensed medical advice, but it sounds that it all makes you kinda chronically stressed out, and you seem to imply an understanding that it may be somewhat objectively unnecessary. IF that might be the case would perhaps a consideration be to see someone who might be able to help you better address “unease” as it pertains to money and finances? Like a counselor or something. I absolutely don’t mean to make light of what I share as an unusual predicament, but a mantra I often repeat that makes me smile inside is, “it’s not paranoia if you’re right!” (don’t take that as advice!). In my case, I’ve gradually adopted a more or less “Frozen” approach to what I realize are (probably) unnecessary anxieties over finances, “let it go”. Good luck and I appreciate your writing.
For someone with net worth higher than 75% of us the most striking thing about your post is that there is little mention of how thankful you are for the position that you are in. Trust me you are very lucky to be where you are given the level of inequality in the US and the world. You apparently have worked very hard and tried to save as much as you can throughout your life. The majority of people have not been nearly as successful as you have, often because of life circumstances beyond their control. Often simply due to the zip code that they were born into.
Kristine, Thanks for an honest and brave article. I’m sure most of us share aspects of what you describe. Best of luck in the coming years.
You did an excellent job highlighting your emotional reaction to money. Understanding the reasons behind being a compulsive saver is a good start. Simply because most people can not save enough does not lessen the burden of this compulsion. Moving forward with your “little attitude adjustment” sounds like a brave aspiration.