If money makes the world go round, it made mine square. Raised on the values of thrift and the sureness of lack, I spent many post-college years fretting about jobs, income, and bills.
As a freelancer, my employment was unstable at best. Paychecks never meant disposable income. I felt guilty for swiping a credit card, even if it meant buying needed groceries. I couldn’t keep a budget because I lived off of pure necessity.
Financial anxiety can be crippling. In many cases, it is valid. But in others, it isn’t. Once I realized this, the world felt still, bright, and possible.
It is possible to navigate personal finances without fear or trepidation. In fact, it’s possible to handle money from a place of abundance and true empowerment. Here’s how I did it.
Let go of the numbers for a moment
I am a highly organized individual. For quite some time, my personal finances looked like one massive color-coded Excel spreadsheet, several online organizers, and floating sticky notes.
Nearly every day, I crunched numbers. I ate breakfast with these numbers in my head. I walked down the street to the tune of debt, expenditure, and anticipated income.
Numbers are helpful and often necessary. But they can grip your psyche in an unhealthy way. What is more, reducing your personal finances to looming digits is only going to make you feel more limited.
Free yourself of the numbers for a moment. If you have a spreadsheet or personal finance app, close these for a day or two. Avoid the urge to use your calculator.
Change your language from one of numbers to words, too. Thinking “I will pay off my American Express card tomorrow” is far better than “I have to pay $456.72 to American Express this weekend.”
Implement positive visualization and meditation
Financial anxiety, like most strains of anxiety and stress, narrows one’s focus to the present moment. It operates on survival principles. It envisions and fears the worst possible outcome.
Daily engagement with ideas of debt, late payments, and inability to pay bills feeds these possibilities more. In turn, this perpetuates a cycle of lack and financial desperation. Subscribing to a state of thrift will put you there indefinitely.
Positive visualization and meditation can rewrite this. Positive visualization, in particular, helps shift an imagined paradigm of lack to one of abundance.
Meditating on images of financial success or landing a new job can soothe your anxiety in the moment and help you identify what you want your financial future to truly look like.
Persistent meditation can also change your relationship with finances themselves. Meditating on visions of money, for example, may initially recall feelings of stress, panic, or fear. Deep breathing can dissolve this in-the-moment stress and replace anxiety with neutrality.
Use credit cards wisely
Credit cards are valuable for building credit, but they can easily breed financial anxiety if not used strategically. They can act as a blind form of payment, enabling users to simply swipe and not truly register how much they are spending.
This was behind my frequent bouts of credit card guilt. The guilt lessened when I made purchases with full awareness of my credit line. But it did not vanish.
To absolve this guilt, I began to use credit cards sparingly.
I got rid of a few—despite the impact on my credit—and used the remaining ones for very specific, clear purposes. For example, I used an Amex rewards card only for purchases made at the grocery store and reduced the credit limit to a few hundred dollars over my monthly grocery budget.
I also used cash as much as possible. Cash is a tangible resource. If I had $10 in my wallet, I knew I could only (feasibly) spend that amount, and no more.
Keeping cash on hand also gave me some grace. It showed me what I had and gave me permission to spend.
Don’t prohibit yourself from using credit cards. But do set guidelines for use before you rely on them.
Prove it to yourself
A lot of financial anxiety stems from fear about a paycheck’s ability to stretch. I fretted about making credit card or loan payments on time, despite being able to do so time and time again.
In fact, proving to myself that I could manage my finances and bills comfortably—without penalty or loss—was key to alleviating my general anxiety. In fact, during my most anxious years, I never carried a credit card balance, defaulted on a loan, or missed a rent payment.
I meditated on this fact and reminded myself of it every time a panic attack began creeping my way. This mantra also helped me swipe those bits of plastic more easily.
I also eventually opened a savings account and a Roth IRA to prove to myself that I could save money—in addition to managing it well. Even though those accounts had very minimal amounts in them to start, I felt proud to see those numbers grow.
I proved to myself that I could be a financially responsible (and lucrative!) human.
Understand your definition of “splurge”—and then splurge
The majority of my financial anxiety required a healthy nurturing of guilt. I’d feel especially guilty when “splurging”—shelling out money I did not necessarily possess on superfluous items or experiences.
The word “superfluous,” however, is subjective. I realized that my “splurges” were often not superfluous in the least.
For example, I thought splurging was purchasing an organic rather than generic form of butter at the grocery store (a $1 or $2 difference).
I also “splurged” on items that I had been needing for quite some time—a closet rod, hiking boots, work clothes. Although I did require these items, I viewed them as superfluous.
Redefine what it means for you to splurge on something. And then go out and do it so that you can feel what the experience is like. Be gentle as you “splurge.” Realize that you may not really be “splurging.” Release the guilt and give yourself permission.
If you are splurging on purchases that are truly unneeded, still be gentle with yourself. Spend some time identifying your financial needs and obligations. Use an online organizer if you wish, like Quickbooks. Understand your financial wiggle room.
(But don’t get too caught up in it.)
Pay off debt
If you do find yourself with some disposable income, or dollars outside of your usual paycheck, ease the pressure by paying off existing debt. I used this strategy when feeling particularly anxious about those floating numbers.
Even if doing so left me with minimal liquid cash, it reduced the growing pressure of financial obligation. Taking a chunk out of my car loan or paying off student debt felt empowering rather than limiting.
Practice financial ease
Getting comfortable with spending takes time and effort. It may even involve some soul-searching or therapy work.
I, for one, realized that my financial anxiety mirrored my parents’ from my childhood, when times were really tight. I internalized that anxiety and made it into a mindset. Challenging that mindset marked my first steps to freedom.
Now, I practice ease whenever I open my wallet or look at a bill. I keep meditating, deep breathing, and visualizing an abundant self. I’ve learned that being understanding and forgiving of ourselves is far easier than worrying.
Relinquishing financial anxiety may also involve changing your career or perspective on money itself. It may mean finally releasing imagined limitations and giving yourself permission to manage your finances with ease.
Whatever the case, be mindful and confident. You are in control of your financial future. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.