“Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.” – Zig Ziglar
When we talk about money management, we talk in terms of action: earning; saving; giving; spending; paying down debt. We focus on the ‘doing’ but we don’t often consider what drives those actions. I’ve written several posts over the past few years on the psychology of money: the idea that our ability to earn, hold and grow money is inextricably linked to everything we’ve ever heard, seen and experienced in relation to money, wealth and rich people. T. Harv Eker, author of Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, once stated that “a lack of money is never a problem; it’s a symptom of a problem” and this is something that I’ve seen played out many times, both in my own financial journey and in my roles of financial advisor and financial educator.
Usually I focus on the ways that our psychology can be used as a tool to create positive consequences; how we can “re-program” our beliefs to help prevent self-sabotage, inspire action and overcome obstacles. However, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the opposite side of the coin; the fact that our psychology can generate negative consequences. These “money demons” tend to show up as dark thoughts and feelings of apathy and helplessness and they not only prevent us from moving forward but, if we’re not careful, they can also suck us into a downward financial spiral that can be hard to escape from.
These “money demons” come in many forms and their impact on our perspective and our finances is often so subtle that we may not even realize there’s something wrong. Here are three common negative thought patterns and some suggestions on how to vanquish them.
1. Feeling Overwhelmed
When you look for synonyms of ‘overwhelmed’ in the thesaurus, the suggestions include: beaten, conquered, crushed and overcome. As anyone who’s ever felt this way will tell you, the stress of dealing with any unrelenting issue wears you down physically, mentally and emotionally simply because there’s no escaping it. You might not always be thinking about it, you might adjust to its presence in your life but on some level you’re aware of it from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep (and often at random moments through the night as well) and that can be exhausting. Feeling constantly tired often means you have no desire to start new projects, learn new information or associate with high-energy people. It can also take away your drive to exercise and lead you to crave ‘comfort’ foods. In fact, it discourages you from engaging in every behaviour that’s known to boost energy and enhance mental wellbeing, which inevitably leads to an increased feeling of being overwhelmed.
Action Step: Be kind to yourself but don’t allow yourself to make excuses. Beating yourself up about your situation won’t help you get away from it but sometimes we can get a little too comfortable with our discomfort and the thought of moving through it to something different can be scary. It’s ok to feel tired and run down; you’re under stress but you’re not doing yourself any favours by letting yourself stay in a stressful situation. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your finances (or anything else), the first step is to identify why: Is your debt out of control? Do you have bills you can’t pay? Has your income dropped? Did you lose your job? Are you struggling with money management? Are you worried about the future? Is money negatively affecting your relationship? Are you keeping money secrets?
Once you’ve named the source(s) of your stress, ask yourself the following question: What one thing could I do to help make this situation better? The power of this particular money demon lies in making us feel powerless; giving us no option but to turn in circles waiting for the next curveball to hit. By finding a way to take action, we regain a little control. By stepping forward and taking action, we regain a little more. Your action step might be something as simple as asking for help: there’s no rule that says “you have to do this alone”. There is strength in numbers and, while there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to be doing most of the hard work (and taking most of the credit for your success as a result), you’re going to find it an awful lot easier if you have the support and mentorship of good people.
Frustration shows up in many ways. It can drive people to feel a wide range of negative emotions, including anger, sadness, self-pity and jealousy. We can be frustrated with ourselves, our partners, our friends, co-workers, family members as well as a wide variety of circumstances and situations. Money is a highly emotional topic and, consequently, people become frustrated with finances for many reasons.
Anyone who’s ever watched a child have a meltdown over math homework (or hearing the word “No!”) has witnessed the destructive power of frustration. While, as adults, we’re unlikely to channel our frustrations into a full-on temper tantrum, it can be argued that frustration is the most destructive of the money demons. This is because the two most common reactions to frustration are to quit before we start or to deliberately “check out” of our financial life.
Someone once told me that there are two times that people quit: right before they start and right before they succeed. People tend to quit before they start because they’re afraid and they tend to quit before they succeed because they’re frustrated: perhaps because they don’t actually want to make the journey; or because it’s not as easy as they thought; or because it’s just not “fair” that they have to work for something that someone else found easy/had given to them/doesn’t have to work for.
Action Step: Frustration tends to have its roots in something negative and often it boils down to either anger or jealousy. If you’re frustrated by your finances, then you have to be willing to ask yourself some dark questions in order to get over the frustration and move on. While asking yourself ‘why’ might not lead you to the answer there’s a good chance that asking yourself ‘who’ will. (Note that this isn’t the blame game. You’re not looking to assign responsibility to someone for your situation; giving up control by identifying as the victim won’t help you move forward.) Chances are, if you ask yourself ‘who’ you’ll discover that the person you’re mad at is yourself. That anger might stem from something you did, something you didn’t do, or perhaps a mistaken belief about your own intelligence or your own abilities (yes you are smart enough/brave enough/responsible enough to manage money). When I look back on my own money journey, it would be very easy for me to beat myself up about choices I’ve made and dwell on all the actions I did and didn’t take and to compare my situation to people who have been far more successful in a myriad of ways than I have. It would be easy for me to allow all of that to frustrate me but I choose not to because it won’t help me get where I want to go. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and it’s those lessons that can help us build a better financial future for ourselves.
People are afraid for many reasons. Sometimes we’re aware of what scares us, sometimes we have no idea. Fear is a primal instinct; it’s the brain’s response to anything it perceives as a threat (real or imagined) and, as far as the brain is concerned, anything familiar is safe and anything unfamiliar is potentially unsafe. This is a good thing when the unfamiliar thing is an angry water buffalo but not so helpful when it’s a great job opportunity in a new city! When it comes to money, there are plenty of unfamiliar things to scare our primal brain and the potential for lots of negative consequences if we make mistakes. Fear is the reason so many of us don’t take steps to correct our financial mistakes or step up to manage our finances because we’re afraid to stray too far from what’s familiar (even if it’s obviously not working!) in case we make things worse.
Action Step: Happily, fear can be one of the easiest money demons to conquer because it can usually be neutralized by information. The more we know about something the fewer unknowns exist to scare our brain. Doing a little research, setting a clear goal and formulating an action plan will go a long way towards calming your fears. Finding examples of people who have succeeded at what you’re attempting rather than examples of people who have failed horribly will also help boost your confidence in your goals and your ability to achieve them and will reduce your fears even further.
At the end of the day, there will always be reasons why not to do something. There will always be people who never got their financial house in order, lived perfectly happy lives and survived their retirement years without having to rely on cat food. There will always be people living in nice houses, driving new cars and happily juggling large amounts of debt and there will always be people earning nothing more than the average wage who are perfectly happy with the size of their paycheque. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, the key word in each of those examples is “happy”.
If you’re happy with your choices and happy with the life you’re living, then I’m not about to suggest you need to do anything differently (unless you want to). If you’re not happy; if thinking about your financial situation makes you feel overwhelmed, frustrated or fearful then that’s a clear sign that something needs to change. If that’s the case, then identifying and tackling your money demons and learning a little about your money psychology might go a long way towards creating the changes necessary for you to build a financial future that makes you happy.