Budget and the Beach’s recent post about money anxiety got me thinking about my own anxiousness. Because the anxiety has definitely been there, centered around a single fact: I anticipated a lot more money post-divorce than I’m seeing.
I haven’t been able to put any money into the main savings account in the past two months, and next month isn’t looking good either.
I keep thinking, “What if Tim wasn’t really the problem? What if I’m going to spend the same (or almost the same) even without him?” I need to calm that anxiety somehow.
If you’re anything like me, you struggle to deal financial anxiety, so here are some steps that help when it ramps up:
Review your expenses
If you don’t have money left at the end of the month, then this must mean that your expenses are equaling (or, gulp, exceeding) your income. If you can determine where the money is going, you might find ways to decrease expenses, calming your brain.
Go through all of your recurring expenses to see if there is anywhere to trim. You can try lowering your utility bills by turning down the thermostat or taking shorter showers. And what about all of those things on your financial to-do list? Maybe you’ve been meaning to call your Internet provider and negotiate a lower rate. Or perhaps you keep saying that you’re going to cut the cord but haven’t gotten around to it.
Do it now. Taking action will make you feel like you have at least a little control, which is a great remedy for anxiety.
Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do on these fronts. I’m already keeping the place plenty chilly and I don’t take long showers. So there’s really not much I can do about my utilities. I pay less than $5 a month for my home phone through Ooma. I’ve already cut the cord, I already pay only $25 a month for cell service with Ting, and Hulu even dropped its price by $2 a month. Plus I just got a lower price from my Internet provider by signing a one-year contract.
But reviewing my expenses did help. Why? I figured out one of the reasons I expected to see more money: Tim’s alternative therapy. I’m no longer paying $600 a month for it, which means, logically, the money should be going into savings, right?
Unfortunately, no. Because taxes. Now that I’m filing as a single person, they went up by more than $400. That and my increased Roth contribution more than takes care of that $600 I was expecting.
So the review didn’t let me find money — which definitely would have bee calming — but it did let me figure out where some of my expectations lay (and why they weren’t correct). That helped a little.
Review your spending
Has spending been up lately? If anxiety is rearing its head, then the answer is probably yes. I know my anxiety kicks into overdrive as I see money leaving my account and/or the credit card bill climbing. So when anxiety hits, it’s best to take a look at recent spending and see if you can spot any areas to trim.
Now, I know my spending is down (compared to when I was married) because my financial “weeks” are lasting 8-10 days. So overall, my spending is definitely lower. But could I make it stretch farther than that?
Well, I’m not going to start cooking any time soon, so there’s really no savings to be had on the food front, except… I could stop getting something to eat when I go out with my trivia group. It’d be good for my diet as well as my budget. But it’s my weekly treat, and I’m generally spending $13 or less. Besides, I’m hesitant to go back to spending $0 while at trivia. (You guys didn’t love that idea, if you’ll recall, which is why I changed my ways.) So I think I’ll leave that intact for now.
But if you’re lucky, you’ve identified some places to trim spending, which should help ease your mind,
Look at the progress you are making
Chances are, things aren’t as bad as they feel. So try to take a rosier view of your finances.
Are you putting anything away into savings? Then celebrate that, even if it’s not as much as you want. Focus on it when the anxiety comes at you. Chant it if need be. Whatever it takes to drive the anxiousness out of your brain.
Not putting anything into savings? Are you contributing to retirement? That’s still saving!
And what if you aren’t even contributing to retirement? Look at any debt you’re paying down (including the mortgage) and focus on that.
If even that doesn’t apply, well then look at any financial progress you’ve made lately. Even if that’s just trimming expenses toward future savings. Heck, even if it’s just revamping your gameplan moving forward. It’s going to lead to progress in the future. And sometimes that’s the most we can hope for.
Personally, I need to focus on the fact that I’m now contributing more to my Roth than I have in past years. Plus some of my savings accounts are still getting boosted. The car fund, for example, is still getting $300 a month. And the emergency fund is now getting $100 a month instead of $50. Plus, I’m paying extra on my mortgage, which will save me thousands in interest over the years.
So I am saving. I just have to remind myself of that. Regularly.
“This too shall pass.” (Repeat until you believe it)
Anxiety is about things we can’t (or feel we can’t) control. And there are few things less controllable than unexpected expenses.
Whether it’s a doctor’s bill, flat tire or some other out-of-the-blue expense, this type of charge is great at destroying the delicate balance most of us have achieved with our budgets. So when the expenses hit, it can feel devastating — especially when multiple ones hit at once.
That’s where I am right now. I’ve spent the past three months getting hit with curveballs and irregular expenses to the point that it feels like it’s never going to end.
How bad is it?
Last month, it was more than $1,600: vehicle registration ($280), the new loveseat ($420), insurance deductible and rental car from the accident ($930).
The month before that, I had about $2,070 in one-off expenses: guesthouse windows ($1,800) and discounted Target gift cards for my protein bars ($270).
And in November, it was an insane $3,000 thanks to the movers ($500), a cataract-related eye exam ($210), the yearly termite protection ($320), the guest bed ($530), a larger-than-usual health insurance bill ($640) and guest house repairs/upgrades ($800).
It’s at the point where I’m starting to feel like this is the new normal. As though my life will always be a succession of unexpected expenses cropping up, draining my savings account — or at least keeping me from adding to it. And that’s terrifying for me.
I always assumed that Tim was behind the bulk of the unexpected expenses, but what if that’s not true? What if life is always going to throw more at me than my budget can handle?
But that’s just the anxiety talking. And that’s what we have to realize in order to survive our mental turmoil: It won’t always be like this. Eventually — short of a serious chronic illness — the bills stop coming because the universe runs out of things to throw at you. At least for a while.
In my case, I still have to pay to move the pool table (still waiting for Tim to make room in his new place) and then buy a dining table. I also have to pay around $500 for my business taxes. But then I should be done with large bills for the foreseeable future.
So it’s a matter of recognizing that these are only temporary setbacks. Which I’m sure I’ll start to believe any day now.
Expect the unexpected
You can start to plan for irregular expenses. I put aside a bit of money each month for my annual car insurance premium. Some people set aside a bit of money each month for clothing since shoes will eventually need replacing and jeans will eventually tear. Some even set aside money for a big question mark, anticipating at least a few unexpected charges during the month.
I did something similar. Since I don’t have a categorized budget, I simply built a fair number of unexpected expenses into my projected savings rate. I assumed a $1,000 monthly credit card bill when the only recurring expense I’ll have is $375 for health insurance each month. That should moderate my expectations, lessening the emotional impact of unexpected/irregular charges.
Another important fact to remember: Most unexpected expenses are going to be around $100 or less. That’s nothing to sniff at — especially when you’re on a tight budget — but compared to the $300+ charges I’ve been hit with recently, $100 seems pretty doable. And with today’s thriving gig economy, you could pick up a few Uber, Rover or Instacart opportunities and make up the money that way.
Try to distract yourself
Even when you’re concentrating on other things, low-level anxiety can be churning away in your brain. But that doesn’t mean you should give it your full attention.
So go watch a movie, read a book, play with your kids or go out with friends (or just have friends over — so you don’t spend money!). Do whatever it takes to get your mind at least partially off the matter at hand.
I’ve been numbing my brain with Netflix. I went through all eight seasons of Shameless in about three weeks. I also binged The Punisher season two. I’m about to start watching Norsemen on the advice of a friend. I’m also having people over for a game night (fun with friends for the cost of a few mixers!) and trying to coordinate a night for the gals in our group to go out dancing (to a place with no cover, of course). All of this keeps my mind off my almost-nonexistent savings rate.
Accept that anxiety isn’t rational
In the end, you can only use logic so much. Anxiety will override it a lot of the time. Unfortunately, rational thought sometimes just can’t touch visceral fear.
In those cases, all you can do is temper the situation as best you can. Do you obsessively check your bank balance throughout the day? Put your phone out of reach, making it harder to use the app. Do you compulsively run the budget numbers? Make yourself use a piece of paper instead of Excel. All the math will slow you down.
Notice I’m not advising you to stop these habits altogether. That’s not realistic, so don’t set that goal for yourself. (Especially if your habit is checking your bank balance!) I understand that hard numbers reassure us that everything is correct and how we expect it to be. The problem is that if we do it too often, it becomes the only way to self-soothe, which is a problem.
So allow yourself some compulsion, but try to moderate it. Set an interval during which you can’t check your bank balance. Limit the number of times per week (or, yes, per day) that you can run the budget numbers. Or set a maximum percentage that you can decrease the budget numbers so that you don’t go crazy with “What if?” scenarios. (“What if we spent just $50 on food this month?”)
All in all, sometimes we just have to accept that, for some of us, our brain is going to push us into fight-or-flight mode at random times. The best we can do is try to remember that our perception is not necessarily reality and moderate our actions accordingly.
How do you deal with money anxiety?