my two cents

‘Should I Just Give Up on Saving Money?’

Photo: Lambert/Getty Images/Fototrove

I know that I could and should be saving money and planning for my future, but I’m just not. I’m 26, make about $55K per year, and live in New York. I am lucky enough to not have student loans, so I have no excuse for not putting anything away. But I just seem to be incapable of it. It’s like I have financial impostor syndrome — I’m pretty sure that if I did save money, I’d mess it up somehow. So I spend it all on lunches and rent and clothes and stupid stuff instead. Whenever someone tries to explain savings or investing to me, I just feel so dumb, so I avoid it. I’m not like this in other areas of my life — it’s like a chip is missing from my brain. What is wrong with me?

Your letter basically describes my 20s. In my early adult life, thinking about money felt like pouring molasses into my skull — words would slide into trombone whomps and simple math suddenly looked like parallax formulas. I knew that ignoring the problem would compound it, but I still couldn’t break my mental block.

I wish I could say that my financial hang-ups ended with a dramatic epiphany. But even though I dabbled in credit-card debt and missed a few tax deadlines (I know!), my denial held strong. The only thing that finally changed was that I got tired of feeling so stupid. I remember a distinct shift one day at work, when I was writing emails and attending meetings and appearing capable (I hope), even though I was secretly stressing out about my overdrawn checking account. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. So I began asking other people — mostly friends and family members — how they managed their own money, in the hope that I could feed off their skills and willpower (or maybe just feel better about myself, by comparison). It sounds like you’re on the cusp of a similar phase, only several years ahead of me, so — congratulations!

I understand why you’ve identified with imposterism — you don’t quite feel secure in the life you’ve made for yourself, despite external evidence that you’re doing just fine. There’s a disconnect between how you see yourself (irresponsible, ineffectual) and your reality (you’ve got a decent job and a place to live). You can’t plan for your future without taking stock of where you are, so let’s start there.

To find out what you’re missing, I called Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, the psychologist who coined the term “imposter phenomenon” back in the ’70s. “What you’re describing happens to a lot of people who are bright and competent but hold onto beliefs that they have certain inadequacies,” she says. “If you were my patient, I’d ask you to think about the origin of that belief — who gave you the message that you’d be bad with money in the first place?”

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an inner money genius lurking in your subconscious. Clance also points out that many of her patients do have an actual knowledge gap (albeit one they’ve usually blown out of proportion), and it’ll take some time and patience to close it. She gave an example of a Ph.D. student who was a brilliant mathematician but had never studied physics and was terrified of being “found out.” The issue was easily solvable — the student could take a physics class — but her fear of confronting the holes in her academic background had made the problem seem insurmountable. Do you see the parallels?

Clance recommends that you lean into the stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Look at online budget tools, read a book or two on personal finance, and/or enlist a friend or mentor to help you fumble through the first uneasy steps of figuring out what you could be doing better. She also suggests talking to a financial adviser; you can find ones who charge by the hour via the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.

When I was in your shoes, I did all of the above. I also found it helpful to write down everything I spent, which forced me to be more honest with myself about my habits. Even now, whenever my spending gets out of hand, I revisit that tactic as a way to regroup. In my experience, seeing your cash flow written out on paper makes it more concrete and controllable.

Dr. Leann V. Smith, who studies the imposter phenomenon at Texas A&M University, believes that another important component of your problem is self-efficacy. “Low self-efficacy is when you feel that you don’t have the skills you need to make things happen,” she says. It’s related to impostor syndrome, but one step removed — where imposters feel like a fraud, people with low self-efficacy are so certain they’ll fail that they won’t bother trying at all. Sound familiar?

“Your first step is to assess yourself more accurately,” says Smith. “We often catastrophize or pathologize certain tendencies that are normal, or aren’t as bad as we think.” She points out that you criticized yourself for spending money on housing, lunches, and clothes — which are all necessities. Could you be spending less on those things? Possibly, but it’s not like you’re out shopping for diamonds while your rent check bounces. Cut yourself some slack.

Smith also recommends a trick she learned in grad school: “I often feel imposterism in my research, so I keep a list of evidence that I know what I’m doing,” she says. “I know it sounds cheesy, but whenever a student writes me a nice note or I get a paper published in a big journal, or I receive another signal that I’m doing well, it goes on the list. Then, when I start to get those feelings of self-doubt, I revisit it. By exposing myself to the truth, I can minimize the lies I tell myself.” You could translate this into a list of small actions you’ve taken to save more or better organize your finances — anything to keep yourself from spinning out into molasses-brain territory.

Ultimately, your financial habits could use some tweaks, but probably not the punitive overhaul you envisioned. And the same goes for your mind-set — there’s nothing “wrong” with you, except for the fact that you think there is.

‘Should I Just Give Up on Saving Money?’