I worry about money constantly.
My fiancé and I are young and don’t own a home yet, but we both make over six figures. We don’t have a ton of wealth, but we’re building our savings and 401(k)s and have minimal debt. Our financial goals are the same, and we’re good at talking about money.
I’m grateful for our security. But I can’t stop worrying about money. It affects everything I do. I obsess daily over not being able to afford a home, afford to retire, afford a child, afford a life, despite our high incomes and the resources available to us (like support from my family, if we were really in a bind).
Growing up, I had everything. My dad is a doctor and we were always taken care of — nothing fancy, but my siblings and I had everything we wanted, and we all graduated college debt-free. The attitude from my parents was basically that money didn’t exist. But because I never had to think about money, I was really, really bad with it when I first lived on my own. I got into over $20,000 in credit-card debt right after college, which I fully paid off three years ago (with some help). Now I feel like if I don’t think about it constantly, it will all fall apart.
I don’t have a good way to talk about these fears without sounding like a privileged broken record. My family says, “Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.” My friends and I are all in different places financially, so I end up comparing myself to them and feeling worse. I feel like an asshole when I complain about money to my friends who are on food stamps. And I feel a sick, sinking feeling when I see people my age buying houses, because it just feels so impossible and permanently out of reach. That leaves me with no one to have a real conversation with about everyday money anxiety.
My fiancé says we’re doing the best we can do. Even therapists I’ve talked to don’t seem to understand how intense the anxiety is, because it’s disproportionate to the actual picture of my finances. I know some of my fears aren’t rational, but some of them are. How can I start to address my money anxiety in a real way?
I’m sorry you feel so alone in your fears, especially because so many people share them. I think it’s normal to have some anxiety about money, especially at a time like this, when it feels so abstract and uncertain. Inflation has literally changed the value of what we have. There’s a lot of noise about the economy and where it’s going. Housing prices are truly bonkers. I’m a little nervous myself. So I can understand why you’re freaking out, even though it’s obviously true that many people have it much worse than you. But you shouldn’t have to live in such a state of panic, or feel so isolated.
You need two things: 1) To understand that your anxiety is valid, even though you are objectively doing fine, and 2) A plan for managing that anxiety moving forward.
To start, it’s worth looking at the role of anxiety more generally. “It’s the feeling we get when something’s not right, and it’s part of human instinct — we are wired to detect danger,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in L.A. “But just because the detector goes off doesn’t mean the danger is real. It’s just a signal. The questions we need to ask are, ‘Does it need attention? Or is it emotional noise?’”
You are already taking the first step of asking those questions — you’re reality-testing the signal. And I can understand why you’re confused and dissatisfied by the answers. On the one hand, the danger is real: It can be wildly expensive to buy a home, raise a family, and retire, especially in a place like New York City. It’s true that you may not be able to afford to do those things in the same ways that some of your wealthier friends can. But on the other hand, you are very secure. You make a high income, you save and invest for your future, and you’ve found a life partner who shares your values and goals. It sounds like you are doing a great job of managing everything that’s within your control.
Still, you don’t trust yourself, probably because you’ve gotten into credit-card debt in the past and still feel angry and frustrated about it. Your upbringing made you feel like you’re incapable of managing your money on your own. This is where it might be helpful to speak with a financial professional to get an impartial perspective and hopefully some reassurance. Here’s some advice on how to find one; when you’re vetting candidates, be sure to mention your anxiety, and that your goal is to create a plan to put yourself at ease.
Having set routines around money can also be soothing. Don’t wait until you’re in a tizzy to check your accounts — do it at an appointed time of day, in a soothing place. “If you’re only looking at your financial situation when you’re already anxious about it, then you’re reinforcing anxiety as the trigger for financial behavior. Having a calm environment while you think about money can help rewire your instincts,” says Clayman.
You also need to know how to stop when you’ve done what you can. “For example, I create a schematic for my clients to consult when they get anxious. It includes opening your accounts, looking at your numbers, paying your bills, and making sure that everything is on time,” says Clayman. “Once you get to the bottom of that list, that’s it — you’re done.” If there’s still residual anxiety, then focus on treating it separately with other tools like meditation, therapy, or exercise. I’m not saying it’ll be easy to conquer, but continuing to fixate on your finances won’t be the answer.
I should also point out that money could be a scapegoat for other fears that are more difficult for you to face. “Sometimes we displace our anxieties about things we can’t control into one particular area of our lives, and we become excessively concerned about it,” says Dr. Bahareh Sahebi, a psychologist and assistant program director at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “It’s a common psychological defense mechanism, and it’s also subconscious.” I would urge you to give therapy another try once you’re ready, and be open to exploring other potential sources of unease.
Another part of this process will be learning to enjoy and appreciate the money that you have. When you talk to a financial planner, Dr. Sahebi recommends coming up with an amount of money that’s allocated for fun, that you must spend. “You can’t think about that as wasted money,” she says. In other words, money can be a source of pleasure, not just a problem that needs to be solved.
Finally, you mentioned that you feel isolated in your concerns — ashamed that you feel such scarcity while you also have so much, and distanced from those who can’t relate. I can understand why some people might brush off your fears, especially since your anxieties might trigger their own. (Trust me, you really never know someone else’s financial position based on appearance.) Dr. Sahebi suggests that you might have more luck connecting with others if you ask questions about their relationship with money (“What’s a piece of financial advice that really helped you?” or “What do you do when you feel nervous about money?”) instead of sharing your own problems more explicitly. “This way, you can gain a different perspective,” she says. I think you’ll find that you’re less alone than you think.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org