I know that my situation is objectively good, but I am nonetheless not handling it well. My wife and I are in our late 30s and had two children much earlier than our cohort in New York — our oldest is entering middle school. After years of spending all available money on child care and rent, we were able to find our footing financially. We bought a place during the early pandemic, and for the last couple of years we have been salting away about 40 percent of our income in retirement and college-savings accounts. Barring setbacks, we anticipate doing so every year from here on out.
Our housing situation is a bright spot. We did not stretch in terms of price or space and got a loan near market bottom. I would estimate we put about 15 percent of our gross income toward our mortgage and other housing costs. But between taxes, nonnegotiable (i.e., kid-related) expenses, and our savings rate, there is not much left over.
I had thought that it would feel good to reach this place of relative security and am surprised that it does not. Instead, it feels like an endless slog. This state of affairs brings me no joy.
The cost of college, retirement, and long-term care loom. I repetitively project account balances into the future, a process that ends with the tolerable but uninspiring conclusion that we will likely escape the trap of elder poverty. Meanwhile, our savings rate hampers our day-to-day lives, and my future focus blurs the intervening decades to serial toil and deferred gratification.
I recognize the importance of staying on track financially, but I need to find a way to do so productively. For what it’s worth, I think the issue has to do with my attitude toward money, not my general mental health — the preceding paragraph sounds awfully glum on re-reading! — as my life is pretty great when I am not ruminating on this subject. Any advice?
I can understand why you feel trapped. We live in a complex financial system where even if you do everything right, it can feel like you’re barely holding on. You check one box, but then there’s another and another, a never-ending list of things to pay for until you die. It’s depressing! You’re not alone in this anxiety.
That said, something in your picture is out of proportion. You’re so consumed by the threat of future poverty and “serial toil” that you can’t focus on what’s right in front of you: a comfortable home, kids who have what they need, legitimate financial security that you’ve built for yourself and your family. You’re putting away 40 percent of your income! That’s a major achievement and takes serious discipline. While I recognize that you feel like you have to do it, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s your choice.
I’m not suggesting that you should change anything about your financial plan. But I agree that you need to think about it differently. You’re not Sisyphus, sentenced to push a boulder up a hill only to have it slip out of your hands before you reach the top. You’re a regular human with responsibilities that can feel either light or heavy.
You could start by thinking about it less. You said it yourself: Your life is pretty great when you’re not ruminating about your money. I know that sounds simplistic, like telling someone who’s going through a tough breakup to just quit thinking about their ex. But fixating on your finances — or even worse, an alternative fantasy life where you had a leg up from family or were able to save more in your 20s — isn’t serving you.
When I sent your letter to Dr. Brad Klontz, a certified financial advisor and psychologist who researches the connections between mental and financial well-being, he pointed out that you seem overly oriented toward the future. (For what it’s worth, most people have the opposite problem, and that’s one reason why they don’t save enough or plan sufficiently — clearly not your issue.)
“You need to have the ability to enjoy today and think about the future at the same time,” says Dr. Klontz. “People who are too stuck in the present will be broke in the future. But if you’re too focused on the future, you’re going to be miserable your entire life.” Future-oriented folks also tend to be unhappy in retirement, he added, even though they’ve spent decades saving for it. The point is that you’ll never actually reach the future that you’re working toward when you’re always worried about what’s next.
A perfect balance between the present and the future — or in any aspect of life, really — is a crock, in my opinion. Still, I’d still advocate for less of what’s not working and more of what is. And to do that, you need to challenge some of your beliefs around what you described as “nonnegotiable,” says Dr. Klontz.
For example, you have more agency than you think. You are deciding to save for your children’s college because you value their education and don’t want them to be burdened with student loans (a worthy goal, but still an optional one). You chose to save up to buy a home, and you timed it perfectly with the market. You are electing to save for retirement so that you can enjoy your later years. You haven’t painted yourself into a corner — you’ve built yourself a life that’s pretty great! But like anyone’s, it costs money to maintain, especially when you have standards that you’d like to uphold.
To shift your beliefs around money, Dr. Klontz recommends looking at where they came from. “This anxiety about scarcity, it’s very intense,” he says. You mentioned a fear of elder poverty; I agree that it’s scary, and a heartbreaking reality for many people. But it doesn’t sound like it’s in the cards for you. Can you work toward thinking about what you’re saving for, rather than what you’re saving to prevent?
I also brought your note to Dr. Bahareh Sahebi, a licensed therapist who has treated clients struggling with similar financial issues. She argues that even though you say your concerns are only related to finances, money can serve as a proxy for less manageable feelings of emptiness and desire. “When we feel like we cannot control the turmoil in our world, sometimes we channel those anxieties into one particular area of our lives,” she says. “What is it that you feel like you missed out on? What is so unfulfilled?”
You aren’t alone in your experience, generally, but also specifically: You have a partner who’s in the same boat with you. “Where is your wife in this picture? How is she feeling?” says Dr. Sahebi. “How can you both create something that goes beyond what you are already doing productively, together?”
I understand that the future can feel overwhelming, an unwinnable battle against the unknown. But I bet that even if you had more money, you’d feel the same way. So maybe it’s time to focus on what you do know, and what you do have, in this moment.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org