Have you ever thought of money as a mental health issue?
You’ve probably never made the connection before. And chances are that you’re currently only associating money with negative feelings.
Almost everyone at some point in their lives will feel stressed about money. This is part and parcel of living in our modern economy, which largely depends on people spending as much of their income as possible.
We face what I call The Pressure – the constant, niggling feeling that you should be earning more, spending more and hitting certain material milestones that will prove your success.
And apart from those who have taken a vow of poverty (!), we all have to deal with The Pressure. You can’t avoid it – it’s just not possible to live without money – but if you try to conquer it by earning and spending more, The Pressure just gets worse and worse.
You take out credit to keep expanding those horizons, you become more obsessive in your desire to acquire…before long, your finances become so complex and fragile, they resemble a giant Jenga tower that could be toppled at any moment.
But I have some good news.
Acknowledging The Pressure is the first, crucial step towards making your peace with it.
If you accept The Pressure, you will find ways to cope with it.
Accepting The Pressure doesn’t mean condoning or going along with it.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be optimistic that The Pressure will soften or do your bit to make that happen. I take inspiration from Mahatma Ghandi, who once said:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”.
This is what motivates me to campaign for young people to be better served by our financial industry and educated to have a happier relationship with money. You don’t have to get involved in financial campaigning to feel better about money (although it really helps!) Being an ethical consumer gives you back power. You feel that you’re doing something tangible to make our system fairer, more inclusive and more responsible, rather than just being a cog in the machine.
But if we’re to navigate the money minefield, we also have to temper idealism with pragmatism, not just about the world we live in but about the way our minds work.
Huge advances have been made in our collective understanding about what happens in the brain. It’s fascinating to learn about the psychological tendencies that can drive our financial behaviour. There’s even a whole field dedicated to it – behavioural economics.
How we perceive money drives how we interact with it. For instance, you might believe you’re bad with money, or that money management is hard or that it’s impossible to be well off today. Or all three things! And these beliefs will play out in how you manage money. You may shun financial decisions, ignore looking at your bank statements and spend like there’s no tomorrow. On a subconscious level, you’re resigning yourself to a life of financial struggles and pain.
Let’s examine those core beliefs. Are they true or helpful?
Well, they seem to have a ring of truth to them, because they’re what we tell ourselves, or maybe it’s what we’ve heard from friends, the family, the media…did you know our financial attitudes are set by the time we’re 8 years old?
Just because we’ve been telling ourselves these things for a LONG time doesn’t mean they’re true.
Let’s try flipping these core beliefs around.
We could start by saying: “I CAN be good with money. It’s down to me to improve my financial situation. Prioritising this would change my life for the better.” These statements are so much more empowering and positive, but they’re also true!
Every day, make a note of these statements, or any other positive money mantras that resonate with you (try a few out for size!) Repeat them to yourself. After a while, your brain’s “neuroplasticity” will push out the old unhelpful beliefs with your new, kick-ass ones. The next time you’re tempted to spend money you don’t have, or put off checking your bank balance, recite these beliefs to yourself. They’ll give you the motivation you need to walk away from that last round and stay on top of what’s going on. And acting on those beliefs will give you a HUGE self-esteem boost, making you feel capable and in control. Those positive feelings will strengthen your motivation to be mindful with money, because you know how great it makes you feel.
Most of our relationship with money is how we mentally frame it. Money management could be seen as a chore or an act of self-denial…or it could be seen as skilling up, putting yourself first, a way to show we respect ourselves and our worth, an act of self-care. Which sound most appealing to you?
Like any mental health issue, money worries need to be brought into the open. Otherwise, they fester. We find ourselves in a vicious cycle, where our negative feelings trigger poor financial behaviour…which creates more negative feelings.
Don’t bottle it up. Talk to someone.
It could be a friend, a parent or a stranger if you want a non-judgemental ear. You never have to struggle alone. There are people who will listen and help you work through stuff. There are so many support services out there if you’re struggling with anxiety or depression – here are just are few of them:
- Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
- Mental Health and Money Advice
- Mental Health Foundation
It’s not just about managing money; we have to manage our feelings about money.
Brooding about money, in and of itself, won’t help you at all. But identifying that you’re worried about money is a useful first step.
Separate your feeling from the situation.
Practicing mindfulness will help you get seriously good at this.
Use the “Why” method.
Keep asking yourself why you’re worried until you get to the bottom of the problem. You might say: “I’m worried that I don’t have enough money to cover my expenses.”
Why? “I overspend in the first week after I’m paid.” Or maybe it’s “My student loan doesn’t cover my essentials.” Bingo.
You’ve identified the problem, so you can now devise a plan of action.
Maybe you’ll find yourself saying: “I’ll set some limits on my spending in that first week. And I’ll research things that could help me do that.” Or you could look into a part-time job or side hustle to earn you more money whilst you study.
Breaking things down also helps.
It can be super-daunting to set yourself the task of “Master the Art of Budgeting”!
So schedule 30 minutes in your diary twice a week – ideally at the start of the day, when you feel fresh – to research initial steps. That initial, relatively small investment of time will lead you to some brilliant discoveries – a handy budgeting app or ingenious moneysaving hacks. The information is all out there. Now it’s time for you to find it!
And the next time you feel The Pressure coming on, stay strong with this lovely quote from the author Jonathan Swift:
“Wise people should have money in their heads, not in their hearts.”
My 8 steps to coping with The Pressure:
Use healthy core beliefs to deal with it
Share your money worries
Separate your worries from the problem
Keep asking “Why”
Devise an action plan
Break it down
Keep money in your head, not your heart!