I always thought of myself as a pretty awake, aware person.
Who doesn’t want to believe that?
Looking back on the past few years, the perception I had of myself wasn’t wrong, it was just a little… off. Especially in one major area of my life: my finances.
But before I throw myself under the bus, let me provide some evidence of how dialed-in I was in all other areas of my life:
- I’ve practiced yoga on a regular basis since I was a senior in high school. I’m overly flexible in many areas of my body, and learned the hard way that if I didn’t pay close attention to my alignment, I would injure myself. I was a professional athlete for the first few years after college, and if I was injured, I couldn’t work. I needed my body to make an income.
- When I worked as a ski instructor on the slopes of Aspen, I had multiple students under my charge, many of whom were apparently born with two left feet. Think the bunny slopes are fail proof? Nope. If I didn’t pay close enough attention, one of them could easily maim themselves in the blink of an eye.
- I’m a product designer now, and an extreme orientation to detail is the main requirement of the job. If something is a pixel off, you’ll hear about it.
See? That proves it, I’m a together person. Right?
Avoiding the problem by ignoring it
The truth is, throughout most of my twenties I appeared like I had it all under control. But below the surface I had this low-level anxiety constantly churning in me. For all my moments of zen with my sports life, work, and yoga I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that things were unwell in my universe… that my life was missing something vital that couldn’t be compensated for.
For a long time I figured the anxiety was a factor of my poverty. When I wasn’t a bonafide starving student, I was getting by paycheck to paycheck. I thought, My problem will go away as soon as I start making good money.
So through my undergrad career and the post-graduate haze of waiting tables in survival mode trying to figure out why the world couldn’t see how employable I was, I stuck my head firmly in the sand and kept it there. I occasionally checked my bank accounts to make sure I had been paid, but any other time I feared that I would just be in a panic or a bad mood about how little I had.
In retrospect I realize how lucky I was. Besides the weight of my student loans, I mostly avoided getting crushed under a mountain of unsecured debt. After a brief hookup with Visa, I learned the hard way not to mess with the wasteland of reckless credit card use.
I wasn’t completely blind. But the attention to detail I cultivated so successfully in other areas of my life did NOT transfer to my finances. When it came to money I took more of a lassiez-faire approach…and it cost me my peace of mind.
My lack of awareness around my personal finances informed not only my spending and my misuse of credit, but my whole attitude toward money — namely, that there was never enough. And that in itself was something to be embarrassed about.
In a way having lower income got me off the hook of taking responsibility. I figured, What was there to manage?
What finally forced me to step up my game with my personal finances was, ironically, my own success.
If I make enough I won’t have to worry…right?
When I landed my first position as a designer, my income doubled overnight. I’d had visions of what this might look like when it actually happened: My veil of anxiety would lift, I would suddenly not have to worry about rent, and — cue the heavenly choir — I would be able to buy new clothes.
What happened instead was pretty sobering.
That sinking feeling inside of me, my “not-enoughness”? It intensified.
I wanted to go right out and buy replacements for my shoes that had holes in them, purchase face lotion from somewhere other than Trader Joe’s, and finally see a dentist again. But I had no idea how to figure out what I could afford on the new salary and what I couldn’t. My monthly student loan minimums were definitely going to go up; how would I manage my current debt and these things that I would like to do to take care of myself? Here I was, finally making good money in a job I loved, and I couldn’t enjoy it.
That’s when I realized… my god. I’ve been paying attention to the wrong things. My eyes have been on the prize — reaching, focused out toward the horizon on the things I don’t have, rather than what’s right in front of me. If I couldn’t manage a small amount of money, how did I expect myself to effectively manage more?
Taking My Power Back
The secret to getting rid of my financial anxiety wasn’t wealth — it was mindfulness.
I noticed that I was hauling around this incredibly icky, avoidant attitude when it came to figuring out my finances. I felt a lot of shame. I didn’t even want to look at them. So my that was my first step: becoming aware.
I got extremely clear on all my account balances, paycheck takeaways, bill due dates, and loan interest rates. I got push notifications on my phone each time money left any of my accounts. I canceled subscriptions I forgot I’d had.
At first, paying attention to what was going in and what was coming out of my accounts every day induced a lot of stress. I had a lot of ohmygod why did I spend money on that moments. But doing this actually allowed me to check myself: was the way I was using my money in alignment with who I want to be? Was it in alignment with my long term goals?
I didn’t get it right immediately. Like anything, it takes practice and time.
But, my have-everything-under-control mentality that has allowed me succeed in other areas of my life finally has an outlet in healing my relationship with my finances. It feels good to take that power back.
How do you cope with financial anxiety? Tell me more in the comments below!
If you’re interested in tools to help you stay more financially organized, check out the product I’ve been designing — it’s also helped me with my own financial journey! https://beta.alka.app