How A Compulsive Worrier In The Midwest Does Money

“Karen” (not her real name) is a married almost 30-year-old in the Midwest who works as an independent contractor for a tech company.

Hello! You contacted me with lots of details about anxiety. Can you describe what role, generally speaking, anxiety plays in terms of how you do money?

I think it has made me handle my finances in totally opposite ways. For instance, I like to have a lot of money in savings so that I feel secure, so I do tend to be very cheap. But at the same time, I don’t have much of a plan. I don’t have or try to stick to a budget, even though every so often I check on Mint. Since I know that I always have a lot of money around, I just spend whatever I need to.

I guess I’m saying my spending is very laissez-faire. Every so often I freak out about money if I “feel” like I’ve spent too much. I’m also very hands-off about my retirement accounts. I’ve set up my Roth IRA & 401k so that the contributions come out of my accounts automatically and I never look at my statements.

Do you think avoiding the facts feeds the anxiety?

It’s very possible. In a way, since I have such a large financial cushion, I’ve never bothered to really try a budget. I’ll do something half-assed for a while, but then quickly give up. Then I ignore my finances for a couple weeks and then freak out if the bank totals aren’t what I thought they should be.

Budgeting seems like a ton of work to me, and I’m not generally inclined to do it out of actual necessity. My husband helps keep things in perspective a lot too, and I think he would be really hard to get on board with an actual budget too.

Does he feel anxiety around money too?

I busted out laughing here. We are complete opposites about money. He likes to spend it, and I like to save it. At one point we talked about him having a compulsive spending habit, but we never looked into it more than that; we didn’t get it diagnosed or anything like that. We have a lot of fights about money because of that, but I also think it helps keep us balanced. He makes sure I don’t go too far off the saving deep end, and I make sure we have enough money to pay all the bills and do fun stuff we want to do, whenever we want.

That sounds like a pretty workable system. Do you make roughly equal amounts of money?

Yes, we do. I think this year I will surpass him by a bit because I asked for and got a pretty substantial raise, and he lost some income. He’s a teacher and a coach but just lost the coaching jobs for next year.

And how does he feel about your anxiety? Does he tolerate it, or see it as a positive — because, as you say, it helps counteract his instinct to spend — or does it make him crazy?

Oh my gosh, it makes him crazy. He looks at our accounts and sees all this money lying around for no reason. I see that we aren’t yet hitting my arbitrary goals. When I have my occasional super-meltdowns over not saving enough, he’s the one who talks me down. We’ve been together for almost 15 years, so he can make fun of me a little for it too. He points out that I’m being crazy, and then talks me through our finances to show me why we’ll be ok.

Let’s talk about those arbitrary goals! What are they and where do they come from?

So when I wrote you I noted we have almost $18,000 in our joint savings/checking accounts (for the record, we do everything through our joint accounts). I checked the amounts last night, and now its closer to $16,500 because a lot of big expenses come out at the first of the month: mortgage, car payment, and health insurance, mostly. At some point I randomly decided that $20,000 is the magic number: if we could hit that I would calm down about our finances. But realistically we both know that’s probably not true. I will never calm down about money! :)

It can be kind of freeing to realize that, can’t it? Or is it not freeing? I guess it depends what you want the money for: something specific that you can’t afford yet, or something more nebulous like “peace of mind.”

Right! That’s where we’ve been working the most lately. We have to talk about money all the time because of my anxiety and our conflicting habits. I found out that it really helps my husband if we are saving for a specific goal, like a big vacation. He’s less likely to want to overspend his “fun” budget. Then I have to work on actually being ok with letting that money go when we take the trip. I try to keep in mind that my life is a work in progress and that since I realize I can be crazy about money, I can also work on not letting that take over.

Are you working on this with help, or by yourself? I ask this as a person who has had anxiety problems since I was a kid and who has tried all sorts of things — from diet modification and exercise to massage therapy to traditional therapy — to get to a better emotional place about my excessive worrying.

Haha, oh that’s good to know I’m not the only crazy worrier out there! It might be important to note I don’t worry about money exclusively either. It’s kind of a general characteristic for me. I pretty much work on managing my worrying by myself or with my husband. Our money discussions are primarily between us as well; we have used a financial advisor at our credit union, but he mostly just helped us set up the retirement accounts we have. We haven’t really discussed other financial goals with other people.

What are your other financial goals?

I knew you’d ask that next, and I don’t really have any! I guess I have one major one, but it seems kind of nebulous sometimes: I want to be able to retire early. Since my husband’s a teacher, and he started teaching right after college, he’ll be able to retire around 55 with amazing benefits, assuming nothing with the retirement plan goes completely haywire in the intervening decades. I would like to be able to retire then as well, so we are trying to throw a lot of money at retirement.

Again, it’s hard for me to balance that with needing a lot of cushion in savings/checking. Technically the retirement money is available if needed, but it seems like it could also disappear at the worst time if something like the Great Recession happens again.

I wish we had hooked you up to some sort of device that measured your heart-rate during this interview so that you could report when your pulse spikes. Are you feeling more anxious right now than when we began talking, or less? If I asked you to open up your online banking window and actually come face-to-face with the numbers, would that freak you out or calm you down?

They say worrying has a lot to do with how out of control a person feels. So during the interview, I’ve gone back and forth, honestly. I was nervous at the beginning and talking about retirement, but when I talk about how my husband and I work on it together I feel really good about it. I guess that’s a good sign for our relationship! ;)

Do you think a lot about how your parents did money when you were growing up and do you think that has had an impact on your relationship to saving and spending now?

I can say, without a doubt, YES. I am so similar to my mother it can be terrifying. I honestly think she’s where I get a lot of my habits and emotions towards money.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents (and my in-laws for that matter) are all super supportive and would help us out in a heart beat if anything came up. My husband and I both came from similar, suburban, middle-class privileged backgrounds. My mom is a saver and worrier as well. She also needs a very large financial cushion. My father likes to spend. They’re divorced and I heard a lot of incriminating information on each of their spending habits, or lack thereof, during that.

Ah yes, well, divorce can wreak havoc on finances. But your mom was a worrier even before your parents split up?

Yes, I think she was. We rarely went out to eat but I have vague memories of being a child and picking up on unspoken signals to only order the cheapest thing on the menu when we went out. Also, I think it goes back even farther than just my mom. Her father is incredibly frugal as well. I don’t know about the worrying part, but I know they both keep a lot of money in savings and try to live cheaply to keep it there.

It’s interesting how that stuff can be passed down — how much we learn by example.

The Great Depression is still having ripple effects, several generations later. Speaking of eating out, since it’s #FoodMonth, how do you do money when it comes to groceries and meals?

Well, you found my guilty pleasure! I consider myself a wanna-be foodie, so food is one of the things I’m willing to spend on, sometimes ridiculously so. Our city has a lot of small locavore restaurants and I love to go out and try them. I am a sucker for a restaurant-specific cocktail too, and those are not cheap! I try to balance it by going to happy hours a lot (learned that from my mom too!). That way I can experience as many restaurants as possible.

I’m pretty frugal when it comes to groceries, though. I shop the circulars weekly and try to base my meal plans for the week around what’s on sale. I love one of our grocery stores that calculates how much you saved when you use your loyalty card because I’m a nerd. I do try to eat at home a lot, since it’s cheaper and often a lot healthier.

Do you use food as an emotional metric, then, for other purchases? Like, “Would this $16 thing make me as happy as spending $16 on dinner would?” And do you and your husband both prioritize dining well, or does he appreciate it less than you do?

Ah the perennial Billfold debate: experiences vs. things. ;)

Meals are kind of experiences AND things, aren’t they? Though the “thing” part is ephemeral.

I suppose for me they’re mainly experiences since it’s here and then it’s gone, literally. Also you absolutely have to eat something, so in a way I justify it to myself. My husband also likes going out to eat, but he also wants to buy a lot of stuff, so we do have fights about that sometimes too.

You should show him this cartoon from the Money issue of the New York Times Magazine. On the other hand, if he can afford the amazing new thing and it’s not putting you in debt, and it brings him joy … *shruggie*

That’s about how I feel about “pelf.” But yeah that’s about sums up his argument too. And I can see that side of it. It’s just hard to get out of your own head sometimes and accept that he has a different way of looking at things, and it’s not inherently wrong, it’s just different.

MARRIAGE, amirite? So much damn compromise and empathy. Any last thoughts or advice for Billfold readers?

I’ve been thinking about that question since we decided to chat last week! I don’t know that I’m a great person to get advice from, since I’m extremely privileged to be so monetarily secure and yet to still worry about it all the time.

However, I guess I could give some tips on how I try to not spend money: I try very hard to not watch TV or to shop, actually. I find when I’m exposed to a lot of ads or the lives on shows (however unrealistic) I tend to want to buy more stuff or at least spend more money to make my life more like those I saw. Or, try to keep in mind that we’re all works in progress, and even if a decision you made looks terrible in hindsight, try to be kind to yourself because you made the best choice you could at the time, with the information you had. I’m still working on that one!

Aren’t we all. Do you envision a time in your life when you do mellow out a bit about money? Once you are happily retired, or can you picture any circumstances in which it could happen before then?

I definitely hope it will happen someday. Some of my other character flaws seem to be mellowing with age so I hope as I get more perspective and life experience I’ll be more reasonable about money. Also, I hope that I’ll continue to get raises and having more money in the bank might help too. ;) As long as I also avoid the dreaded lifestyle creep!

Here’s hoping! Good luck!

Thanks!