Do you avoid checking your bank account or credit card balances? Does thinking about your finances make you feel anxious or guilty? If so, you are not alone. Money is a stressor for many people, and one of the most common ways people cope with these feelings is by actively avoiding thinking about their finances. Hiding from or avoiding engaging directly with money is a self-protective move. It’s a natural response to feeling helpless. Unfortunately, avoidance really perpetuates helplessness - if you don’t know what’s coming in or going out, you’re going to be stuck responding vs making intentional choices. In order to be calmer and less reactive towards money, you’ll need to look directly at it. You’ll need an accurate snapshot of what your finances looks like.
Begin by pausing. Take some deep breaths, and check in with how you feel as you prepare to do this exercise. Are you feeling excited? Anxious? Hopeful? Irritated? Thinking about money can elicit big emotional responses. Today, you’ll begin the practice of noticing feelings that arise as you think about money, so that you can make intentional choices about how and when to act on feelings, vs letting them drive you.
Answer the following questions on a piece of paper
- About how much does it cost to live your life for a month?
Many people mistake this question to mean “how much *should* your expenses be in a month?” It’s easy to jump into a judging head-space when preparing to think about money. Resist that urge. This exercise is about getting an accurate snapshot of your finances as they are, not about creating a budget. Look through your bank statements, credit card statements, etc to get a complete picture of how much you spent in the past month. This includes bills, debt payments, and also impulse purchases. Write down how much you spent in the past month.
- How do you pay for your expenses?
Write down all the sources of money you use to pay for your monthly expenses. This could include a W2 or 1099 job, income from assets, credit card debt, student loans, or another person (i.e. partner, family member, etc.) How much does each source contribute to your expenses in a month? Again, you may feel the urge to jump into a judging head space. You may find that you feel proud of some sources and ashamed to have others. Resist the temptation to assign value to any source of money over another. Today, you are focused only on creating an accurate snapshot of your finances.
An example could look like
W2 job: 2000
Credit card debt: 500
Partner’s w2 job:
Note that credit card debt refers to how much you charge to a credit card without paying it off at the end of the billing cycle, not the total charged to the card.
Congratulations! You now have a financial snapshot of how much you spend in a month, and where it comes from.
- What feelings came up during this exercise?
You may notice that as you completed your snapshot, you had strong feelings about it. You may have needed to stop and start often during this exercise. Maybe you felt proud, or surprised, or guilty. Write down any feelings that came up, and anything you felt pulled to do in response to those feelings. Did you engage in comfort activities like watching TV, eating a snack, or even going shopping? These are two components of your financial patterns: what you feel when thinking about money, and what you do in response to feelings. As you build a more comprehensive understanding of your patterns around money, you will build your ability to make intentional decisions vs reacting blindly.
This exercise helps you lay the foundation for changing your relationship to money. Identifying patterns around money (such as “thinking about money makes me anxious, and to manage my anxiety I will often go out to eat with friends”) enables you to start changing them. Taking a financial snapshot: how much money is being spent and where money is coming from in a month enables you to start thinking strategically about your finances. Working with a therapist can help you continue this work. A therapist can help you create new tools to manage feelings, or even help you identify how and where your patterns started in the first place. Combining therapy with the financial expertise of a financial advisor can start you on your journey to financial health: having agency over how you spend and earn money.