Dealing With Financial Stress By Learning to Love Money

Tough Love

I hate money.

Right about now, my financial coach (and maybe my therapist) are perhaps grimacing as I write that, with exhortations of “Don’t give the negative thoughts power!” and such coming to mind.

And I try, I do. The biggest project I have right now is a massive lifehack: re-configuring my relationship and attitude towards money matters. My brother Joshua has no idea how much I am in awe of him and his work as a financial executive; I swear I could understand brain surgery more clearly than what it is he does. Yet what for me is a dark, mysterious, scary, and inaccessible realm of arcane lore is for him a rewarding career with which he nourishes himself and his family.

So how do you go from “HERE BE MONSTERS!” to smiling as you navigate the sunny breezy waters of financial security? I don’t know for sure, but I do know one thing: it has very little to do with how much money you have. Researchers such as Dan Gilbert and Elizabeth Dunn have proven that while the amount of money makes some difference, that’s only up to a point; what’s far more relevant to how happy money makes you is what you do with it.

And that short answer, borne out not only in their research but in the words of my financial coach and my own work, is that using money for experience makes you far happier than using it to buy things. That doesn’t only mean paying for that hot-air balloon ride; it might also involve giving up income you could get in one place so you can live in another and, say, be closer to family.

Works for me. But while I am happier now than I pretty much have ever been, money is still the boogie-man. In fact, I find myself often now just as stressed about money as I was when I was a self-employed single parent in college with four ravenous (I mean, cute, yeah, cute) mouths to feed.

And that’s ridiculous. The responsibilities I have now are nowhere near what they were then. So why the stress?

Avoidance Strategies & Facing the Scary

Part of it is simply habit; I was in financial stress so long that it became my default state. The phrase “milk from a stone” often came to mind – no matter how many times I looked at my bills and my account, there wasn’t enough money. So I began to just avoid looking at both. Instead I would guesstimate where money should go, where money would come from, and then scramble to fix things when they broke as they inevitably did.

I’d get a nice little reward in terms of “Look how resourceful I am!” when the crises were dealt with, but that in itself was destructive in the long-term, as I began to love that rush of “How will I pay this bill/meet this need? HA! I will call upon the powers of Odysseus and FIGURE IT OUT!

Like anything you grow to love, I developed the habit of creating an environment where that feeling could flourish. It’s not an unusual state of existence – anyone with a compulsion, whether it’s chocolate or macrame, does the same. People with addictions have it worse, because there’s an added physical component to the need for that thing that is destructive. I am very thankful that my parents’ upbringing helped me avoid those more physiological triggers. People who have kicked them are absolute superheroes in my estimation.

Now, though, it is time to face the slings and arrows and by exposing, end them (sorry, Mr. Shakespeare). This means every morning opening up Mint and looking at my budget, what I’ve spent this month, what I need to spend, the harsh realities of my current financial picture. No wondering, no guessing, just reality: this is the way things are.

It means enduring the occasional sarcastic reminders of my financial coach that I need to hold myself accountable for every expenditure, to track my expenses. I’ve gotten to the point where I only feel a little queasy when I open up the spreadsheet to record my expenses; but it’s only going to be through opening it again and again that it will stop being something my eyes try to look away from.

It means that I need to get better at identifying my own avoidance mechanisms. For example, I owed my student loan manager a call today. Well, let’s be honest: I owed him a call last week – no, ok, I owed him a call last October. And I’d resolved that today I’d call.

8:15am: First thing in the morning I call. The office isn’t open until 9am.

(Good! I can go down the street and have coffee and a Memphis Toast breakfast!)

9:30am: Ok, I need to call. Oh, but I’m at the coffee shop. I should go back to my crash space where I’ll have privacy…

Really, Gray? You need to get all packed up, coat on, walk 1/2 mile to get unpacked again? You really think the other patrons here care about your bills? Or are you just coming up with something else before you call?

I sat down. I put in my headset, I called, and 10 minutes later everything was settled. No muss, no fuss. Turned out that Big Scary Dragon of debt was amazingly easy to deal with. Turns out I’m not the only person who was behind on repayments; turns out there’s oodles of ways to get caught up.

Right now it’s just relief. And the daily look at the budget? The grim satisfaction of a habit I am cultivating that I know will be good for me. There’s no hope per se, but there is a belief that my life will be better by unlearning my aversion to money matters. There is a belief that I deserve to enjoy the satisfaction of reality: I’m rich beyond measure in so many ways, there is no reason for money to detract from that.

That’s why this is a “love” post; it doesn’t matter how many practices I try, or how I restructure my life. The long run is learning to love the things that money does for me and for those I care about.

Anything in your life you could learn to love that might make it better?

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