I've always been anxious about money, but a financial therapist helped me realize I was looking at things all wrong
- I've had a lot of anxiety around money ever since I finished grad school.
- I talked about my financial worries with a financial therapist, and I got lots of practical advice.
Like many Americans, I have a complicated relationship with money. Although I'm very privileged to be financially secure today, growing up my family lived paycheck-to-paycheck. Our housing wasn't always secure, and we moved a lot, sometimes staying with relatives for long stretches of time.
When I finished graduate school, I dealt with a weak job market and looming recession, which compounded the stress I already felt about paying six figures in student loan debt.
Two decades later, I am fortunate enough to be in a stable financial position. I am extremely privileged to own a house in a great neighborhood with a very manageable mortgage. My husband and I are on target for retirement savings. We have more than the recommended three months' worth of savings to cover living expenses in case one of us loses our job.
I was intrigued by financial therapy
Still, with four children — including one with significant disabilities and complex medical needs — it's hard for me to feel financially secure.
This insecurity manifests in a variety of ways. I weigh every financial decision, whether it's ordering a $10 appetizer at a restaurant or spending thousands on a family vacation. I know logically that I can afford these things, within reason, but spending on anything other than necessities causes me to feel anxious and stressed. I think that I could enjoy my life more if I learned to let go and find a better balance between saving and spending.
I was intrigued when I first learned about the concept of a financial therapist. Financial therapists are specifically trained to help people manage their relationship with money, whether it's not having enough or, as in my case, being reluctant to spend.
I booked a consultation with Dr. Traci Williams, a certified financial therapist who is also a board-certified psychologist to see if her combination of financial know-how and psychology could help.
We talked about the ways I struggle
Within minutes of talking to Dr. Williams, she immediately homed in on my anxiety around even talking about money. "You are speaking quickly and using short phrases," she said, and she instructed me to slow down and take breaths before continuing. "When you are feeling anxious you can't make good decisions," she told me before recommending that I take a few deep breaths every time I have to make a final decision.
I told her about some of the issues I am dealing with currently. I'm working on not spending so much time making sure I get the best deal on purchases, something I grew up watching my father do constantly. Logically, I know doing that makes no sense; since I work as a freelancer, I could probably earn more in income than I save when I sink hours into researching deals.
I also told Dr. Williams that my birthday was coming up and I really wanted to get a massage but was having a hard time committing. I knew I would enjoy it and my muscles were aching, but I was having a very hard time justifying the cost.
Seeing how my money flows
Then, we started talking numbers. Dr. Williams asked me to figure out my family's monthly income and expenses. We also talked through how much I have in savings and wrote it all down. Although this seems like a basic step, it's one I had not taken before.
Dr. Williams wanted me to see "exactly what comes in and what goes out" so that I could see how much extra I had each month for discretionary spending. It was eye-opening, and after seeing the numbers in black and white, it was clear that I didn't need to worry quite as much as I have been.
She also gave me some practical advice, such as looking into setting up 529 college savings accounts for my children and drilling down even further into where I was spending money to get a better understanding of my spending habits.
'We can afford it, and I will enjoy it'
Dr. Williams pushed me on some things I wanted to do for myself and my family, including traveling and registering my children for more activities. She encouraged me to engage in "money dreaming" and start figuring out exactly how much my dream vacation to Egypt would cost. By this point in the consultation, I was feeling more confident that once I broke down the numbers I would see that I could afford the vacation I always wanted.
Dr. Williams also gave me some advice about changing my inner dialogue, including telling myself, "we can afford it, and I will enjoy it" when I wanted to spend money on something that seems unnecessary or frivolous. I know that this is a privilege.
I feel calmer about my financial situation, even after just one consultation. I took Dr. William's advice to start planning a trip to Egypt, and I have booked the massage I was reluctant to schedule before our meeting.
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