Dealing With Financial Anxiety? You're Not Alone — Here's What To Do About It
"I feel sort of dizzy and scattered and just helpless. You go into this mental tailspin."
That's Gaby Dunn describing the heavy, sticky, frantic feeling of financial anxiety. A few years ago, when Dunn was living paycheck to paycheck as a writer and creative, it was one she was all too familiar with. Her bank account was the biggest stressor in her life, and she felt alone in it.
"I assumed everyone was handling it, and I was somehow deficient because I wasn't good with money," she tells mbg. "It felt like everybody had learned something I didn't know, like I had missed a day in school or something. It was just embarrassing."
Eventually, Dunn started to question her assumption that she was struggling solo. "I thought, if something is really bothering me this much, it must be bothering other people too. Let's poke into this open wound a little bit."
What followed was an article, then a podcast, and then a whole book on what it means to be "bad with money" and the realization that, in one way or another, we all experience a certain amount of anxiety around our finances.
The deep roots of money anxiety.
Megan McCoy is a financial therapist who makes a living helping people unravel their relationships with money. She's found that many patients' everyday stresses about bills and payments have a tendency to ladder up into something much bigger, like what Dunn experienced.
"Anxiety is stress on steroids," she says. "There's a reason it started, but it spiraled out of control. It becomes so generalized that you start to feel sick and worried for no specific reason."
McCoy and Barbara Feinberg, another therapist who specializes in the role money plays in our relationships, both think that "money messages" from childhood dictate how we react to these stressors. If you grew up in a household where money was tight, chances are you've carried some of that scarcity mindset into adulthood.
"Money has so many meanings to people. You kind of have to tease out what the meaning is for you," says Feinberg. "Is it safety, security, freedom, control?" So the first step in forging a healthier relationship with money is acknowledging that it isn't about the money at all.
Philanthropist Lynn Twist presents a similar idea in her seminal book The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the Wealth of Our Inner Resources, writing, "Money has only the power that we assign to it, and we have assigned it immense power... It is about using the unexamined portal of our relationship with money to deliver a widespread transformation in all aspects of our lives."
How to forge a new financial future this year.
One of the first things Feinberg has her clients do to regain control of their finances is fill out a questionnaire of true or false questions that get at their money origin stories ("I spend money like my mother" or "I have trouble talking about money openly," for example). Once they start to unravel their past, it's about starting a dialogue to get a handle on the now.
"Talk, talk, talk—that's going to be key," McCoy says to anyone who feels like they're struggling. "Money anxiety is something that festers in your brain when it's left alone. It needs to be let out and talked about."
Ideally you'd be able to meet with a financial therapist or planner who could help you put your situation into perspective, but just talking about money with friends and family works too. Once you open up that dialogue, the next step is putting a plan into place.
"A lot of anxiety is a sense of powerlessness and not having control. So even if your financial situation isn't perfect, if you have a plan, all of the sudden you have control over your financial situation and you'll feel happier." She's seen people have a lot of success using budgeting apps like Mint, which gamify the experience of saving money. Personal finance services like SoFi also break down larger goals like refinancing loans into smaller, actionable steps.
If you still struggle to make that weekly budget or drum up a timeline for paying off debt, remember you're not alone. "Money is a highly charged area for many people, if not most people," says Feinberg. "We live in a money-sensitive society, so normalizing it can be helpful."
These days, Gaby Dunn opens every piece of mail she gets. She reads through bills and bank statements closely and keeps track of when she can expect to see things come out of autopay in a note on her phone. Sometimes, she'll bust out a highlighter to mark where she's needlessly overspending. These action steps haven't made her lose her financial stress entirely, but they’ve helped her find her autonomy. And when it comes to money, that just might be half that battle.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.