Stressed About Money? Here's How An Expert Says To Talk Yourself Down

Written by Jill Schlesinger

Jill Schlesinger is an Emmy-nominated and Gracie Award–winning Business Analyst for CBS News, a weekly guest on NPR’s Here and Now, and a Certified Financial Planner™. She writes a weekly syndicated column, Jill on Money, and serves as the host of the nationally syndicated radio show Jill on Money.

hand holding a bag of money

Image by Mackenzie Freemire / Death to the Stock Photo

These days, 67 percent of Americans say that they're anxious about money. With something as pervasive as financial stress, it pays to step back and question whether it really needs to be this way. In this excerpt, CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger describes why so many of us are prone to giving money too much value and how to break the cycle.

How much money must people make each year in order to maximize their happiness? Is it $300,000? $400,000? More? Actually, less.

Analysis of a global survey found that individuals feel happiest day to day when they make somewhere between $60,000 to $75,000. Yes, that's all! And they feel best about their lives overall when they make around $95,000.

Money just isn't as important as many smart people think it is. Sure, life is tough when you can't afford the basic necessities of life, and having more money can make it easier. But once you provide for your basic necessities, accumulating more money can weigh you down in new ways.

You might enjoy nice cars, expensive dinners out, and other luxuries, but you also start to compare yourselves to others, and you feel compelled to buy more just to keep up. You become plagued by that nagging feeling that you don't have enough. You become attached to your lifestyle, and the thought of not having enough or of losing what you have stresses you out. You might wind up working too much in order to earn more, neglecting your relationships and other important parts of your life.

So many of my former clients used to lament that they felt wealthier when they were making $100,000 than when they were making three times as much. I know it seems hard to believe—maybe you're even rolling your eyes. But I heard this complaint over and over again.

My $64,000 question.

I've often wondered: Why do so many smart people tend to give money outsized significance? As I've come to conclude, this is a $64,000 question. Not because nobody knows the answer but because our sense of money and its importance comes from about 64,000 different places.

The underlying causes of our tendency to overvalue money are many, complex, and interwoven. For starters, many of us carry around a minivan of baggage from our childhoods that affects how we behave around money. Our parents might have instilled in us the notion that money is all that matters in life. As an adult programmed with this worldview, you might become overly concerned with amassing as much wealth as you can, worrying that you don't have enough, and sacrificing the other joys of life in the process.

Past traumas can also cause us to overvalue money, or at least to skew our thinking in unhelpful ways. As a young girl, I saw my dad lose everything on the trading floor. That was pretty scary, and ever since, I've been too damn cautious with my money, even when I knew I was decades away from retiring. It's gotten so bad that I developed my own hashtag to describe myself: #JillIsAWimp. Likewise, many of us have known Depression-era folk who, having lived through that great calamity, spend the rest of their lives maniacally scrimping and saving, even when they don't have to or when they would actually be better off spending some of their money.

Abrupt positive changes in our financial circumstances earlier in our lives can also cause us to attach ourselves too intensely to money and behave obsessively as a result. Jim Grubman, Ph.D., is a consultant and psychologist who works with wealthy families and their advisers. As he notes, many of his ultra-wealthy clients grew up in more modest circumstances. When they became wealthy as adults, they faced the same challenges that immigrants experience when they're suddenly thrust into a new and quite foreign country. On the one hand, these newly rich might behave like misers because it's emotionally difficult for them to part with the world of hardship and scarcity they've left behind. Maybe that world has become an inextricable part of their self-conception, or maybe they feel guilty knowing that friends or family members are still struggling while they're not. Whatever the case, these people give money so much importance that they're clipping coupons for $3 off a haircut when they could probably buy the whole friggin' chain of salons in cash.

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Are YOU overly preoccupied with money?

We all must become as self-aware as possible about our money-related attitudes and behaviors so that we can identify our excessive concern with money before it causes us serious harm. Here are my top five warning signs that you might be giving money a much more important place in your life than it deserves:

  • You're keeping secrets around money from your spouse.
  • You're losing sleep on a regular basis because of money issues (i.e., once a week or more).
  • Other people whom you respect tell you time and again that you've got issues around money. (What do they know, right?)
  • You adopt a perfectionist stance in regard to your financial affairs. For instance, you can't invest until you know every last detail, have talked to every last expert, and so on.
  • You are constantly and unhelpfully comparing your financial affairs with those of others. Does it really help you to know whether your neighbors are getting laid more than you? Ditto for whether they make more money than you.

Given what's at stake, you really must take the time to fire up your engines of self-reflection and begin to correct for it.

What should you do, exactly? I'm glad you asked! First, if your overvaluation of money is causing you to become stuck in any way, get yourself "unstuck" by leaning in to the obstacle. As I've often found when working with clients, just running the numbers and coming up with a plan can give you a reassuring sense of control.

When you catch yourself making the same dumb mistakes with your money, push yourself gently but firmly to make a change going forward and to challenge the assumptions and perceptions underlying your behavior. Be uncompromising. Tell yourself the truth about what you're doing, in fairly blunt terms (if you're me, you'll throw an F-bomb in, but that's optional). Be an asshole with yourself—a kind asshole who has your own best interests in mind.

Go deep in your introspection. Don't just notice the excessive value you grant to money and the unhealthy behavior patterns that result. Challenge yourself to understand your money hang-ups as fully as possible. If you suspect that you're locked into ways of thinking learned during childhood, scrutinize your childhood. Were your parents obsessed with money? Did they or others in your family use money as either a carrot or a stick? Did either of your parents ask you to lie about money to the other parent? Was money used to express love? Did you experience any specific traumas around money? These are just a few of the questions you might pose.

By exploring experiences in the distant past that you might not have thought about, you'll cast new light on your present-day behaviors. That, in turn, will empower you, enhancing your ability to break with these behaviors. Be sure also to examine and address other stressors in your life, such as unhealthy relationships or a bad work situation, since these might be feeding your unhealthy financial habits and making them worse.

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The best kind of money to have is enough.

I've highlighted the financial costs of thinking too much about money, but in truth the costs go far beyond that. Caring about money and focusing on it too much can drain your life of joy. It can impoverish your relationships. It can cause you so much stress that it compromises your physical health. In so many ways, it can make life harder. Left unchecked, an excessive concern with money doesn't go away. It only intensifies, leading you to make increasingly poor decisions.

On the other hand, looking at money in a balanced way can lead to deep and enduring happiness.

From the book The Dumb Things Smart People Do With Their Money by Jill Schlesinger. Copyright © 2019 Jill Schlesinger. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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