5 Tips for Moving Past Your Money Fears

Guilt and shame about money can hold people back.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

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Whenever my spouse and I talk about money, certain regrets from the past often come up. For instance, we mention a house a few doors down that we almost bought years ago that would've been a great investment, or a terrible retirement fund my spouse stuck with for too long. (Since I’m the more money-savvy one, I feel guilty for "letting" that happen.)

Just this past weekend, I thought "I really should go over my Q2 spending in Mint" and then I noticed myself thinking "Do I really want to know how much I spent at Whole Foods?"

If there's something you feel guilt or shame about when it comes to money, even if it's just one mistake or area of weakness, those emotions can really hold you back when it comes to managing your finances. For instance, maybe you don't overspend but investing terrifies you. Or perhaps you made a bad investment years ago that still haunts you.

Your feelings of guilt, shame, or anger about the past won't just vanish, so you need to figure out how to move forward with those thoughts and emotions present, assuming they will spike whenever you try to tackle the topic and that they may tend to trigger rumination. Here are some tips for doing that.

1. Recognize when change is optional.

If there’s an area in which you overspend, whether you keep doing that is up to you. In my example of spending too much on groceries, that’s probably the only area in which I overspend, so I could change it but I certainly don’t have to. A happy side effect is that recognizing that change is optional can often make you more open to it.

2. Recognize that you don’t need to fix everything all at once.

Let’s say that every time you think about money, you get overwhelmed by your emotions and do exactly zero to improve. The value of that thinking is then zero.

Instead, every time you think about money, implement one change that will have recurring benefits. This could be on the spending side or investing side. For instance, every time you feel guilt over not investing enough, increase the amount you're auto-investing into index funds or paying off your student loans by $10 per week, or whatever amount doesn’t feel like a big decision for you.

On the spending side, you could cancel a service or account that you’re charged for but don't use. If you make one tiny change every time you think about or discuss money, those will compound, but the compounding power of 0 is 0.

The more you take small, fast, effective actions in response to thinking about problems, the more action-taking—rather than ruminating and worrying—will become your habit.

3. Recognize financial changes that once felt hard but now don't.

For example, the first year we lived in our current house, we had a quarterly pest control service. Now we buy exactly the same chemical from a DIY website and do it ourselves. Ordering the product, getting a sprayer, and developing a routine took some effort the first time we did it, but now it doesn’t feel effortful at all.

What positive money changes have you made that don’t feel remotely hard anymore and have become your default?

4. Recognize that plenty of smart people your age are scared of investing.

Folks sometimes feel self-conscious about their investing anxiety because they think all their peers must have it figured out. For instance, you might think that feeling scared of investing is abnormal or that it’s a sign you’re incompetent relative to similar people.

A lot of times, whatever you’re feeling shame or guilt over is the same struggle other people are working through. Hard and complex aren’t the same. Something like retirement investing might actually be quite simple, especially if you’ve only got a choice between a few employer plans, but cognitively and emotionally it’s hard to see that far into the future. Instead of thinking “I’m a loser for finding this so hard,” try thinking “This is hard but I can do hard things.”

5. If you’re in a committed relationship, solve your cognitive and emotional blocks together.

In long-term relationships, many financial decisions are made together. Acknowledge patterns that emerge when you talk about money, such as always waiting for the other person to take the lead or needing to move on from a past financial mistake. Work together to move past your shared cognitive and emotional blocks (like fear of uncertainty or perfectionistic decision-making) rather than blaming each other. Acknowledge “This is hard for us.”