We often think about our relationships in interpersonal terms. That is, we think about our relationships with our families, our relationships with our coworkers, and our relationships with our romantic interests. But there’s an equally-complex one with an inanimate abstraction we don’t consider as often: our relationship with money.
Yes—money, that source of stress, anxiety, freedom, and security. For many of us, the relationship status is decidedly complicated.
Now, perhaps you already have a healthy relationship with money; you’re in a place where you feel financially secure and empowered. That’s awesome! But if you’re not in a good financial place (or you feel like you aren’t), it’s easy to fall into a downward spiral where you’re filled with guilt and money shame around not having your sh*t together. You tell yourself that you should have your finances in order, right?
It’s not that simple, obviously. There are a number of reasons why you might be in a less-than-stellar financial situation. Perhaps you took out a lot of student loan debt before you fully understood the interest rates. Maybe you’re worried about what others will think if you declare bankruptcy. Or maybe you’ve just never been particularly good at saving for that rainy-day fund.
“Our self-destructive and self-defeating financial behaviors are not driven by our rational, logical minds.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and ashamed about not having it all together. Understand, though, that there are myriad forces at play and your feelings of being “bad” with money can go way, way back—as in, back to your childhood. “Our self-destructive and self-defeating financial behaviors are not driven by our rational, logical minds,” money coach Tammy Lally explains in a Tedx Talk on the subject. “They are a product of our subconscious belief systems, rooted in our childhoods and so deeply ingrained in us. They shape the way we deal with money our entire adult lives.”
Indeed, any kind of shame can have a paralyzing effect on our psyches and our daily lives. It can affect our self-esteem and can impair our willingness to seek help. In her Tedx Talk, Lally develops her own definition of “money shame,” expanding on a definition from the famous “shame scholar” Brené Brown. Lally says we can understand “money shame” as being “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed—and therefore unworthy of love and belonging based on our bank account balances, our debts, our homes, our cars, and our job titles.”
When we’re ashamed of our finances, a low bank account balance feels like a personal failure.
When we’re ashamed of our finances, a low bank account balance feels like a personal failure. “It’s easier to feel extra guilt and extra pain when you assume it’s just you,” Michelle Waymire, founder of the financial advice site Young + Scrappy, says. “You assume it’s a character flaw. You don’t assume that it’s the product of a society that’s not meant to teach women about money. There are a lot of forces working against you, and those are not necessarily your fault.” The feeling is compounded when we don’t talk about it.
So, what do you do when you want to improve your financial situation, but you’re too embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed to get started? Here’s how to move forward:
People react to different kinds of debt differently. Maybe you cringe at the fact that you’ve been operating paycheck-to-paycheck because you’ve been living outside of your means. Or maybe what really gets under your skin is the fact that you can’t afford a new car or the nice clothes your coworkers have. “Personal finance is a series of numbers that are ultimately totally subjective,” Waymire says. “$100 to one person feels completely different than $100 to another person. There are people who can’t imagine making six figures a year, and there are people who make six figures a year without blinking an eye.” The important lesson? “Numbers aren’t inherently good or bad,” she says. Once you realize that, it strips them of their power by allowing you to focus on the matter at hand.
One of the first things that Megan Robinson, a behavioral money coach and the founder of Goodbye to Broke, does with her clients is to decipher the root cause of their spending habits. It’s easy to draft a budget and savings plan for yourself, but if you don’t do the emotional digging into why you’re overspending, not saving, or avoiding the situation, the plan will be moot. Robinson says she found out early on that when she crunched the numbers for her clients without digging into the “why” behind their situation, they didn’t make lasting changes. “When you do the inner work, preferably first, the rest of the it—the numbers and the controlled spending—comes so much more easily,” Robinson says. Do some journaling. Talk to a trusted friend. Or speak with a coach. Figure out your emotional attachments to money first and form your plan of action afterward.
Speaking up about your situation can be terrifying. Who wants to admit that they need help because their finances are looking grim? But remember that there are some really great online communities for professional women where asking money questions is not only the norm, it’s encouraged. And start talking with your money-savvy friends IRL. You’ll be surprised at the nuggets of financial wisdom you can get.
If you’re dealing with a financial situation that is too complicated to be addressed with general advice, seek out a professional. This is especially true when you’re facing a situation where there are thousands of dollars involved. Ask whether your adviser is licensed and accredited and whether they’re required to act in your best interest. Usually this means they have the letters CFP after their name, for certified financial planner. While it’s always ideal to choose one based on a personal recommendation, you can also check this database for CFPs in your area. Here’s more information on what you should know before working with one.
When you’re feeling ashamed about your financial situation, you might find yourself saying things like “I’m really bad with money,” or “I’ve just never been good at this kind of stuff.” It’s easy to say you should just quit it with these statements. A more effective approach, though, is to create your own money mantras. A favorite mantra Robinson shares with her clients is: “This is not mine and I will not hold on to it.” Those feeling of shame and guilt or bad behavior? Tell yourself they’re a thing of the past.
Think about it: The financial situation you’re in is a learning opportunity for you to take ownership of something you might have neglected in the past. But the past is the past and there’s no reason why you can’t start making progress today toward a better financial future. Remember, whatever mess you think you’re in didn’t happen overnight. I’ll take time for things to change. One thing you can start on immediately? Being kinder to yourself.
Reminder: Always speak to a licensed financial services provider or specialist before making decisions that could affect your financial wellbeing.