I consider myself to have “good” money habits: I keep a regularly-updated spreadsheet that tracks income and expenses. I create profit goals for my copywriting business. I try to tuck a bit of money into savings each month. I pay off my credit cards every due date. I have roommates to split bills with. The only debt I have is a small balance on an interest-free credit card that I am paying off in full prior to the interest kicking in next year—an investment in continued education for my business.
And yet, my relationship with finances, no matter how many marks of money mastery it might appear to have on the surface, has felt more like a toxic friendship — one in which I can never seem to find a solid footing of stability.
Every time I updated my budget, my stomach knotted like hair in a tangling wind, and my mind began to display its colorful dioramas of dire what-if scenarios: What if I don’t get paid for that invoice? What if I never book any new clients ever again? What if I drain my savings trying to make rent, am unable to ever find a means of employment again, and dig a debt that my descendants three generations deep are responsible for paying off? My imagination can be a fearful drama queen. Even writing out these overly-exaggerated and likely-never-to-happen possibilities leaves my breathing shallow with stress.
It was as though my anxiety increased at the same rate as my savings.
I’ve realized this about anxiety: My anxiety likes to make up stories. And, often, I’m like a kid in kindergarten gathering in a semi-circle around my sweet, white-haired teacher, munching on goldfish and listening with rapt attention. “Anxiety, tell me more! What happens next?!” I plead, wide-eyed. And anxiety proceeds to tell a Lord of the Rings-sized tale, only this time Frodo is not victorious and the evil guy in the fiery mountain gets the ring and we all die, the end.
I am quick to believe the stories my anxiety tells—especially when it comes to money.
In reaction to my anxiety’s dizzying tales of possible financial ruin, I doubled down on efforts to control my money.
(Spoiler alert: This did not work.)
I began updating my spreadsheets more frequently and checking my account balances almost daily. I frequently scanned my monthly expenses looking for ways to trim an already bare-bones budget. I scoured articles, all espousing the same money-saving tips, searching for any advice I had yet to apply to my own fiscal habits.
Even hitting my biggest income goal in May did little to lessen my tension. My mind swirled like water racing down the drain, picking apart the numbers: If all my clients were to drop off tomorrow, how long could I last on this windfall of revenue?
Even with a cushion of savings—not the plushest cushion, I’ll admit, but comfortable enough for an emergency or two—my anxiety still went through its monologue of potential miseries.Cut back more! Save more! Scrimp more! It urged me.
Doubling down on the “good” money habits did little to relieve my stress; it was as though my anxiety increased at the same rate as my savings. I would be lost to a world of anxious calculations hours after budgeting, my mind singing the song of more, more, more. How much more could I put into savings that month? How much more could I make next month to finally feel safe?
After budgeting, I would take a walk down the tree-shaded lanes of my neighborhood in an attempt to shed some of the anxiety, like it was just a pup in need of a jaunt to expend its energy. Instead, the anxiety would yank me right out of the reality of the walk—the pink blossoms faded, the trees disappeared, the entire two miles of footsteps completely unnoticed as my brain accounted for its what-if scenarios.
With a “more, more, more” mindset, I will never find safety within a savings balance. Life is, after all, so much more than numbers on a screen.
Years ago, when discussing anxiety with a friend, she told me about a grounding exercise she had learned from her counselor: When you start to feel your brain ready to pounce into panic mode, try to focus on things that are physically grounding—your feet on the floor, for instance.
This, I have realized, is something I need to apply to my own financially-fueled feelings. Rather than offering me a sense of control, my “good” money habits have, ironically, done just the opposite; I have felt out of control, as though the more I check up on my balances, the more I fear the bottom of my financial safety net might burst at any moment.
My money habits needed restructuring. My regular checking account checkups needed balance, lest I live the entirety of my life in a world of what-if catastrophes.
In practical terms, I am (imperfectly, of course) trying to set limits on my “good” money habits: I am budgeting once a week and no more. I’m not shaming myself for a coffee shop splurge on a day that calls for a caffeinated focus on my work. I’m setting aside a small bit of money each month, where I can purchase one indulgent, nonessential-to-my-base-needs item.
But most importantly, I’m realizing that, while stewarding money well is important, no amount of money in the bank will ultimately provide me the mental security I’m looking for. Money is only a tool, not the end itself. With a “more, more, more” mindset, I will never find safety within a savings balance. Life is, after all, so much more than numbers on a screen. It is that first sip of coffee in the morning. It’s ab-aching laughter over a card game with longtime friends. It’s a letter in the mailbox, a handwritten encouragement in looped cursive. It’s a paper bag of fresh peaches from the Farmer’s Market. It’s a walk down the shady manicured lane. It’s the ground, right here, beneath your feet.
Ally Willis is a Nashville-based freelance writer. She owns a cat named after C.S. Lewis, will never say no to a mocha, and does her best thinking from a window seat 35,000 feet up. She owns a copywriting studio for small businesses, tells stories of life in your twenties on the Windrose blog, and writes about travel on her own personal blog.
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