Help me be better with money
March 18, 2013 6:04 PM   Subscribe

I am freaking out right now because I just got two letters from collections agencies. I should have paid the bills. I know that. I just … didn’t. And I know I’m terrible with money and want to change that, but when I think about money and the giant hole of student debt that I’m in I feel like, what’s the fucking point, and I become overwhelmed with hopelessness and I shut down.

I have a therapist but when I’ve talked to him about this specific issue in the past I haven’t felt like it’s been helpful, although he has been helpful with other things. He just kind of diagnoses it as the anxiety and helplessness that I experienced as a child when my parents were flat out of money and not sure where the next meal would come from.

I grew up really poor: my mother raised twice the national average number of children on … let's say somewhat less than a poverty level wage. When I was ten, we almost lost our house to the bank, and the hopelessness I feel now about my own student debt is the hopelessness I remember having felt then. I have a professional degree and a full-time job in an office that SHOULD be enough outside of the student loans, I just can't get my shit together to pay my bills and I'm freaking out that I'll never get a mortgage or a car loan or another job or anything.

I know what I need to do — I need to get my student loans onto Income Based Repayment and to pay my goddamn bills on time, but every time I think about doing that I get hopeless and I freak out and can’t do anything. What should I do? How can I overcome this hopelessness and find a mental space where I can execute a plan to recover my credit?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Will your therapist let you open and pay bills in your appointments, and make phone calls if necessary to set up payment plans etc?
posted by bunderful at 6:15 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have been there and the hardest hurdle to overcome, for me, was the one most likely to be helpful, which was to just CALL THE COMPANIES and deal with it. Even if you can't pay, contacting them rather than ignoring them keeps them happy.

The money issues I came out of childhood hanging onto would make Suze Orman sit back and say "damn, girl, you're crazy". But believe me when I say that no matter what neuroses you've got, your actual tangible issues will not just go away. You have to take the bull by the horns.

You need to call these people and you need to force yourself to get your bills paid on time. Make lists, set up an autopay, whatever. But trust: you can learn to do this.

I mean, to the point where I'm now studying to be an accountant, that's how you can go from hiding from the voicemail to getting your financial act together.
posted by padraigin at 6:16 PM on March 18, 2013

Autopay! Do it once and you're set, no more agonizing.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:19 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

You could try medicating yourself through the initial phone calls &c. Dope up, sort your mess out, discover how easy it is to call and discover how great the post-call relief is; gain ability to do it without drugs in the future. Is your therapist a psychiatrist; can he prescribe? Are you coherent after two beers? Something.
posted by kmennie at 6:22 PM on March 18, 2013

Pick up a copy of "How to get out of debt, stay out of debt and live prosperously."
posted by Michele in California at 6:34 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have a friend who will help you come up with a script and then sit with you while you call? I know how you feel. I have cried on the phone with credit card companies from the sheer terror and tension! Getting a sympathetic friend or your therapist to help you come up with and execute a plan would be great.

Changing repayment plans for student loans: I have been able to do this online or by mailing stuff in. No phone calls required. It usually takes a few days to find all the information you need but remember, if these are federal loans, they WANT you to pay them back and are typically very accommodating.

For paying bills: AUTO PAY everything you can! I have a google doc spreadsheet where I set up a simple little list of bills and then I mark off when I pay them or if they are autopay. I usually check the next month's budget when I am updating the current month. Easy, bills paid, and off my mind!

I am climbing out of debt that I have had for over 10 years. The shame and anxiety I felt was terrible. My partner just thought I was insane to cry about bills. He'd say, it's just money, not emotion. He's kind of forced me to shift my thinking about money and also be more proactive about my finances. Now, I feel good about money because I am managing mine well and have even made some smart decisions on my own.

You can do this!
posted by rachums at 7:02 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also came in to say autopay. Put as many of your bills on autopay as you can. I do that and love not having to think about them.
posted by michellenoel at 7:04 PM on March 18, 2013

There are money coaches and money therapists that deal with EXACTLY this because as someone in a related biz, I can tell you that you are not alone- not by a long shot.

And yes, it's amazing how many therapists are ill equipped to deal with money issues, which is why so many financial planners end up being untrained and unlicensed therapists.

If you're in the SF Bay Area I have a couple of folks I can recommend, and if not, do you have a friend who will sit with you and keep you focussed while you look at this stuff and make phone calls? If you do, commit to do maybe two a day, every day for a week, or something like that.

Seriously. People have a ton of shame wrapped up in their money but your situation is SO common. People just hide it like there's no tomorrow.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:52 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Debtors Anonymous can be really eye-opening and helpful in terms of understanding & changing your relationship with money and getting practical advice about dealing with debt and creditors.
posted by jjwiseman at 7:54 PM on March 18, 2013

I know it feels like paying bills is bound up with all sorts of other stuff, but it's not. Paying bills is simple (though not necessarily easy). The second paying your bills becomes about all sorts of other stuff - overcoming hopelessness, repairing your credit, a car loan you don't yet need, a mortgage for a house that doesn't exist, a job that doesn't exist, childhood insecurity issues - it stops being something simple and manageable and becomes something dreadful, complicated and riddled with anxiety. Paying bills = paying bills. Nothing more, nothing less. Difficult as it is, try to keep this in mind.

You don't need a huge plan.

1. You need to know how much you're realistically willing and able to pay each creditor.
2. You need to let them know what you're going to pay. A letter and payment might suffice, you may need to call. Don't think of it as a negotiation, think of it as you informing them of what they will get.
3. You need a way to make sure they get paid what you said you would pay them.

How you do that? Who knows? I have a system. It's odd, but works for me. Yes auto pay. When I get paid I withdraw from my checking account everything that's not deducted electronically. Calendar alerts on my phone remind me what's coming out. I also have a percentage of my check deposited to a savings account without debit card access. I never see this money and don't have to account for it. I use all cash and an envelope system for groceries, rent, gas, fun, clothes, going out etc. I save all my receipts and tally at the end of each week what I spent. It only took about 3 weeks for what I thought I would spend to line up pretty nicely with what I actually spent. If I have a hankering for shoes and nothing in the shoe envelope.....well, that means I have to look at what cash is left and make a decision...use going out money, book money, trip money? Since it's cash and not a card, I can see and feel the consequences of the decision as it's being made. I'm rather ADD and highly tactile so this is great for me. A mostly cash system might not work for everyone.

Just keep at it. You don't need a perfect system to pay your bills, just a good enough one. The rest is fine tuning.

Good luck, you can do this.
posted by space_cookie at 8:36 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes. I normally am all about getting to the root of the problem, but where this is concerned, your goal is to function despite all this anxiety. And that mostly requires staying on top of things. And the way to do that is autopay.

I just cannot tell you how good it'll feel the next time you want to procrastinate on bill paying to think "anyway, I set up auto pay for the minimum bill, so anything more I do is gravy* anyway." (* I mean, sure paying the minimum all the time isn't workable forever, but for now the goal is to avoid collection notices.)
posted by salvia at 10:57 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know what I need to do — I need to get my student loans onto Income Based Repayment and to pay my goddamn bills on time, but every time I think about doing that I get hopeless and I freak out and can’t do anything. What should I do? How can I overcome this hopelessness and find a mental space where I can execute a plan to recover my credit?

Not a therapist, not an accountant. I think a whole lot of responders here are missing the point. You know what to do. You know how to do it. You are aware of when bills are due, have the money to pay them, and you know how to pay them. Finance books and Google Calendar reminders aren't going to help you in the long run.

You need to realize that you are CHOOSING to not pay your bills. You might think that you are unable to pay your bills because every month because you are swallowed up by a sinkhole of hopelessness and anxiety, which prevents you from acting. In fact, you are passively making a decision to NOT do something.

I would ask why you choose the consequences of not paying bills. Are you preventing yourself from achieving those things for which you did not have a role model in life—a middle class wage, job security, comfort? You don't know what those things would mean and how they change your identity so you deny them to yourself instead of changing your identity.

You are passively choosing this when you don't pay your bills. You could also passively choose this by slacking off/getting fired from your job, becoming dependent on alcohol or drugs, stirring up huge drama in your personal life, etc, so at least you picked a pretty mild way.

You need to reconcile your identity, your current circumstances, and what your actions are. Be open to growing your identity and expanding the narrative of your life. You will be more able to make healthy active decisions and take control of your finances.
posted by fontophilic at 7:01 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you're trying to avoid the reality of just how much debt you have. If you sit down and create a financial plan, only then will you realize that you don't have enough money to accomplish your goals. Without a master can fool yourself in believing that there's a small chance things will work out.

So what you're afraid of is the unknown. It's like you're in a dark room and can't see; which is scary. You need to turn on the light so that you're not afraid of the dark.

You need to dig in and create your master plan. Only then will you know for sure where you stand and what you can pay or can't pay. Once you have the plan, only then will other options be available to's not a dead end.
posted by MoJoPokeyBlue at 12:42 PM on March 19, 2013

I always had trouble paying my bills because there's a part of me that is afraid I'll need that money for something else later (food, transit) and it seems like a waste of money because I don't get anything tangible out of it. It's just disappearing. I'm prone to buying things that are tangible but less necessary than bill payments.

So I think back to what it was like being homeless and sleeping in the three wall bus shelter on newspapers in the winter. I walk around my sweet little apartment that I love and I tell myself "this- this privilege- this is what I'm paying for. This is what I'm getting for my money". Or I go without heat for a few days. Or I realise how much of a fucking blessing it is that I can just flip a switch and I have light or the ability to cook food.

The option to use those things, that is where the money's going, it's not disappearing into a black hole. It's filling a cushion that's keeping me safe from the wolves I grew up with. Hunger. A dangerous, unhealthy, or unstable living environment. Cold, precipitation, the elements. Strangers and dangerous people. Being exposed, a total lack of privacy. Violence. Filth. Illness. Disconnection from the outside world (from not having a phone) and the inability to cope with emergencies.

These are some of the things that my bills are protecting me from- not entirely, not all the time, but keeping the worst of it at bay so that I can get some rest, and some relief from my anxiety. I'm learning to look at the bills as a good thing because I'm learning to think about what I'm actually getting for the money. I'm nit entitled to any of those things; I don't have a "right" to them, I'm not a child or incapacitated in any way. Everyone acts like those things are basics, so essential that they're not even worth considering when you think of expending your money- like they're just a baseline of normal that happen magically for people. But they don't; electricity and gas and heat and running water and food and decent shelter are privileges and that don't make themselves happen. The less we take them for granted, the easier they are to face.
And home, where I can wallow in those privileges- those comforts- has become my favourite place.

Listen, the more you don't pay your bills, the more you will have anxiety about them. Which will cause you to avoid them. Which will make your anxiety worse. Don't feel bad for focusing on financial stuff. People say idealistic crap like "money doesn't matter", but those are usually people who have never really been poor. Money matters. Material things ARE important. It's one of the only things in our lives that we have some control over. And you DO have some control- maybe even more than you think.

I met with a financial advisor and she helped me come up with a plan and made it all less scary. It was free and she explained a lot of things. She was from the investors group and the first thing we talked about was debt. I was so scared to talk to her because I thought financial advisors were for rich people with yachts or something, not minimum wage factory workers, but she was really nice and not condescending at all- she'd been a single mom in a one bedroom apartment, sleeping on an air mattress in the living room before getting herself sorted out. I'm not sure if they're all like that and I don't know what services there are where you are, but it's worth considering.

Good luck, I know it's hard.
posted by windykites at 3:54 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the best ways to combat anxiety is connectedness. So reach out about your anxiety with money, and be willing to explore it.

That means asking your therapist to be willing to explore your relationship with money in a session beyond just "it's [x's] fault". Well, yes. We get our issues somewhere, now help us get out.

I kept a public journal that detailed my issues with money. I wrote about growing up in an insecure household. I wrote about thinking we were poor, and realizing that my parents just had money management issues. I wrote about the time my parents and I realized that I was out-earning them, and the way it suddenly skewed our perception of adult/child. I wrote about the rush whenever I would buy something nice for myself, and try to talk myself out of spending all the money to repeat that feeling. My name wasn't attached, but I kept it public so that I felt like someone might be listening. Occasionally I would even get a comment.

I also found financial mentors and mentees and peers. It's been hard to build this network, because people tend to fall into two camps. People comfortable about talking about money, because it proved their status. People who didn't talk about money, because you don't talk about money. But at work, I would huff about not quite understanding this 401k business. And a coworker eventually opened up about how much she loved saving. It wasn't about compound interest, or 10% of your salary, but about the feeling of security she got knowing that there was this nest egg she was building.

Eventually another coworker left, and dropped the salary increase she was getting. And I was able to have that conversation about demanding your worth. And a married friend would open up about how much harder it was learning to switch from a 50/50 marriage to a breadwinner model.

Having that support network helps considerably. I've offered to help friends deal with credit issues and simple budgeting. Not to the point where I'm giving them financial advice. I'll quickly point them to a professional. But sometimes you need someone in your corner, to give you the strength to start the process.
posted by politikitty at 5:03 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

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