Financial anxiety! I am a lucky bum, but can't stop worrying.
November 9, 2014 2:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm dealing with a lot of financial anxiety, even though I'm in a place that I know many people would envy. Does anyone have concrete advice for managing illogical anxiety over money, savings and employment?

I'm in a decent place. I'm 30. I have no debt. I own my car outright. I have a decent job that I like, and have about 6 months worth of living expenses in the bank. I'm contributing to an employer-matched IRA. I keep a budget and I'm pretty good about sticking to it. I'm putting >$600/month away in savings monthly. All the same, I can't stop worrying about money.

I spent my 20s in a variety of low paying jobs, and then grad school. I never went too far into debt, but I'm also accustomed to living with gradually declining resources, and for the last year or two before I got my current job, I was pretty much paycheck-to-paycheck. Now that I've got a steady gig, I constantly worry that I'm not doing enough, or that I'll end up unemployed and broke.

I've fallen into a rhythm of eating cheap groceries (pasta!) to keep expenses down, and I haven't taken a day off (sick days aside) since I started my new job last year -- I am not eligible for a severance package, but if I'm let go, I can cash out my unused vacation days for an extra couple of weeks' income. I don't have many friends in my new city, and I've mostly been staying in to save money, so I haven't made many friends. I've made a couple of big purchases (first new computer in several years, deferred car maintenance, etc) but that's about it.

I feel like I need to start preparing for retirement and potentially college funds and whatnot now. At the same time, there are things I would love to do while I'm (relatively) young and healthy that I'm not doing because I don't have the cashflow, or at least, think I don't. Obviously it can be done -- one of my coworkers just completed a certification course in a cool hobby, for instance. Sure, he's got a year or two of seniority on me, but he's in my pay grade so he's not making THAT much more than I am. I look at those kinds of things that take expense over time to keep going and say "I don't have that much extra available to allocate over time; I should just not start."

I think that part of it may be that I've been saving for about 18 months to hit my "six months' living expenses in the bank" target, and now that I have, part of me wants to say "ok, loosen the proverbial tie a little and do some cool stuff! That's why you work, ainnit!?" but then my car's paint is peeling and I need some other maintenance stuff done and really well shouldn't I have a year's living expenses in the bank to cover unexpected emergencies?

I realize this level of anxiety is ridiculous. I just turned down a slightly higher-paying job so I could hold onto the awesome benefits of my current position, so I'm hire-able, and being long-term unemployed probably isn't likely in my field.

Someone's going to say "Therapy," but I know from the few friends I do have that a good therapist in my area would basically kill my budget (I'm really hesitant to involve my insurance in mental health stuff).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty classic distorted thinking (as defined by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

If you're not interested in working with a therapist, a good place to start might be David Burn's book "Feeling Good"...
posted by HuronBob at 3:00 PM on November 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

You sound like you're really organized and attentive to the numbers, which is a good thing. Maybe you could make the numbers work for you. You could work backward from a retirement goal (you know, to have a million dollars or two million dollars in the bank by retirement age). There are tons of compound interest calculators online that will tell you how much money you'll have, adjusted for inflation, if you put x amount of money into your 401(k) or Roth IRA or mutual fund account every year, given your age now, etc etc. I've seen ones that let you plug in different scenarios for how fast your money will grow (five percent a year? six? seven?) You could play around with those numbers, and it might put your mind at ease as far as how much money you want to put away now, and how much you can afford to spend on fun things.

Or even talk to a financial planner (it would probably cost a couple hundred dollars, but getting an experienced outsider's take on these questions might be, as they say, priceless).

Maybe you'd also like to make a budget for fun, entertainment, going out, etc. If you allocate a certain amount each month to spend on having a good time, and maybe another amount to save toward a medium-term fun thing, like travel or a class you want to take, might that help you not to feel like you are taking that money away from your potential savings?

Because I definitely think you should be spending some money on fun things. If your brain is like mine, you might find that once you are more socially busy, you aren't worrying about money so much. You'll still be making responsible choices, you just won't be thinking and re-thinking them all the time.

It sounds to me like it's taking you some time to make the adjustment from not having enough money to having enough. I wonder if there's some guilt involved, too. Is there any reason why it might be hard for you to let yourself have fun (especially when money is involved)? Or a fear that if you start spending on yourself, you can't also be responsible and saveā€”like you'll lose control? My hunch is that budgeting for fun as well as savings might help that part of your mind to chill out for now.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 3:46 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have the same problem! Or, I like to think of it as an advantage, because for sure I'll have a better retirement than my more profligate friends.

There are a couple of things that stop me from completely selling out my current self for the benefit of my future self. One of them is that I have a big retirement spreadsheet. I have worked out how much I need to retire on, and I can run the scenarios about how I might reach that amount (given various estimates of inflation and return on the stock market). I don't have a nebulous worry about retirement because I know that under nearly all the scenarios (short of sudden disability) it all works out fine.

The other thing that helps is having a 100% budget. That is, my income is entirely divided up into pots for retirement, medium term savings (keeping me in a phone, a car and a laptop), household expenses, and finally SPENDING MONEY. This last category is free for me to spend on any frivolous crap I choose. I even transfer it into a special "spending money" bank account which is the only card I carry around. Somehow this frees me from the determination to be a miser with every penny. I think I actually save _more_ under this scheme, since having permission to spend some money regularly stops me from having occasional overspending binges.
posted by emilyw at 3:47 PM on November 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

I dunno, it sounds pretty natural to me. I went through a similar period of financial anxiety and it does change you -- it's hard to justify taking a fun trip when you see your coworkers being laid off. I found that it got better over time -- I'm a couple years further out from my financial stress period than you are, by the sounds of it. I'm still kind of anxious about money, but I'm also more willing to spend on things like better housing that improve my life.

Vacation time: This is an issue that will probably solve itself once you have a couple weeks built up, because your company probably has a max number of days you are allowed to carry over. Ask your HR people about it. At most companies if you carry over 80 hours (or whatever) they can cash you out or just take the days at the end of the year. (In my state they're allowed to take any days over my carryover allotment at the end of the year without paying me if I don't try to schedule a vacation with them.)

Beyond that, I'd suggest making a new budget and putting fun money in there (as well as the usual funds for car maintenance/insurance, ongoing expenses/emergency funds, retirement, etc.). You can let it build up in a savings account each month, or you can re-allocate it to something like a class or a trip or a fun new hobby.
posted by pie ninja at 3:51 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was doing the paycheck -to-paycheck thing for a while too (out of necessity). I had similar thinking. And honestly, the biggest thing that helped snap me out of it is a concept a friend told me about, called "The 'I'm Worth It' Fund". It's a separate savings account which you put some money into in a regular basis - once a week or so - and that account is specifically for having fun.

It sounds counter-intuitive, trying to get over your fear of spending by saving. But after a while it sort of starts sinking in that "well, that is what that money is there for, maybe I can use it for something fun", and you use a little. Also, since it's separate from your regular finances and is a finite amount, you don't get worried about overspending.

I'm not as well-off financially as you are, but I do this, and I am a lot happier.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:02 PM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also recommend the fun money fund/account, but what really helped me was to set aside specific amounts of money every month, just like I did when I was actively filling up my emergency fund.

In my case, I made a travel account and a gadget account that I put a fixed amount in every month. So when it came time to book plane tickets, help pay for the ski trip with friends, or buy a new smartphone, I could take it out of those "pots" of money without triggering too much anxiety.

I also made an "education" fund after I paid off my student loans, where I put a smaller amount monthly for taking classes or doing something to enrich my life otherwise.

I have a very similar mindset to you of financial anxiety. It's really not all good: Even now, after several months of not really having steady income, I'm probably holding too much cash vs stocks.
posted by polexa at 4:53 PM on November 9, 2014

All the same, I can't stop worrying about money.

Hello, me. I am sorry because this is hard. In my life I had a two parent family where my dad worked and my mom was an anxious mess about money but at the same time mostly just running the household while we were little. And so she basically made us believe that we were poor and I grew up in a miserly environment and did not realize that we were middle-class (at least!) until I was in college and I met kids who were actually poor and activist about poverty. It was embarrassing. So now I'm a grown up and am very employable but I left my job before the summer and don't have one that replaces my income entirely yet and it's making me agitated. Keep in mind that I was you for maybe an additional decade and I have probably five years expenses in the bank and so it's a little more clear that this is pathological and not rational with me.

So for me what was helpful was a few things

1. Thinking aspirationally. What did I want? Could I get it? It's been nice to have problems that I can solve my tossing money at them. It's also nice to make what I think are frugal choices about things I don't care about so the money I have lasts longer. So thinking longer term, what did I want between now and retirement? A house? A better car? Braces Who knows, but really thought about that. Ans saved up if it was a thing that made sense.

2. Have two bank accounts. One is basically my working bank account, the one with a year's expenses in it. I look at it and I think "You are doing okay" and then the other one has the rest of the money in it. A good chunk of it's invested so it's not just earning .05% (but I'll be okay if the market drops also) and I just don't see it. I have a 401K and an IRA and contribute as much as I can when I can.

3. Managing my anxiety. Turns out I am anxious about a lot of things and the money thing was just part of it. Getting more sleep, eating better and getting exercise helped me a lot.

4. Tried to have role models. My SO has a lot less money than I do but he is a lot more relaxed about it. He probably could learn a few things from me but I could also learn from him how to enjoy money more. Just stupid shit like not always buying the cheapest thing on the menu or waiting for a sale for a thing that you needed. He often has to coach me into doing things like buying a new pair of boots or a thing that will radically improve my life (new mattress, omg) and he's right about that.

5. Be selective. Cheaper options can sometimes be fine but sometimes they're worse. Fast food is cheap dollars-per-calorie but it's not as good for you, for example. So I decided to just not be cheap about certain things: good footwear, things that smelled good like soaps and shampoos (it's a few bucks difference a month, I love the smells that surround me every single day), better more nutritious food, work clothes that really fit me. I also go out with friends and while I'm not splurging I'm also not getting agitated over occasionally buying a round or being tight with a tip or something. No one likes that guy and I didn't want to be that guy (even if I had to fake it til I made it)

Over time, my viewpoint shifted and I could look back on a few years of being less tight with my money and realized I enjoyed it more and I still was doing fine financially. And if I died tomorrow I spent some of my money on things I cared about and wasn't just waiting til a future that might not come. So over time this will become easier as you realize that the likelihood that you're going to be okay continues to increase. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 5:09 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I feel the same way. THERE ARE DOZENS OF US!

I use, which allows you to set up 'goals' (like saving for a college fund, or a vacation) and 'budgets'. In the budgets, I have budgets for the things I normally would be too frugal to spend on even if I should (clothes!) and for the 'fun' things that make me happy (books!). This allows me to see that I can spend fun money on a vacation or watching a movie and still be putting aside the correct amount of money towards my long term goals. Plus, since does the micromanaging for me, I can feel like I'm doing the right thing without worrying about it on a day to day basis. I set up notifications for if things go over budget, so I know that I'm doing well if I don't get any of my triggered notifications. It allows me to live more spontaneously without the guilt.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:32 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Someone's going to say "Therapy," but I know from the few friends I do have that a good therapist in my area would basically kill my budget (I'm really hesitant to involve my insurance in mental health stuff).

Yeah, I know you wrote this to stave off "therapy" suggestions, but your reasons are honestly pretty weak. What this really says to me is that you can pay for at least some therapy, and in fact you have insurance that might help pay for it, but you've written it all off (because of anxiety!). You might want to actually talk to some healthcare professionals about it first. Your GP may even be able to prescribe you some anti-anxiety medication to try, which is super cheap as medications go, even if for some reason you don't want to go through insurance.
posted by zennie at 5:44 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Vacation - Do it. Why? Because if you go too long with no holidays, people tend to get stressed out and go a bit nuts, and that is, er, not helpful for long term career goals.

Try and figure out what you need to be doing right now to be sustainably happy.
You've been "putting things off" things until you get to financially 'ok'. But, you have 6 months of expenses. You have a work history which means you can get another job.
It's now time to focus on a sustainable life. It sounds you are shorting yourself on things where if you don't get them for a long enough time (holidays, vegetables, friends, a life outside of work), you will be unhappy, and eventually, be a bit self-destructive. Watch out for stress and anxiety in any area (finances?!), as a sign to fix things. Fix your life.

Adjust your budget slightly, but usually, if you look around, you'll see that hobbies and valuable life experiences aren't that expensive (if they are - different hobby!). It the perception that they might be, that limits you.

The only reason I haven't already said a spending budget, is because everyone else did first (I like the Elizabeth Warren's 50/30/20 budget).
posted by Elysum at 5:39 AM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's helpful for me to donate some money to a cause I care about. The act of giving, even if the amount is small, really reinforces for me that I have enough that I can afford to share.

When I give in a way that supports people in my area who are struggling financially, it also reinforces for me that I'm not currently struggling enough to need help, and that there are resources that will be there for me if I do need them at some point.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:37 AM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

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