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What do you do when you are worried about money? My guess is that most of us haven’t given this question a lot of thought or ever paid attention to how our behavior changes, if at all.  I happen to think about it a lot.  Between a career spent on finance, down time spent on mindfulness and yoga and many years spent on introspection in the name or personal growth, this question sits at the epicenter of my interests.  In other words, I’ve gotten pretty good (neurotic) at noticing how I feel about money and what I do with those feelings.

Over the past month or two, I’ve had a nagging feeling about money in the back of my mind.  Every now and then, it would pop into my head during a free moment or when I had to make a decision about spending.  You see, my husband recently started his own branding and design business, a decision which I fully supported.  We discussed the financial implications and developed a plan to make it work.  We even factored in money for a new car and it all seemed reasonable after evaluating the immediate and long-term consequences of the change.

At first, I was surprised at how ok I was with the whole thing.  In the past, something like this would have been a much bigger deal to me but, like I said, I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to get my head right about money.  Then the first month came where he didn’t get a fixed paycheck.  Not only was I suddenly stressed by the unpredictability of his income, we’d also used about a third of our cash on hand toward a down payment on my new car.  We planned to replenish it as soon as we sold my old car, but after three weeks of having it listed online it was crickets.  No one even wanted to look at it.  The combination of a smaller cash reserve and less reliable income was weighing on me.

As spending decisions came up during those weeks, my thoughts went immediately to my concerns.  It felt bad.  I don’t like this kind of stress and avoiding this exact feeling has been at least one of my primary motivations for keeping my finances in good order.  I couldn’t make my husband’s income reliable and I couldn’t force someone to take an interest in my car.  Even though I could tell myself this was temporary, I felt out of control.

So, how did I deal with my money stress?  Did I cut back a little?  Did I take another look at the budget? Nope.  I spent money and tried to ignore my feelings.  I bought stuff, got the post-purchase buzz and for a few minutes I felt better.  I was happily distracted by the excitement about the thing I’d bought.  But inevitably, after a few more moments, an hour or a day my nerves would return, compounded by the spending I’d just done.

The more I did this over those few weeks, the more my anxiety grew. I started dreading the day at the end of the month when I’d have to tally it all up.  As someone who tends to be attentive to my finances, I could feel myself wanting to avoid the topic altogether.

When spending and avoidance come together, it creates a problematic pattern. Spending to alleviate stress is followed by more stress.  If that’s followed by avoiding money or more spending, it just starts the cycle over again. Even though it might help temporarily, it eventually leaves us with worse feelings and a bigger mess.

It’s important to note that spending and avoiding aren’t the only ways to soothe our money woes.  We might spend, or we might refuse to spend.  We might ignore our money or follow every penny.  We might give money away, spend it on someone else or put it all on black or red.  We might even sell all our investments, bury the cash in the back yard and start hoarding gold.  The point is, we do something that will make us feel better in the moment even if it’s not going to help us in the long run.

Recognizing how you handle financial stress can be tremendously helpful.  Once you do, a behavior that previously meant nothing to you, will now be a signal to you that you’re feeling anxious about money.  If you can train yourself to notice that feeling, it gives you the opportunity to be more intentional about how you respond to it.  If you’re a spender, maybe you still decide to spend but you do it with the awareness that it’s a pick-me-up.  Or maybe you decide not to spend and do something else to ameliorate the unpleasant feelings.

This awareness can help build empathy as well.  The people we love don’t always respond to stress the same way we do.  For example, one spouse might turn into a spender or giver and one might start penny pinching.  One might want to examine the budget and the other might want to be as far from it as possible.  This can be frustrating and conflict-inducing if we don’t know these seemingly confounding behaviors are just signals that our loved one is overwhelmed or anxious.  When we know each other’s patterns, we can be more understanding of them.

Once I realized the pattern I was in, I decided to face the music and figure out where we stood. Even with the uneven income, the unsold car and the purchases I’d made, we were totally fine.  As it turned out, I didn’t really have a problem worth stressing over.  The real problem was my response to that stress, which could have turned my fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While we can’t eliminate all our concerns about money, with a bit of attention and awareness, we can learn to respond to them in a more intentional and productive way.

Have a great week!