At its core, money is a tool. It’s a means of security, a way to enjoy the things that are important to you in life. Unfortunately, for too many people, it’s also a source of fear and stress.
In fact, your relationship with money can become toxic or all-consuming, and it’s not always obvious when it has. Here are five warning signs that you have an unhealthy relationship with money ― and what to do about it.
1. You spend money every time you feel [insert emotion here].
Have you ever gone on a shopping spree after a fight with your partner or a tough day at the office? There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself every now and then. But just as someone might turn to a pint of Haagen-Dazs or a vodka tonic every time they feel lonely, bored or even happy, emotional shopping can be an equally destructive behavior when it becomes a habit.
“Identifying triggers is the first step toward solving the problem. Second is finding other ways to deal with them,” said consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch.
For instance, say you score a big client and want to treat yourself as a reward. “Think about how that purchase affects your future goals,” Woroch said. “What are better ways to use that money?”
Instead, she recommends inviting friends over for some wine and dishing about your recent work success. Or “find alternative ways to lift your mood, such as going for a walk or calling a friend to vent,” Woroch said.
2. Life isn’t enjoyable because you can’t stop thinking about money.
While some turn to spending as a way to lift their spirits, money matters can be a source of mental anguish for others.
“I’ve worked with a lot of folks who have financial stress,” said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California. He explained that some of his clients are so consumed by their finances that their bank account is the first thing they check when they wake up and the last thing they look at before going to bed.
“That’s just taking all the joy out of life and creating more stress,” Howes said. “Their money becomes equated with their self-worth… there’s so much identity and shame wrapped up with having credit card debt or not being on top of their finances.”
If this sounds like you, Howes recommends starting off by talking to someone about it. Find someone you trust, whether it’s a family member, friend or counselor. Recognizing and getting these feelings of fear and shame off your chest is the first step toward a healthier relationship with money. Sharing your feelings won’t make your debt disappear or help you earn more, but it will provide a healthy outlet for your emotions while you craft a plan for tackling your finances head-on.
3. You hide purchases from your partner.
Little white lies are a normal part of relationships. When it comes to money, however, small lies can snowball into big problems down the road.
“Hiding purchases from a significant other is a form of financial infidelity.”
If you regularly hide purchases from your partner, it’s usually a sign that deep down you know your spending behavior is problematic. It might seem like an innocent habit, but the consequences can be serious. “Hiding purchases from a significant other is a form of financial infidelity and can cause a serious rift in your relationship, not to mention be damaging to your financial health,” Woroch said.
To begin working toward a healthier relationship with your partner and your finances, Woroch recommends coming up with a financial goal that you both share, such as saving for a vacation or a down payment on a home.
“You also should set spending limits, committing to review any purchase over, say, $100 together to make a smarter, collective buying decision,” Woroch said.
4. There’s a growing stack of unopened bills on your desk.
You know they’re there. You know they have to be paid. And yet you continue to ignore them as if they’ll eventually disappear.
There’s a word for this line of logic: D-E-N-I-A-L.
“Human nature is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If your bank account is going to cause you pain, understandably, you want to avoid it,” Howes said. “But the fact of the matter is that just makes problems get worse, and we need to have at least an awareness of what’s going on with our money.”
The first step toward recovery is admitting there’s a problem, according to Woroch. She recommends organizing all your credit cards, store cards and other debts on a spreadsheet, noting the interest rate and amount owed for each.
Next, figure out your plan of attack. If you need motivation, try focusing on paying off the debts with the smallest balance first. If you’re more concerned about saving money on interest, focus on debts with the highest rates first.
“When making a plan, it’s great to think big, but being successful in reaching your debt repayment goals requires a practical approach,” Woroch said.
5. FOMO rules your life (and bank account).
Social butterflies tend to suffer from the “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. From expensive vacations, to dining out, to partying on the weekends, they can’t say no.
FOMO often starts out as a simple desire to be accepted. But it can easily spiral into a spending problem, especially if you’re too embarrassed to admit you can’t afford to spend the money.
If that’s the case, Howes recommends framing your need to save money as a strength rather than a weakness.
“Turn it into something more powerful,” he said.
For instance, rather than admitting you don’t have the money to go out for dinner, say, “You know, I’m really working on my finances and would like to tighten up my budget. I’ll meet up with you for a drink after.”
This way, you control the situation, instead of money (or lack thereof) controlling you.
The bottom line: Don’t lose hope.
A new poll released this month by the American Psychiatric Association revealed that Americans experienced sharp increases in anxiety over the last year regarding health, safety, finances, relationships and politics, but the greatest increase was in anxiety over paying bills. Nearly three-quarters of women and young adults and nearly four in five Latino adults said they were either somewhat or extremely anxious about bills.
If you find that you have an unhealthy relationship with money, it’s important to remember that it has nothing to do with your worth as a person. The fear and stress of facing your financial situation are valid, and they can be debilitating.
The good news? The same tools that are used to treat other types of stress can be used for financial stress, such as deep breathing, changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts, doing relaxation exercises and more, according to Howes. Combine these with actual financial tools, such as a basic budget or debt payoff plan, and you should see your stress reduced as you get closer to achieving your goals.
Most important, know that you’re not in it alone. “Everyone thinks about it and worries about it on some level,” Howes said. “You don’t need to feel ashamed about having some financial worries. If you just talk about it with somebody, you’ll see that everyone’s in a similar boat.”