This past Black Friday, I tasked myself with buying an entire new winter wardrobe. I researched deals, saved for it with the help of my Digit app, made a Google sheet with a plan of attack, and braced myself to drop more money than I’m ever comfortable spending in one go. Even with all this planning, it was an anxiety-provoking experience, and I cringed every time I pressed “confirm purchase.” But I made it through, the damage is done, and all is well.
Except for one thing: I haven’t checked my bank account since. And it’s been weeks.
I wish I could say that this problem was unique to Black Friday. Money has always been a source of anxiety for me, thanks to a history of financial instability and an anxiety disorder that loves to tap dance over all realms of my life. And as long as I’ve had money anxiety, one of my go-to coping mechanisms has been…well…avoidance. Between paychecks, I simply practice what I jokingly call “intuitive spending” and hope for the best.
If various memes and tweets have taught me anything, it’s that I’m not the only one who puts off checking my bank account for long stretches of time due to anxiety. Internet observation aside, a totally unscientific survey of my friends also backed up my suspicion that this is ridiculously common behavior. But why does this avoidance persist, especially given that it leads to us not knowing WTF is going on with our finances? Why do so many of us torture ourselves with this paradoxical behavior?
I set out to find answers to these questions, and in the process got a few tips for dealing with balance anxiety. Here’s what I found out from the experts.
First, avoiding the contents of your bank account is completely normal.
People can practice financial avoidance regardless of their financial situation, Shannon McLay, CEO and founder of Financial Gym, tells SELF. Sometimes it’s people who live paycheck to paycheck and want to avoid the negative feelings of seeing their accounts empty at the end of the month. Sometimes it’s people with multiple credit cards who don’t want to see the damage added up in one place. Sometimes it’s self-employed people and freelancers on an irregular pay schedule whose bank accounts are constantly in flux. And sometimes it’s just people like me who are anxious as hell and semi-frequently spend way too much money on Seamless.
Limiting our awareness of upsetting, distracting, and potentially destabilizing information is a very human defense mechanism. “People have been avoiding unpleasant information in every way, shape, or form since time began, whether that’s not checking our bank account or avoiding a person we don’t want to have an unpleasant conversation with,” financial therapist Amanda Clayman, L.C.S.W., tells SELF. “If we constantly bombarded ourselves with information that is emotionally draining, we wouldn’t be able to function and show up in our lives.”
So, in moderation, avoidance can sometimes be a healthy adaptive response. However, for a lot of us, this avoidance isn’t a one-time thing—it’s part of a whole cycle. “When people are avoiding money, eventually the anxiety they get around avoidance becomes bigger than what they were originally avoiding,” says Clayman. Which, yeah, sounds familiar. Who else gets more and more anxious the longer it’s been since peeking at those numbers, making it even harder to open their banking app? But all that does is reinforce that money is the source of anxiety and that we were right to avoid it.
The goal, Clayman says, is to get to a place where anxiety isn’t the force that drives our financial awareness. In other words, we don’t want anxiety to be the reason we do or don’t check our bank accounts. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but luckily Clayman and McLay have some tips for getting there.
Observe your spending habits without pressuring yourself to change them.
Every time I’m feeling insecure about money—and consequently avoid my bank account—I overcompensate by making a bunch of lofty financial goals. I think, Yikes, I’ve been really shitty with money lately; I’m going to make a budget and be so good with money that I’ll get back on track and never feel anxious about my account balance again. On top of obviously setting myself up to fail, this is also the exact wrong place to start addressing my avoidance problem.
Clayman suggests taking at least a month (but ideally two or three if you can) to observe your typical finances. “Tell yourself, I’m just going to become aware of how I spend money and how I bring in money,” she says.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: It doesn’t feel very helpful to say, “If you’re anxious about checking your bank account, just check your bank account!” But while it may be uncomfortable—and yes, anxiety-inducing—it might help to think of it as exposure therapy. Not only are you breaking the habit of only checking your balance when your anxiety pushes you over the edge, but you’re also getting a lot of practice approaching your bank account without judgment or pressure to fix things. It’s the first step in breaking the cycle, and it will get easier with time, says Clayman.
Plus, you’re equipping yourself with a lot of useful information if you decide you want to make some adjustments down the line. “The reason that we do this is because we want to measure what’s happening in our financial life when we’re not actively managing it,” says Clayman. “If we’re on autopilot, what does that translate to in terms of money?”
The first time you do a deep-dive into your accounts might be nerve-wracking and no fun—it’s essentially a financial audit of yourself—but it’s an important first step. “Get a glass of wine and a box of tissues, and rip the Band-Aid off,” says McLay.
Try different ways of tracking your finances.
Okay, so what does keeping up on your financial awareness look like? First of all, it doesn’t have to be fancy; it can literally just be popping into your banking app regularly and checking out what’s been going on. That said, everyone is different, and it’s very important to experiment. “We run to the methods that work best for other people and hope that will work for us too, and when it doesn’t, we feel like we have failed,” says Clayman. So play around.
Here are a few tips and methods that you might want to try out:
Start small. If you’re especially avoidant (same!), you shouldn’t put a bunch of pressure on yourself to become a finance-tracking master. Clayman suggests committing to a short but regular date with your bank account, like once a week for 20 minutes, to check in on what came in and went out. If you can only handle this monthly at first, so be it. “Make it as small as you can commit to,” says Clayman.
Put your check-in on the calendar. Making a vague goal to check your account regularly may work for some, but a lot of us really benefit from scheduling a firm, nonnegotiable date. “Don’t wait for this magical confluence of time and motivation to look at it,” says Clayman.
Or time it to your mood. Hey, we did say that everyone’s different and this could take some experimenting. For some, the calendar method is too rigid to take into account the complicated relationship you might have with money. “If you’re depressed and anxious about money, diving in when you’re in a negative headspace might not be good for you,” says McLay.
Consider using spreadsheets and apps to keep track. SELF Senior Health & Beauty Editor Sarah Jacoby has an expense-tracking spreadsheet that is frankly a work of art. Whenever she makes a purchase, any purchase, into the spreadsheet it goes. And many people benefit from that kind of approach. “The habit of writing down every expense makes you more mindful of how you’re spending your money,” says McLay. If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, there are also a ton of expense-tracking apps out there.
Or get an automatic tracker. If manually entering all of your purchases into an app or spreadsheet sounds like way too much time and energy for you, there are also apps out there, like Digit and Mint, that automatically connect to your accounts and track your expenses.
Once you know what works for you, stick to it. No matter your chosen method, the key is consistency, says Clayman.
Try a few “financial exercises” before jumping into a full budget.
If tracking your finances without making any changes sounds horrifying and anxiety-inducing to you, McLay suggests implementing some “financial exercises” whenever you’re ready. “It’s about finding things you can do that are going to make you more mindful of your money in a healthy way,” she says. Basically, changing behaviors that can impact your account in small ways can help reduce anxiety without overhauling your budget.
Here are two financial exercises McLay suggests:
No-spend days. You probably don’t need me to tell you that little things can add up in a big way, especially when we’re spending our money mindlessly. McLay suggests putting one or two no-spend days on the calendar each week where, yep, you don’t spend any money.
Cash-only weeks. Decide for yourself how much money you want to spend during the week and take out that amount of cash. “If you run out of cash by Wednesday, it’s Netflix and Chill the rest of the week,” says McLay. Bonus to this exercise: It eliminates the need to check your account—and by that I mean avoid your account—because there won’t be any transactions happening.
Consider exploring broader financial wellness.
Depending on your lifestyle and needs, as well as your personal privilege, it’s not always simple to focus on financial wellness. Speaking frankly, financial wellness can involve a lot of stuff (like prioritizing your spending on experiences that bring you joy or investing in retirement) that is difficult for many people who don’t have the freedom to choose how to spend and save.
If you do have that freedom, though, it’s worth diving in deeper to see what you can do to alleviate financial stress. That might involve adjusting your lifestyle choices, dedicating time to making and maintaining a budget, or talking to a professional.
Whether or not you can take those steps, remember that financial awareness is a huge and helpful start for creating a better relationship with money. “Financial wellness isn’t just numbers on a page and white-knuckled discipline,” says Clayman. “It’s about respecting how we use money to take care of ourselves, letting go of judgment, and embracing awareness and conscious decision-making.”
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