This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.
As a teenager, I had a part-time job that was already mundane and dreadful enough, but then Kelly P. was hired. For whatever reason, Kelly and I were instantly repelled by each other. She thought I was too dorky to bear; I found her voice impossibly grating. She over-pronounced her esses.
All it took was one shift. One evening, Kelly and I were stuck together. Alone. For five hours. An entire shift of her whistling the letter “S.” But by the end of that shift, we could somehow tolerate each other. Eventually, we liked each other. After a while, we even started going to lunch together.
My relationship with money is blossoming in the same way.
Money and I used to be enemies, but over the years, we’ve become friends. OK, maybe frenemies. The point is, I’ve been changing my relationship with money, and not coincidentally, my financial situation is changing too.
Money as an enemy
It’s hard to build wealth when, deep-down inside, you view money as an obstacle. For a long time, money wasn’t something to be embraced. I resented it. As a kid, money was rarely a positive thing. We needed it and we wanted it, but it didn’t seem to want us. So I grew up associating money with all sorts of negative traits: evil, sacrifice, insufficiency, discomfort.
As you can probably imagine, this was problematic.
Money ruled me
Basically, I worked for my money; my money didn’t work for me. Because I feared it, money controlled my life, and sometimes, it still does. For a long time, my financial plan was fear-driven. I didn’t look at my savings and debt payoff and think, “Wow, I’m really in control of my finances!” Instead I thought, “Cool, I have less of a chance of being financially screwed.”
But who cares, right? As long as I’m on the right financial track, what does it matter how I view money?
Here’s why it matters:
Good decisions come from a healthy state of mind
In other words, it’s hard to make good money decisions when you’re scared and out of control. Here are a couple of personal examples.
When I drafted my first budget shortly after college, I gave myself no room for fun. Entertainment was at zero. This was my financial plan:
1. Work my ass off and earn as much money as possible.
2. Don’t spend money on anything that’s not an absolute necessity.
Rookie mistake. Because I’m not a robot, I enjoy fun. So, of course, I blew my fear-based budget often. Before I knew it, I stopped looking at my bank account altogether. It was too disheartening.
Sitting on money
Until recently, the thought of investing terrified me. I saved a healthy amount in a traditional, low-interest savings account, and I was scared of doing anything else with it. I was happy just to save; the idea of putting my savings in an account where it might earn more interest didn’t really cross my mind. That was beyond me. I’m a poor kid from the sticks — we don’t have index funds! It took a while, as an adult, to shed that mentality and realize my money wasn’t doing much for me in a traditional savings account. In fact, it was only recently that I decided to buy a fund for my medium-term savings. And that felt good.
Perhaps fear works sometimes. I worry about pretty much everything, and I’ll admit, being driven by worry has helped me do some productive things: pay off debt, avoid impulse buys. Maybe it’s about finding a balance between fear and control. But again, my financial situation significantly improved once I stopped worrying and changed my relationship with money.
Here’s how I did it:
I faced my fear
I remember going out with friends and complaining about my finances. Never mind that I was complaining while chowing down at a fancy Japanese restaurant. Never mind that I had no idea exactly what my financial situation was, only that it was bad. I already had little financial control; I lost even more with each unbudgeted bite I took.
Eventually, I started to educate myself about money. I stopped turning a blind eye to my bleak financial situation and began to embrace it. I’m not quite sure what changed, but it probably had something to do with blowing my budget one too many times. I grew frustrated with myself, so I made a decision. It was time to stop avoiding my bank statements. I forced myself to look at my account online, every day, whether it was depressing or not. Thus, I was forced to come to terms with my habits. And then I could work with them.
When I decided to manage reality rather than run from it, things started to change.
I focused on goals instead of problems
Once I decided to take control, goals naturally emerged. Pay off my debt. Save for an emergency. Save for retirement. And there were happier goals, too. Move. Buy a house someday. Suddenly, money became a tool instead of an obstacle. Sure, I still found myself angry with money occasionally, but we were on our way to a better relationship.
At this point, my financial situation was the same, only I was no longer ruled by money; I was ruled by my own goals. Once I shifted focus and let go of the fear, I began to notice opportunities.
I valued myself
It sounds sort of sad, but when I was struggling, I didn’t really feel I was worth anything. Equipped with a degree in Literature, I’d resigned myself to a life of low pay. And hey, maybe that would be the reality, but I also resigned myself to a life of shitty, out-of-control finances, and that certainly didn’t have to be the reality.
When I started to wake up, I learned that I simply needed to make a plan. I made a financial blueprint of what could realistically work for me. And then an opportunity presented itself, and, because I was no longer driven by fear, I seized it.
I stumbled across a high-earning job posting online. I seemed to be qualified for it. “No way,” I thought. “There’s no way I could get this job.” But, growing more goal-oriented every day, I decided to apply anyway. They called me for an interview.
“I don’t know,” my mom said. “You already have a decent job. Why mess with a good thing?”
She was right about the fact that I already had a good enough job.
“What if it’s not what you have in mind?” she doubted. “What if you hate it? What if they go belly up or something?”
Where my mom came from, you were lucky to have a job at all. As kids in China, my mom, aunts and uncles wrapped candy in exchange for pennies. “And we were glad to have that job!” she says. So my mom couldn’t help but wonder if I was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Taking that other job was not only a turning point for myself, but one for my mom, too.
“You were right,” she said, after the job ended up being awesome. “I’m glad you learned to value yourself.”
She admitted she wasn’t very good at valuing herself, but Mom also grew up in a very, very different world.
To summarize, once I had goals, I was fueled by ambition. Ambition made me value myself. In valuing myself, I became even more in control of my financial situation.
I paid myself first
Part of my blueprint was automating my savings and paying myself first — a really important step, I think, on the path to changing your relationship with money. It’s such a simple and even cliche piece of financial advice, but man, paying myself first was a big deal for me back then. Practically speaking, it allowed me to save a nice little bundle of cash. Emotionally speaking, that bundle did wonders for my relationship with money. Soon, I began to associate all sorts of positive traits with money: freedom, milestones, options.
I still have issues with money, and it’s something I’m working on. Sometimes I get mad at it and blame it for all of my problems. That’s when I try to remind myself: money is just money. My goals and my day-to-day life are important. This isn’t to say that money doesn’t get you what you want. It isn’t to say that a lack of money isn’t a total bummer. But I’ve learned that, at its core, money is only a tool. It’s easy to think of it as an obstacle. But for me, developing a more positive relationship with money, in spite of those obstacles, has been better for both my overall and financial well-being.