In a surprising conversation with a client, I learned that he logs into his account online in the morning and again in the afternoon every single day. What makes this even more peculiar is that our online access gets updated once daily (in the morning) and reflects the previous day's market close. So when he logs into his account for the second time, he sees the EXACT same value that he saw when he logged in that morning. When I asked him why he checks twice a day, he responded, “Yeah, I know. Just want to make sure my money is still there.”
This poor guy wasn't helping himself relieve any stress. By constantly being connected and fearful that his money would somehow magically vanish, he was falling victim to what I call the “money blues.” The housing bubble burst, Great Recession, and slow economic recovery left many investors asking themselves, “What in the heck happened?” More recent headlines involving the fiscal cliff, government shutdown, and Greece's economic struggles just add fuel to the fire.
When you feel powerless over things beyond your control, it can easily lead to anxiety.
Reflecting back at the value of your 2007 investing statements does as much good as wishing you bought that “one stock” at that “one time” at that “one price.”
Yeah, you know the one I'm talking about. You didn't listen to Larry at the water cooler at work and now he's driving a Porsche he bought with his hot stock tip profits and waving to you every morning with that smug smile… Don't worry. It happened to me, too.
In all seriousness, anxiety can lead to terrible financial decisions. Bad things happen when you let your emotions drive, and I see it all too often in my financial planning practice. It always pains me to sit down in my office to talk to an individual who has done the exact opposite of what they should have done. The financial carnage is real. During the Great Recession, right about the time the stock market had tanked and lost about 40 percent of its value, I sat down with a client to try to talk them out of making a horrible decision.
They wanted to sell. And not just trim-the-fat kind of selling. Not minor adjustments to their asset allocation. They wanted to sell everything — every investment straight to cash.
I tried to talk them out of it — the market would rebound, right now you have paper losses not real losses, you're selling at the absolute lowest point — but was unsuccessful.
Their anxiety led them to buying high and selling low.
Right after they cashed out, the market started going up again. By the end of 2010, just one and a half years later, the market was up 49 percent from where they sold. Now, four and a half years — well, you know where it is. It's fully recovered and then some! They missed out on tens of thousands of dollars all because they let their anxiety win.
Fight back against your money anxiety
Again, whether we are talking about personal finance or just life in general, it holds true that nothing good can come from making rash, emotional, anxiety-laden decisions. If you feel yourself suffering from your own case of the “money blues” consider these tactics to get you back on the road to recovery.
1. Turn off the news.
Watching the news about what's going on with the market is just as good as trusting your weatherman's forecast for the weekend ahead. You have to remember that the media is there for one thing — to make advertising dollars.
Oh wait, was I supposed to say “inform the public”?
It's all about viewership and the advertising revenue those viewers bring in. The focus on getting as many viewers as possible drives sensational headlines, talking (sometimes screaming) heads that take opposing viewpoints on random topics, and every little thing being a piece of news, whatever it takes to get you to turn to that channel and watch.
The sky is always falling in the media. Dismiss the exaggerated headlines and focus on the items in your life that you do have control over.
2. Communicate with your spouse.
Two of the biggest contributors to a failed marriage are communication and finances. When finances get tight and emotions get intense, communication becomes even more important.
Make it a point to have regular conversations about the finances. Maybe for you that's weekly. Maybe it's monthly. It doesn't really matter as long as you stick to a schedule and actually communicate.
These open conversations are healthy. They can help diffuse situations, stop the finger-pointing, and help you remember you're on the same team. (I highly recommend having “the money talk” early and often in a relationship.) Talk through solutions to problems. If times are lean and conditions are expected to remain the same or get worse, talk about possible solutions. If you have a plan B in place, it can at least help ease the stress more than if there is no contingency plan at all.
So many couples stick their proverbial heads in the sand to avoid talking about touchy subjects, and they end up worse off for it. Be different. Communicate.
3. Don't ignore the obvious.
You may have high anxiety about money because you are really bad at managing your money.
Being bad at managing money isn't the end of the world. You can't work on something you don't know that you're bad at, so if you know you're bad at money — great! Just do something about it. For many people, being a poor money manager means they have a lot of debt. That debt and the ever-rising tide of minimum payments is like a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of your dollars and cents.
That slow squeeze can lead to extremely high anxiety; enough to the point that it seems paralyzing. It's like you know you need to do something, anything to make the situation better, but you are so freaked out about it that you end up doing nothing.
Yet doing nothing is only going to make things worse, which in turn leads to more anxiety, which in turn leads to you doing more of nothing… It's a vicious cycle.
Don't ignore the obvious. You can't spend more than you earn. You have to own up to putting yourself into debt and then work toward paying off that debt. As you start to dig out of the hole you're in, you will feel your anxiety levels going down and your “I'm actually doing this!” levels going way up.
4. Don't check your accounts daily (especially twice a day).
We live in a hyper-connected world. Everything has WiFi. You can get portfolio updates on your kid's iPod Nano if you want. Every little piece of data about you — your spending and your investments — is tracked religiously by mega-corporations.
Instead of not having enough information on a topic — anyone else remember using the Dewey Decimal System and the good ol' card catalog at the school library? — we are inundated with data. All this connectivity means you can check your bank account, credit card, and investment accounts daily. You can check your bill statements online too. I even have retired clients who I know check their investment account twice a day, although our systems only update at the end of the day.
At some point you have to stop and ask yourself: Is this really worth my time? Has anything changed significantly between yesterday and today?
Even if something has changed — e.g., the market went up/down 1 percent — does that mean I am going to do something about it? Probably not. You're better off re-balancing your portfolio on an annual schedule rather than worrying about the minuscule ups and downs of the market each day.
We must accept that some things are out of our control.
It's OK to have a plan to deal with specific scenarios. In fact, I highly recommend having an investment plan that reminds you of your investing goals, how comfortable you are with risk, and what to do if the market does this or that. Your investment plan becomes your guidebook for when your emotions are going haywire.
5. Give yourself a release valve.
Sometimes we feel like we have to just do something to feel better about a money situation. If the market is tanking and you have the urge to sell everything, give yourself a way to relieve some of the pressure you are feeling about your finances.
Let's take the clients who sold out of 100 percent of their investments at the bottom of the market. In the end, that was a terrible decision that cost them a great sum of money.
What if that client had only sold 10 percent and moved it to a safer short-term investment? (Here are the 11 best short-term investments for your money right now.) When the market rebounded, they would have 90 percent of the portfolio rebounding with the rest of the market. Sure, they'd technically be behind the person who kept 100 percent of the investment invested, but that freedom on the relatively small 10 percent would have kept them from making a significantly worse decision.
Give yourself 5 percent to 10 percent of the portfolio that you can do anything you want with. If you are panicking and want to sell everything, you don't just sit there. You sell off that 10 percent of the portfolio you allow yourself to do whatever you want with.
This 5 to 10 percent freedom is also how many advisers handle clients that want to invest in individual stocks. Individual stocks are generally not the best idea for individual investors, but if the client is going to make mistakes, we try to limit how much damage is done to the overall portfolio and make sure they land one of the best online brokers for beginners too.
Don't let anxiety rule you
Being a good steward of your money is important. If you handle your money well, you can transform not only your family, but the generations to follow as well.
At the same time, you shouldn't let your anxiety over money run your life. Take some simple steps to put a buffer between the “calm” you and the “freaked out over money” you. Control what you can control, be smart about your decisions, and sleep better at night.