Take a deep breath: Letting go of financial stress

I've been reading through some of my old posts and thinking about what I wanted for this, my very-end-of-the-year statement on money. And what I saw was a lot (a lot) of stress. It was appropriate, as I'd spent most of the day in a kind of crazy wound-up worked-up state, getting ready for what should be a lovely, restful retreat with a few friends from my writer's group.

Part of it was financial. I'd spent the week juggling money. I had plenty of money coming in, and I had even done a fairly good job of budgeting for once. But it was more than just the money going out — it wasn't all coming in when I thought it would, and so some of it was going to have to wait to go out again. No big deal. It could work out in the end.

But I wasn't thinking, “no big deal.”

I was thinking, whoa, Nellie! Oh no oh no oh no! I imagined what it would be like if that big check I wrote to a farmer bounced (it didn't). They would be so upset! And it would cost them. And it would cost me. And I'd be obliged to pay their fees, too, and then I would be out a hundred bucks or something more than I planned and maybe I would have to pay my babysitter late and…

I had myself worked up, over what was unlikely to happen. What didn't happen. I realized what I was doing was the same thing I told you all not to do: improperly assessing risks.

I had my worry-to-risk ratio all wrong.

Years ago, I started to work on relaxing more about being late for things. I'm terribly, awfully, predictably late, all the time. I have realized it's because I am a big-idea person, and a perfectionist and, also, a procrastinator. So, I will get a big idea, like, oh! It would be so great if I was the one who brought cloaks back into fashion! I could start tonight at that party to which I have been invited. And I will remember that I made that Red Riding Hood cape for Halloween last year, but it's missing a beautiful ribbon. And so if I could only sew that fabric I have there into a beautiful ribbon… but first I should clean my dining room so that I can find the thread color I want. And if I'm cleaning my dining room, that dresser really needs to be organized, and where does that bottle of nail polish go? Maybe in a nail polish jar!

So, five o'clock rolls around, and I haven't really started on my sash, but, oh boy, is my dining room looking better. And I've started a dozen organizing projects and finished six. Way to go! But either I have to be late or forget the sash.

Eventually everything gets done, but I'm late a lot. And it's always worse if I spend the whole trip to the party/school pickup/coffee date with my friend explaining myself over and over, practicing my reason why I was late, trying to make the sash project sound witty and adorable, not obsessive. Half the time, I'll arrive and my friend is not even the tiniest bit mad, and I don't have to give my speech. Maybe she doesn't even notice. Maybe she's late, too.

And the times when it is truly, extremely important for me to be on time are rare, and I should only spend my energy worrying about those. (Not that I shouldn't endeavor to be on time always! Of course!) But…

Worry is sapping

When I focus on stress, on thinking through all the possibilities of how bad it could get, how I might be embarrassed or hampered from future farm-purchasing activity, or how my friend is going to give up on me this time and stop inviting me, I am spending my time causing pain. And sometimes, actual physical pain to myself with worry — instead of focusing on some more creative pursuit. Stress is bad for your health and thus financially punitive.

But more importantly, stress takes away from the great things you could be thinking about. While you are obsessing about financial problems, you could be coming up with the perfect slogan for your new ad campaign. Or the solution to your child's potty training problem. Or puzzling over the background of a character in a novel. Or devising a new special dish at your restaurant. Whatever your job, life mission or avocation, you could be thinking about that. Not about the various ways in which your money might let you down.

It's not just those living check-to-check who worry too much

Many of my friends and family are scraping by, and we have lots of things to worry about. But I've been in situations in which I had lots of savings, and I have plenty of friends who have plenty of padding in their budget, and they still worry. They worry about whether the market's tiny swings will have an outsized effect on their stock portfolio. About whether interest rates will go up before they lock in a new mortgage or a refinance. About whether they are spending more than something is worth. About whether they will get the raise they deserve, or the bonus that will allow purchase of a new vacation house, or get their kids into the right school. We're worrying all the time.

Let go of worry!

If I had one resolution for the new year it would be to let go of financial worry. It's not as simple as it sounds, of course — you can't just open your hands and let it slip through your fingers and into the wind. But

  • Set aside a certain time each month to “worry,” err, budget and go through your bills and expenses. Make an appointment on your calendar. Make it long enough so you can do everything that needs to be done; follow up on payment plans or write checks or figure out who owes you for that side of beef you were sharing. When it's done, button it up. Stop thinking about it.
  • Don't open the mail right as it arrives. (At least not the mail from creditors, investment plans, utilities and the like.) If you're prone to worry, opening a bill or a financial statement will trigger that worry. Do it all at once, once a week or a couple of times each month.
  • When worries creep in, interrogate them. “What if this deposit doesn't clear in time?” “What if those two stocks go down together?” First ask your worries, “What is the worst that could happen?” and “what are you really afraid of?” and “how will worrying help a bit?” Unless you can actually change the outcome by worrying, it's not worth it. Tell your worries that. Make them stand up for themselves. I bet they'll crumple!
  • Appoint someone else the executor of your worries. If you're partnered, or in any sort of relationship with a loved one who is less anxious than you are, hand over the worries to your spouse or significant other or sibling. Tell them the trouble and let them worry about it (chances are, it won't seem like that big of a deal when you say it out loud).
  • Don't shop your worries away. (Or buy them away with coffee/tea/sweets/alcohol/etc.) This may make you feel better in the moment, but it will make things worse when you start worrying about the money you just spent.
  • Find a mantra or a problem to return to when the worries creep in. It could be a sweet, romantic memory. Or a favorite song lyric or poem. Or, if you're a math geek, work out a problem in your head. Recite this bit from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (my favorite rhythmic earworm). Figure out what to do with the broken pottery you've been saving — a mosaic maybe, on the coffee table? Design something in your head. Create; don't worry.

This is my path, my resolution for the new year: make something, don't stress over something. Take a deep breath and focus my eyes on the trees and rain outside, on the steam rising from my coffee or the wind moving the branches. There is a big mysterious and wonderful world outside of the worries in my brain. See that instead.

More about...Psychology, Health & Fitness

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Stephen
Stephen
7 years ago

The best advise I’ve ever been given was to ignore the immoveable obstacles and simply walk around them. In short it means don’t worry about things you can’t control. Over the last few years I’ve taken this onboard in most things and as a result I travel slower, I eat slower, and I’m very rarely stressed. Yes there is some worry, but it is a different kind of worry than before. A financial example is how I now keep a lump of money in my current account. It doesn’t have fees and there is no interest earned, but it lets… Read more »

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

The best way I’ve found to get rid of financial stress is to get rid of high interest debt, get on track for retirement saving, and have a large emergency buffer.

Somehow when all of that is in place, the stress just melts away.

Keith & Kinsey's Real Estate Update
Keith & Kinsey's Real Estate Update
7 years ago

I agree with Nicole and Maggie! Work towards a debt free lifestyle and the worries and stresses will completely vanish. We are down to just 3 mortgages (our house and two rentals). When we got married we had 5 highly leveraged properties, student loans, credit cards, etc. Eliminating debt and complexity, having an emergency fund, saving for retirement, as well as living below our means completely wiped out the financial stress. …and it really didn’t take more than two years to turn things around.

Happy New Year!

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

There’s worrying and there’s preparing. Knowing the difference and dealing with each appropriately can create a huge change for the better in terms of quality of life.

Anni
Anni
7 years ago

The thing that stood out the most for me was the fact that you wrote a bad check! Isn’t that kind of a cardinal sin in personal finance? If the money’s not in the bank right now, don’t write the check.

Anne
Anne
7 years ago
Reply to  Anni

Totally agree here. I can’t imagine what kind of mind set a person has who writes a check before they have the money in the bank.

If it is not illegal it certainly is immoral.

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago
Reply to  Anne

Anne, she’s not check kiting, she’s “playing the float” which isn’t illegal or immoral, just poor planning.

“Playing the float – The account holder makes a debit while insufficient funds are present in the account believing they will be able to deposit sufficient funds before the debit clears.”

MDAccount
MDAccount
7 years ago
Reply to  Anne

I’m fascinated by the need to judge here. The author is writing about a big topic — stress — and the debate is over her morality? Really? Does anyone really think that a passing example offers enough information for judgement? Or that attack is helpful? I can see asking some follow-up questions, but suggesting the author is immoral seems way out of line. I think comments like this, though, are the source of a lot of stress when we make mistakes. We worry about what people will think, and what they’ll say, and it triggers a lot of shame. Brene… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  MDAccount

I want to re-like this comment 25 times.

Evan
Evan
7 years ago
Reply to  MDAccount

Writing a check when you do not have the money in the bank AT THAT TIME is immoral.

You don’t really know if your deposit is going to make it in time, so you are making your creditor take the gamble.

MDAccount
MDAccount
7 years ago
Reply to  MDAccount

Evan: Killing children is immoral. Writing a check you have excellent reason to believe will clear (but because of error elsewhere in the chain does not) is a mistake. The debt is still owed, fines are paid, the problem is solved. It is a mistake, not a crime against God. There is no cause for attacking the character of the author. Seriously. Both perspective and decency make that clear. Sorry to harp on this, but I’m just concerned that comments like yours make GRS less of a community and more of a battleground and I, for one, am increasingly weary… Read more »

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
7 years ago
Reply to  Anni

Oh dear. You’re totally missing the point of this piece. To sum up: I was worried that something would go wrong and it would bounce. (my husband transfers money to my account when he gets paid and sometimes I don’t get “credit” for that money until the next day, causing bounces even if I’m only a few dollars short.) as it turned out I was wrong to worry. there are plenty of times in an average freelancer’s life in which, with deposits going in and bills going out, timing can go wrong. This does not make said person awful and… Read more »

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah gilbert

If you’re not going to worry, then you need to keep a buffer in that bank account so that a day here or there does NOT end up making a difference. If there’s a chance a day will make a difference then either you (a) should worry, or (b) not spend the money. While in this particular transaction it worked out for you without a bounced check, the lesson should not be “don’t worry if you’ve written a check and the money might not be there in time for it to clear,” but rather “no need to worry if you… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah gilbert

I can totally see how a check can be bounced accidentally – in fact, I’ve done it. And it’s never the check you sent to Visa or the Utility company. It’s always the check to the dry cleaner, or church, or to reserve your spots at your husband’s class reunion (yes, I did that!) Just an FYI – I have found 1 pm to be the magic time with banks. Checks deposited before 1 pm are credited to that day’s deposits, after 1pm is a crapshoot. Anyway, it has been many, many years since we’ve bounced a check – most… Read more »

Evan
Evan
7 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

You don’t explain how your checks bounced “accidentally”.

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

I remember well the one with the class reunion. We were married two years and mightily digging out from credit card and student loan debt. We were determined not going to use credit cards except in the most dire of circumstances. My husband had a dental emergency after he went to work and wrote the dentist a check for $320. This was the mid nineties and before we had cell phones – I wouldn’t know of the dental emergency until that evening. Unbeknownst to my husband, I had merrily mailed off the reunion check on my way to work that… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah gilbert

I don’t get your writing a check to a farmer before your account is credited with your husband’s transfer.

There is nothing accidental about this and you know it.

bg
bg
7 years ago

Awesomely in time, your article! I’m prone to worrying too, especially about money. So I managed to just having had the best business year ever in 2012, and now I’m agonizing over my prospects in 2013 which look a little less good because I’ve gotten rid of a client that didn’t work out anymore, and OMG I will surely earn less now and [insert impeding downfall].

Sigh.

Love your tips about handling that worry. Definitely will try to put some of them to use.

Thanks and Happy New Year!

Bryallen @ The Frugal Graduate
Bryallen @ The Frugal Graduate
7 years ago

As a new postgraduate student, I’ve found that the thing that most reduces my stress is setting myself mini-deadlines to break down work before the true deadline. For example I will research the topic of my report one week, write it the next week, and edit it the week after, long before the four-week deadline approaches! It is SO MUCH less stressful than leaving it all to the last minute! In finances, this could also be used. For example, paying off debts early, setting money aside for bills in advance, just generally getting organised and having an emergency fund ready… Read more »

Wm
Wm
7 years ago

“There is a big mysterious and wonderful world outside of the worries in my brain. See that instead.” – This sums it up perfectly. Becoming aware of the gaps in our finances can lead to some amount of worries and stress, but in my opinion, it usually ends up being productive if we take the necessary measures to correct the problems. On the other hand, if we are totally unaware of how messed up our finances are, we continue to go down the downward spiral without even realizing it until we reach an abysmal pit. Obviously, the best approach is… Read more »

Carol C
Carol C
7 years ago

Sarah, I so identify with procrastinating and being late because I’m *sure* I have time to do whatever-it-is before I leave and then rehearsing my explanation all the way there. Also, your posting is very timely as I was worrying this morning about the financial implications of some big changes ahead. You’ve reminded me that I *am* prepared and to let the fretting go.

Jeremy Jameson
Jeremy Jameson
7 years ago

“Make something, don’t stress over something.” Well said! Many are full of worry right now over financial subjects like the fiscal cliff, the upcoming tax season, dealing with the credit bills from Christmas, etc. This is a timely and useful message. I’m not one to worry much but I do have a tendency to succumb to analysis paralysis by spending too much time thinking over plans instead of setting them in motion. As a blogger, that is something that hampers me from posting frequently enough. However, I’m starting to get a better handle on what I’m doing and am focusing… Read more »

Joanna @ Our Freaking Budget
Joanna @ Our Freaking Budget
7 years ago

I agree that worrying is not helpful in the least! My husband and I were just laughing this morning about what a worrier I am. I can’t seem to help it!

That said, as far as finances go, I have to make a plan and then think about it a little each day. If I don’t “worry” or think about it at all, I end up not sticking to it as well. So I guess a little bit of worry can be good just to keep ourselves accountable!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

I have realized it’s because I am a big-idea person, and a perfectionist and, also, a procrastinator. So, I will get a big idea, like, oh! It would be so great if I was the one who brought cloaks back into fashion! I could start tonight at that party to which I have been invited. And I will remember that I made that Red Riding Hood cape for Halloween last year, but it’s missing a beautiful ribbon. And so if I could only sew that fabric I have there into a beautiful ribbon… but first I should clean my dining… Read more »

Holly@ClubThrifty
7 years ago

What a timely post. I am a constant worrier….even when things are going well. This is a great reminder to only worry about what is in my control and to let go of everything else. Thank you.

Steve
Steve
7 years ago

Yes, worry at the right level, enough to push to action, not to freeze or agonize. Perspective. I was talking to my co-owner and said, “hey, I got bad news” (it was regarding a huge job bid I had lost and was really counting on). Before I could continue, she replied “oh no, terri just called with bad news, Suzie has Leukemia”. Perspective.

MDAccount
MDAccount
7 years ago

Thanks for writing this! Your timing is perfect. I had a very bad weekend because I took a healthy financial situation (a year’s expenses safely in the bank) and mentally turned it into catastrophe (likely homelessness, no retirement ever) when I realized I hadn’t saved all I could. While a recalibration of spending/saving is definitely in order, we’re in good shape, I caught the problem early and we’re taking all manner of steps to get back on track. The enormous amount of worry didn’t help me at all and pretty much ruined a weekend. In my case, I’m working to… Read more »

E
E
7 years ago

A fan of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! The Tolkein translation is a wonder; you’ve probably read it. If not, enjoy. 🙂

Kathleen, Frugal Portland
Kathleen, Frugal Portland
7 years ago

Holy shark tank batman! I think that letting go of financial worry is a really wonderful idea. So, too, is ignoring the comments section after hitting “publish”.

Shyra Smith
Shyra Smith
7 years ago

Loved your article. Excellent tips! Especially about appointing someone else to deal with the anxiety for sometime. For me shopping away anxiety also works unless I end up making a huge hole in my wallet. I think the key is to create a balance. We cannot control everything even if we try to, but we can’t stop worrying completely. I just see to it that I am not worrying over something unnecessary. Rest I can balance.

Shiv Sharma
Shiv Sharma
6 years ago

Had a great work out…Nice tips to overcome stress in our life. Getting worried on things not done makes a person to get depressed more. Instead of that he spares some time and finds a new way to solve the problems will relax from mental stress…

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