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.
Author: Sarah Gilbert
Sarah is a blogger by trade and a finance geek at heart. She cut her teeth on her first Excel spreadsheet full of financials at the tender age of 21, when she began her investment banking career in First Unionâ€™s Loan Syndications group. She went on to get her MBA from Wharton, work at Merrill Lynch and fall in love with analyzing company strategy and endless rows of numbers. She got into blogging as a marketing strategy and the blogging took. She now is a freelance financial and (award-winning!) literary writer, working in between baking bread and finding socks for her three little boys in her beloved 1912 Portland, Oregon, home.
Sarah's even-more-personal blogging about being an Army wife, parenting, food, biking and life can be found at urbanMamas and Cafe Mama.