Think about the last time you sat down to finish a financial task. How did you feel before you logged in to your account, or took out your checkbook?
C. Calm and collected
Chances are, you answered A or B (or both). And while a little anxiety about money isn’t actually a bad thing—it can inspire you to get your act together, if you need to, or ensure that you’re paying your bills on time—starting a financial task from a place of profound stress, irritability or panic will only make it that much more difficult or painful to accomplish, and could lead to poor decision making.
Stress affects the way humans make decisions, and money problems, in particular, can be handled irrationally. You want to believe you’re doing what’s best for yourself and your pocketbook, but how many times have you snapped at your spouse about the credit card bill after a long day at work, or panicked about the state of your retirement fund after talking to a friend about their more lucrative employer match?
If you’ve had a bad day at work or you’re dealing with relationship issues, then, take a beat to gauge how you’re feeling before making any financial decisions or tackling a task on your to-do list.
“Physically, check that you’re fed, hydrated and well-rested. Make sure you feel well emotionally — confident, empowered and encouraged,” suggests Student Loan Hero. “Take stock of your mental resources, like willpower and brainpower. If something’s amiss, take a break and address your needs before tackling your money problems.”
What to Do If Money Is the Cause of Your Stress
This is particularly important if the money task itself is stressing you out. No, don’t ostrich your money problems, but do take a moment to yourself and focus on what you need to accomplish now—not on every single possible negative outcome that could conceivably occur, which will only add to your stress levels.
“Deep breathing is a simple but effective tool to increase oxygen and stay present in the moment,” notes Student Loan Hero. (This article on dealing with panic attacks offers some useful breathing techniques.)
If money stress is something you deal with on a consistent basis, though, taking a beat before paying your credit card bill this month is only a temporary fix. After you’ve managed to do what you need to do, you can take stock of your financial anxiety more generally.
Make a List of Your Stressors
First things first: Rip off the bandaid. The best way to face anything causing you stress or anxiety is head on; ignoring it or wishing it away will only make the stress compound (and likely, any money you owe compound as well). Open the bill, log in to your account and reassess your budget.
“Make a physical list of what you’re stressed about — whatever’s been ruminating in your brain in the wee hours of the night,” suggests Sarah DiGiulio for NBC Better.
Then, rank your list in terms of what’s causing you the most anxiety (or simply, what occupies your mind most often). Maybe it’s a student loan bill, or your tax return. Whatever it is, identify it and write down why it’s causing you so much anxiety in a designated notebook or app. Keep the notebook handy, and use it whenever you’re stressed out. Write it out.
NBC Better also suggests this list-making tactic:
Rate each item by how in control you feel on a scale of one to 10. Once you’re finished, circle the things you feel are most out of your control — those are the areas you’ll focus on addressing. Research shows it’s important to specifically target anxiety produced by out-of-control feelings, says John J. Medina, developmental molecular biologist and affiliate professor of bio-engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Better to acknowledge your most anxiety-inducing tasks, then to let them continue to fester below the surface.
Make a Plan
After you’ve done that, you can focus on making a plan to neutralize your top stressor. Writes DiGiulio:
No matter what type of paycheck you bring home or the balance in your bank accounts is, having a roadmap for how you plan to save and spend is what’s going to make you feel in control of your finances and kick the stress.
Whatever the plan, it should take into account your comprehensive financial situation (income, savings, debt, expenses, and spending priorities) and map out the best way to meet your goals given your circumstances
For example, if you owe the IRS money this year, see if you can agree to a payment plan that will help ease your current financial burden. If student loans have you stressing, research payment plan options and call your servicer(s) to see what they can offer you. Once you have a sense of the options available to you, you can make better informed decisions (and, in my experience at least, knowing I’m in control of a situation and have done the research eases my mind).
Make Changes as Needed
Remember, just because you set a plan of action doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. One of the best things you can do for your finances—and any other habit you’re trying to build—is make changes when it isn’t working. Making mistakes is part of life, but fixing those mistakes and learning and growing from them is what will lead to sustained, positive change.
So when you’re encountering a set back, or another stressful situation, take a breath, ground yourself and remember that while you can’t change the past, you can control your future (or at least, you can control aspects of it). Whatever you’re dealing with now is only temporary.