The Stress of the Money Wars

A reader, who I will call Jane, wrote in recently with the following:

I do NOT overspend. I work with a monthly budget, live very carefully and frugally, etc. It’s the debt, and the underearning. I am working on both, but wow is it hard somedays, some weeks, some months, especially when this worry eats up so much energy.

I am so SICK of living with this stress. When I think about retirement, which I do constantly, I feel like a huge failure. I often hope I die before I hit 65 so I won’t have to live in the dumpster behind the grocery store, as I fear.

I know exactly what Jane is talking about. Even though I have my financial house in order, with retirement in place and an emergency fund, I quite often feel a queasy feeling in my gut when I think about a lot of financial issues. What if I unexpectedly lose my job? What if I get hit by a bus tomorrow and am left unable to work?

The truth is that the vast majority of Americans continually walk a financial tightrope, whether they directly realize it or not. For some, the truth is much closer – if you have trouble just keeping your bills paid, for example, a financial disaster could be just moments away. For others, like me, the concern is a bit more distant, but with two children at home and with myself being the chief wage-earner in the home, it’s still a worry. Not too long ago, it was a pretty strong worry, too.

This type of stress is simply a part of modern life for most of us. We don’t have access to resources that could completely insulate us from any disaster – I certainly don’t. Given that, what can we do to help deal with this stress? Here are the principles that I apply.

Know what your purpose in doing this is. For me, my purpose is based around my family. Without them, I would have likely made the leap to being a full time writer by now – in fact, I’d probably be living in a different part of the United States. If you’re single, you should be following your dreams and doing whatever it takes. If you ever wake up in the morning and can’t authentically answer why you’re going into work each day, it’s time to make a serious change.

Always automatically dump money into an emergency fund. Make it a bill, one that you have to pay, and sock it away in a savings account that isn’t immediately accessible (an online bank, like ING Direct – which I personally use and love – works well for this). The more you can sock away, the better, because the bigger your emergency fund is, the more insulated you are from smaller disasters.

Face the worst case scenario – and plan for it. What happens if you lose your job? What do you do? Thinking about such scenarios isn’t a fun thing, but if you spend time now actually facing that situation, two things happen. First, you realize that it isn’t as bad as it initially seems. You’ll often find that when you actually analyze these bad scenarios, things are bad, but not that bad. Second, you’ll feel the relief of having a plan. Knowing what you would do in that situation can often be a comfort as well.

Evaluate all of the assets you have available to you. Most people think strictly in terms of financial assets, but that’s only the beginning. Look at the public services you can tap, the people who form your life, and the assets that they have that you can use. Also, consider the skills and intangible assets that you have – your resume, for one, is a serious asset because it enables you to get a solid job.

Ensure that your mood is otherwise positive. If you are showing signs of authentic depression, seek real help – don’t let it grow into something you can’t get out of. If it’s merely melancholy, try exercising more, eating a healthier diet, and communicating with others you respect and trust.

Never stop improving yourself. Ever. The moment you stop learning and stop trying to gain new skills is the moment you start to become irrelevant. Spend less time in front of the television and more time reading and trying new things.

Most of all, never give up. No matter how bad things get, don’t throw in the towel. Instead, seek out and ask for help to get your feet back on the floor.