Logging into to your credit card app to see the charges you’ve racked up (like the four delicious but overpriced cocktails from brunch last Saturday), or signing into your account to find that after you’ve paid your bills, there’s not a lot of money left over, isn’t the greatest feeling.
It can be so uncomfortable, in fact, we may even stop checking in on our money entirely. Why bother when we know we will just feel ashamed, stressed, overwhelmed, or plain frustrated after doing so? It’s so much easier to just avoid it, right? Which is why 60% of us do so on the regular.
Known as money avoidance, when we ignore managing our finances at all costs because it’s too emotionally painful, it's actually a money disorder (a pattern of self-defeating or self-destructive financial behaviours). Money avoidance keeps people stuck doing the same unhelpful things with their money and in a cycle of anxiety.
How to recognize when you’re deep in the avoidance cycle
The money avoidance dance often goes as follows: We feel ashamed of the state of our finances, this shame drives avoidance of an aspect of managing our money — like the aforementioned bills and bank statements, but also ignoring the true state of your finances because it’s more evidence that you’re “bad” or “irresponsible.” To overcome the emotional guilt brought on by avoiding our money, we then tend to fill up our e-carts again, leading us to more expenses and bringing us back to shame. And the cycle repeats.
There’s of course variation in what money avoidance specifically looks like for you. Maybe it’s avoiding being honest about your spending habits with a partner, driving more secrecy and stress. Or having trouble starting a budget or investing, keeping you stuck in a cycle of you kicking yourself for not doing so.
Guess what? You’re not actually bad with money
There are many economic challenges working against Canadians (rising inflation rates, housing prices, etc.), especially women — from being paid less than men to (for some) balancing child rearing with our careers. It’s important that we acknowledge this as part of the larger conversation of personal finance. What we can do is try to make strategic decisions with our finances to make the best out of our situation.
That starts with recognizing that our avoidance response to our finances doesn’t mean that you're bad with money. It’s actually a powerful protection strategy in our body that helps to keep us safe from perceived danger. Our nervous system runs from our brains to our toes and controls things like our heart rate, digestion, and how much air we get into our lungs. (Think about what happens to your heart rate when you get anxious before a plane ride or a big presentation, that’s your nervous system at work!)
It’s also designed to detect threats, specifically in the form of the flight or fight response. This used to kick in when we ran from predators. Now, that adrenaline can show up by simply logging into your bank account or telling your partner just how much you spent at Sephora. When that happens, our brain tells our nervous system, “hey, what you just did there is really stressful, but avoiding it keeps us safe, so let’s keep avoiding.” When we understand why we’re avoiding in the first place — that part of it boils down to a simple physiological response — this removes shame and confusion to the question “why can’t I do this?”
How to avoid panicking every time you open a bill
Mainstream personal finance advice is tailored towards ripping off the Band Aid and diving right into your money, which can be downright scary for some of us. Instead, we need to slowly expose our nervous system to our money in steps. Consider that 12% of Canadians say their financial well-being is influenced by psychological factors (such as confidence around money, impulsivity, attitude towards saving/spending/borrowing), this means that telling someone to start budgeting or saving each paycheque is difficult when there is a gap between how they feel about money and what they should be doing with their money.
The first step is to journal about what messages or emotions come up for you when you try to manage your money. Maybe it's the fear of never making enough money to actually enjoy your life outside of bills and expenses, so why bother trying? Or perhaps it's a feeling of shame stemming from comparing yourself to your friends or family members who appear to be in a stress-free money zone that you can’t imagine for yourself. So you try to keep up and overspend (leading to avoidance of your credit card bill) just to look like you fit in, too.
Second, write out how avoiding your money is a benefit to you (yes, a benefit!). For example, every time you avoid opening your credit card statement, you don’t have to hold yourself accountable for that impulse Zara haul. It’s out of sight, out of mind. Next, journal about how your money avoidance is leading to more stress.
Writing down on paper your emotions and inner thoughts is a form of expression and release. Throughout this exercise, you may be surprised what specific thoughts and beliefs about money come up for you and that is knowledge you can leverage to better your relationship with money.
Start small and build up to bigger money habits
Lastly, create an exposure pyramid, a list of small actions you do to increase your exposure to your finances without overwhelming yourself. Exposure therapy is a cognitive behavioural tool used to overcome anxiety or PTSD. For example, if you’re afraid of dogs, step one of your exposure pyramid might be looking at a picture of a dog, building up slowly with the help of a therapist until you can touch that dog. We want to replicate the same idea with your finances.
Step one on your pyramid might be to find out what dates your bills are due and add that to a calendar so you won’t forget, rather than just setting your account to automatically pay the minimum every month. Notice what emotions come up for you and remind yourself that's the body's response to protect you. It’s important to limit the amount of time spent doing each activity to 15 minutes to keep the exposure controlled and manageable for your nervous system.
Step two might be logging into your bank account every week (or a frequency that feels supportive to you) with non-judgment. Rather than immediately seeing your balance and saying “I’m bad with money,” repeat to yourself that “the number in my bank account does not define my worth as a person.” Try using positive language to describe your account balance "I have $70 saved in my savings, this is awesome. I want to keep building this." Through repetition and keeping our exposure limited, we’re re-training our nervous system to view money as safe! By checking in on our finances more regularly, we’ll also become more mindful of our spending habits, and it’ll provide opportunities to potentially reduce our debt and begin saving.
Continue building your list in the exposure pyramid as it relates to you. For example, step three might look like adding up how much you spent on takeout for the past month, or deep diving into those Amazon purchases to see if there’s room to reduce your spending.
Remember, this is a marathon and not a race. This shift takes time and work, but building up your exposure will improve your confidence and help you move into making bigger financial decisions like starting that budget or investing. I’ve seen this over and over in my work. One of my clients felt very unsafe looking at her credit card statements, leading to overspending and missing minimum payments, hurting her credit score.
After we created an exposure pyramid for her and spoke about her financial trauma growing up, we were able to pinpoint where the desire to overspend came from: She lacked choice of buying things when she was younger and felt deprived. Now that she was making over six-figure income, she never wanted to tell herself no. Now, she’s no longer making impulse purchases, she’s improving her credit score by paying off her debt (on time) and isn’t ashamed of logging in and seeing her bank balance (which is increasing by the way!). And you can experience the same, but remember these changes do take time and that’s totally okay, too.
Parween Mander is a millennial money coach based out of Vancouver, a trauma of money facilitator, and the founder of the Wealthy Wolfe, a digital financial coaching platform for women of colour from immigrant upbringings specifically.