We’ve all heard the phrase, “money can’t buy happiness.” Yet, despite these commonly repeated words of wisdom, finances continue to be a leading cause of stress, divorce and depression around the world. For many of us, money represents the freedom to spend and acquire. Furthermore, it provides a sense of security and a personal symbol of success. Learning to separate our sense of self-worth from our wealth can be more complicated than expected. Even when we value other aspects of our lives, like our health and personal relationships, sudden changes to our financial situation can be difficult to adjust to.
Anytime our life circumstances change, there is the potential for grief to materialize as a response. With change, some loss is inevitable (even when it may also be accompanied by gain in other areas). Changes to our financial well-being, whether due to divorce, high medical bills or unexpected job loss, cause us to reexamine our sense of identity, our lifestyle and our attachments. Whether we realize it or not, it’s not uncommon to view ourselves (at least somewhat) within the context of what we have. The house or apartment we live in, the perceived status of our occupation, the type of vehicle we drive and the vacations we take are all part of the story that shows the outside world who we are. It’s not wrong to assume that financial strain can affect the way others see us, especially those who don’t know us very well. By extension, we may begin to feel differently about ourselves. This can breed insecurity or fear that stems from our self-perception and sense of stability.
The reality is, it’s normal to go through fluctuations in our financial status through different phases of life. Just because we are upset about having less money, doesn’t mean we are materialistic or should be ashamed to feel the way we feel. It’s okay to admit that a change in finances is bringing you down. Even those who plan ahead and save often face unexpected financial strains or losses from time to time. It takes a conscious effort to prevent those losses from leading to a deeper depression. Sometimes this involves getting outside help and support.
Acknowledging financial grief is the first step to healing and regaining power over our lives. Just as unresolved grief associated with other types of losses can hold us back, the grief of financial woes may inhibit our ability to fully flourish in other areas of life. The negativity experienced while grieving can become a cycle. Breaking free of that cycle requires effort, awareness and sometimes, new connections with others.
Everything in life is relative. Financial pressures impact people from various walks of life on different levels. Spending more than you make, either by choice or by necessity, is a stressor. Although financial issues are often unpredictable or unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself before financial emergencies happen and foster recovery from the downsides of money management.
Set limits on the amount of time you spend thinking about money or the causes of your financial issues. This may seem easier said than done, but it is possible with some added daily structure. When you’re stressed about your budget, it can be tough to think about anything else. If the issue stems from a job loss or medical bills, develop boundaries on the time you spend working to fix the issue. For instance, set a goal to apply for jobs five days per week for four hours a day. Once you reach that goal, move on to doing something else. Change takes time. Sometimes putting in extra time doesn’t make things happen any faster. Set a realistic goal and stick to it with the accountability of a timer or a friend. Fill your day with other distractions, hobbies and productive activities to keep yourself from feeling bogged down by this one area of your life. If you’re dealing with creditors, financial aid or medical bills, make a to-do list and get organized. Fill out forms, make phone calls and manage paperwork for a portion of the day. Do your best not to let one single area take over your entire day.
Develop other areas of yourself that promote your self-worth. If you don’t quite feel like yourself now that you’ve had to downsize to a smaller home or lost a flashy job title, perhaps it’s time to pivot and remember that one area of your life doesn’t define your whole person. Putting more emphasis on your health, hobbies, creativity and charity can bring greater attention and fulfillment into areas of our lives that may have been neglected in the past. The rewards of a great workout or a finished creative project can bring joy and pride via a different avenue that’s not financially-dependent. It’s not uncommon when undergoing an income reduction to find ourselves with more time on our hands (especially in the case of retirement or a layoff). Use this extra time to your advantage. Try viewing it as a gift instead of a punishment. After all, time is our greatest asset.
To protect against financial strain, it’s always wise to do our best to plan ahead and live within our means. The financial stress of keeping up with Joneses doesn’t do anyone any favors. Taking some principles from the latest (and ancient) “fad” of minimalism can encourage the concept of pairing down. Step aside from the financial rat race that keeps so many of us feeling trapped and dependent on continued salary growth and wealth.
Although financial success is nothing to be ashamed of, the reality stands that money comes and goes. Saving up with an emergency fund can help us feel secure when uncertain circumstances arise. Making a conscious effort to avoid the “lifestyle creep” that often comes along with bigger incomes can help us maintain a consistent standard of living, even when change comes knocking. Living within our means provides some flexibility in case a high-paying job no longer provides fulfillment or becomes too stressful. The freedom to walk away or take a new path as desired is extremely valuable.
It’s impossible to generalize the various causes of financial grief that can occur throughout a lifetime. Whether your current financial state is something you created yourself, something that was thrust upon you or a combination of several factors, moving past blame or regret and into action is necessary to break free from the burden of financial grief.
It’s important to recognize when we need help. Depending on the root of our financial worries, there are resources available to assist us with adjusting to change. Meeting with a financial advisor is a good first step to gaining more control of our finances and learning about different available options that we may not have considered. When the pain of a financial loss goes beyond logistics, finding a qualified therapist, social worker or grief counselor might be a more appropriate course of action for addressing your needs. Group support, through church programs, senior centers, therapy or other community networks can play a fundamental role in remembering that we aren’t alone in our situation. Simply knowing that others are facing similar issues can hold real healing power in itself. From there, we can gain the momentum to continue towards positive change.