Lots of people have money phobia. Phobia is excessive fear that interferes with your life. For instance, being afraid of sharks and avoiding them is not an example of excessive fear (I think that’s just smart). However, being so afraid of sharks that one avoids ever getting into the water is an example of a phobia.
Everyone naturally fears something going wrong with their money, but if you’re hiding from your money, refusing to look at it or manage it because of the anxiety it produces in you, then you may need some outside help. You can’t fear your money and have a successful financial life at the same time.
Exposure therapy helps you approach the feared situation, in order to overcome the original fear. It is usually done in a series of steps, starting with a relatively low level of engagement and increasing the level with each step. For example, for exposure therapy with a snake phobia, we might start with just looking at a very small snake from many feet away, and eventually work our way up to holding a larger snake. The steps of the therapy are usually broken down and customized to the individual, depending on where s/he can begin.
Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side cartoons, had one cartoon about exposure therapy. In Larson’s cartoon, there is a picture of a man in a dark box, levered out the window of a skyscraper…and we could see that there were snakes in the box with him. There was another man in the window of the skyscraper, observing. The caption read: “Professor Gallagher and his controversial technique of simultaneously confronting the fear of heights, snakes and the dark.”
The reason this cartoon is NOT funny is that overcoming the fear is about learning to predict and control the feared object or situation. As long as the patient is motivated to overcome their fear, and they slowly approach the feared situation rather than escaping from it or avoiding it, they will eventually succeed.
Controlling Your Money Phobia
I know that sometimes people have a hard time even reaching out to me (the least judgmental planner ever) because thinking about money causes so much anxiety. Here are some ideas to create your own customized exposure therapy regime:
Sign up for a blog. The good news is, simply by reading my blog (or another financial blog) regularly, you’re helping to reduce your fear. It would be like me signing up for Shark of The Week blog.
Do one small thing daily. There was a time many years ago when I logged into my checking account daily—just for a few minutes, to make sure I knew my balance and I was on top of my bills. This helped me lose the resistance I created during college when I had trouble balancing my checkbook!
Anchor. Lots of people pair an undesirable activity with something fun. I have a client who keeps a stuffed animal with her bill paying box. Another keeps her “money animal totem” next to her keyboard to hold while she looks at her accounts.
Do even less. Everyone knows I love Mint to track spending, and I encourage people to do as little as possible in there to make life easy. But guess what…just signing up for Mint helps. If a step is overwhelming, break it down into smaller pieces until you think, “Oh, I could do that, no problem!”
Observe. If your partner does all of the bill-paying and handles joint expenses, just sit there and watch what s/he does. Take an interest and observe, then take on one small piece when you feel ready.
Journal. What are all of the things you wished you were doing with your money? Make a list, and then start identifying the steps under each thing you wished for. Eventually, you will have tons of baby steps that will identify the path for you. Highlight the steps and see which scare you and which feel okay.
Just Log In. So many people are confused about investments. Just make it a practice to log into your 401k and look around and get comfortable. I guarantee you, just by being around it more, you’ll define a direction that interests you!
The key to doing exposure therapy is to go at a reasonable pace, in order to keep progressing but not feel overwhelmed. And the steps aren’t going to be completely anxiety-free…but also shouldn’t be so difficult that you’re tempted to escape. The most important thing is to keep engaged and don’t avoid.
When I adopted my kitties from the shelter, Noki had a rougher adjustment than Yummy. Noki had been abandoned and fended for herself before getting picked up by animal control. When I brought her home from the shelter, she immediately ran under the bed. My (visiting) mom got down there with her and tried to somehow convince her that everything was okay—but of course, that didn’t work because Noki needed to be able to control her own situation.
So I let her. I pretty much ignored her, and kept food, water and litter close by. Every time she would venture out and I noticed her (and she noticed me noticing her) she ran back under the bed. With every step in progress, I moved the food further away from the bedroom, until two weeks later, she finally came all the way to the kitchen for meals. Once she felt like she could handle the static environment, she started to take an interest in me too!
The path to physical contact took a bit longer, but just the other day I was smiling to myself at how far she has come in 3 years when she meowed at me, demanding to be picked up and snuggled.
The point is, no one can tell you how quickly or how slowly you need to go, only you know what is a challenge to your anxiety and what progress looks like. If we had left Noki’s progress up to my mom and her idea of how Noki should be acting, Noki might have hidden out under the bed even longer.
Actions This Week
- Assess anxiety. Do you have money anxiety? Does someone you love experience it? You might even want to break it down—you might not have bill-pay anxiety, but maybe you have issues with investments.
- Define your next step. What would be progress with your current phobia? Keep the steps small and manageable.
- Who needs to back off? Just like my kitty Noki made it clear to my mom that she was going to progress at her own pace, who do you need to stop pressuring you? Help them understand you’ll make more progress without their expectations.
If you can relate to this, you might like my free ebook, Money Chakra, which starts to help people understand how their attitudes and energy affect their money decisions – you can get that here.