What is the hardest thing for most people to address directly in therapy? And that also happens to be a source of significant stress for the majority of Americans? Is it sexual issues, feelings of isolation, or aggressive impulses, perhaps?
No. It’s money – or more specifically, the emotional and compulsive ways we manage our spending.
At school, students learn penmanship, reading skills, how to use a library, and even (at a good school) how to play tennis. But how many of us learned – in school or anywhere else – the skills needed to successfully and wisely manage our spending?
Read on to learn how to gain mastery with this easily overwhelming topic.
Having not learned good money management principles in childhood, many of us enter adulthood without a sound set of “anchor” practices for our finances. Instead, we have been saturated with media messages that promote all the wrong impulses:
- Buy on credit!
- No money down!
- No payments for 6 months!
- You want it, you need it, you MUST get it, while it’s ON SALE!”
Good money management can be learned
It does not have to be this way. Just as good penmanship or a good tennis serve can be learned, so can good stewardship of money. The yield is powerful: reduced stress, peace of mind about your own and your family’s future, and confidence in building a life that is purposeful and brings about a deep sense of fulfillment.
We can look at this in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Only after basic life needs are met can a person attend to higher-level creative and spiritual goals. And so, learning sound money management skills is part of (not in opposition to) a deeply authentic, fulfilling and spiritually infused life.
What does it look like to skillfully manage a normal income?
Many people who are caught in a life-long web of debt or living “paycheck-to-paycheck” have a hard time imagining what it would even look like for someone like them to have a stress-free and skillful handle on finances. They’ve never seen it, not with their parents and likely not with anyone in their circle of friends. After all, debt (and the stress that comes with chronic debt) is normal today.
So here’s what it looks like to be skillful with a household budget: at the end of each month, you know exactly how much you have earned. You map out a plan with this money so that every dollar is given a job. Your earnings adopt a job in one of 5 areas:
- predictable monthly expenses (rent, groceries)
- anticipated, but less frequent expenses (car insurance, christmas gifts, annual charity contributions)
- unpredictable but possibly large expenses (car repairs, medical emergencies)
- long-term savings for planned expenses beyond one year (the next car purchase, kids’ colleges, retirement)
- Paying off any current debt (mortgage, loans, old credit card balance).
Looking ahead, and saving, for expenses past one month is the key
By allocating a little bit of money regularly to expenses that don’t come around monthly, a savings buffer gets built up over time. Then, when an annual bill arrives, it’s possible to simply write a check and send it out, knowing that the money has been allocated and is “waiting to be spent”. Nothing has to get purchased on credit, and old debts wither away until you are debt-free and on your way to building funds for future goals.
Also, by writing out the amounts you plan to spend in the upcoming month in various categories, you commit yourself to honoring the five divisions of money above. You wouldn’t go on a picnic and eat more than your share, leaving nothing for the person next to you. It wouldn’t be thoughtful. Similarly, to be thoughtful with your earned money means to only spend this month what is allocated for this month’s expenses, not “eating into” the share that is allocated for next month’s, next quarter’s or a future year’s expenses.
Forgetting to set aside for the future: a reliable way to create stress
The mistake many people make is to budget only for items in the first area above (predictable monthly expenses). Then, when a periodic large bill comes around, there’s no money set aside to pay for it. At this point, the credit card comes out, and that Christmas gift or that annual gym membership fee gets piled onto the debt which always looms in the background.
A second mistake is not to budget for unpredictable expenses – the emergency vet bill or car repair, for example. Again, the card comes out, and the debt piles up. And the chronic sense of overwhelm, stress and fatigue grows.
Be willing to learn new habits – for your sake and your family’s
If you don’t reliably budget the way I’ve described, or if you see yourself in the description in the previous paragraphs, don’t lose heart. These skills are learnable. If you are willing to drop the habits that aren’t working for you, and to learn new, proven-to-work habits, you can make a huge shift from stress to peace of mind.
I invite you to use two wonderful resources for further help: “The Total Money Makeover”, by Dave Ramsey, and “You Need A Budget”, budgeting software available (at a special 10% discount for my readers) at www.ynab.com . You can also reach out to me for additional guidance. You can schedule an initial appointment by calling 215-240-1449 or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.