Struggling With Financial Anxiety? These 5 Expert Strategies Can Help

The key is finding the sources of your anxiety and dragging them into the daylight.

by Aaron Stern
Husband and wife looking  over finances on laptop at kitchen table
Getty Images/shapecharge

There’s no shortage of sources for anxiety these days, but one of the most reliable causes of uneasiness in adult life has always been finances. Sure, we all worry about having enough money to pay for certain things, but for many, financial anxiety is a nebulous stressor that’s been present for as long as they’ve been thinking about money, let alone managing it.

That’s because it stems from how we were raised to think and talk (or not) about money, says Megan McCoy, the director of the Kansas State University’s personal financial planning master’s degree program and a board member of the Financial Therapy Association, an organization that promotes emotional and behavioral wellbeing around finances.

So how can you manage financial anxiety? The answer goes beyond simple budgeting tips and tricks and has more to do with addressing the root causes of these complex emotions about money. Here’s what to know.

What Is Financial Anxiety?

Financial anxiety is an ambiguous sense, unrelated to any tangible or quantifiable factors, that your wellbeing is in jeopardy due to financial reasons, says McCoy. It can also manifest as a generalized worry and irritability about money. Financial anxiety is different than financial stress, however, as that is the feeling that you don’t have enough money for something specific.

Often, financial anxiety stems from your parents’ relationship with money. “If they were really stressed about money, you’re more likely to inherit that same fear or anxiety that you saw manifest in them,” says McCoy.

Likewise, children who grow up in families where money wasn’t discussed can lead to money management being a general mystery and source of unfounded worry. Children who grew up with financial hardship, McCoy notes, may also feel ambiguously anxious about money as adults.

As an adult, avoiding finances is both a cause and manifestation of financial anxiety because if you really don’t know what you’re spending, your financial health is a big unknown. In turn, this can make you avoid looking at your accounts. From a mental health standpoint, any general anxiety disorder can bleed over into financial anxiety. The never-ending salvo of geopolitical, health, and economic crises we’re facing can also make existential dread feel quite valid, whether it’s related to money or anything else.

5 Strategies to Help You Overcome Financial Anxiety

So how do you beat back your financial anxiety? The key is finding the sources of your anxiety and dragging them into the daylight.Here, per McCoy, are five strategies to help.

1. Make a Money Egg

Reflecting on your earliest memories about money, per McCoy, can help you understand why you might feel anxious about finances. For instance, maybe you have some unresolved stress or unresolved trauma around money. She recommends an exercise called the ‘money egg’, which asks you to write down those memories inside an egg-shaped area, and then ascribe emotions to them. This is a structured way of teasing out those unresolved issues and can help you understand the underlying reasons for your anxiety.

2. Set Aside ‘Worry Time’

We often repress feelings of anxiety, which leads to them continually seeping out, McCoy says. Instead get ahead of your impulses by setting aside a designated hour a day to write down everything that is stressing you out. The rest of the day, whenever you start to think about those fears and anxieties, you can remind yourself that you’re going to deal with that at your ‘worry time.’ This is not the same as setting aside time to look at your finances. Instead, it’s about carving out space to think about the issues surrounding it. For instance, you might realize that you’re less worried about your salary than you are unhappy with your job. “You might find that money is just the object that you have projected other problems onto,” McCoy says.

3. Lean On Your Support Network

It’s important to find someone with whom you can talk about finances in a non-judgmental way. That can be a friend or relative or, if you’re in a relationship, ideally one of those people can be your partner. It’s not always easy for couples to discuss their finances, but McCoy says there is evidence that couples who engage in financial planning together enjoy greater relationship satisfaction. One way to ease into those conversations? Take notes. The simple act of writing can help you stay focused and make you feel more physiologically stable and action oriented at a time where your natural inclination would be to feel insecure.

4. Find a Financial Role Model

Which of your friends is responsible with money, who has that balance of knowing where their money is going but isn’t overly restrictive? Identify that person in your life, pick their brains about how they do what they do if you’re comfortable doing that, and try to emulate their approach. Having someone to go to with concerns or simply ask advice about certain financial topics is crucial to becoming more confident.

5. Do What You Need to Make Looking at Your Finances Fun

As avoiding finances altogether is a symptom of financial anxiety, it helps to do what you can to look forward to a weekly run through of your accounts. Some of McCoy’s suggestions: Find a money management app that gamifies savings and budgeting. Designate a set time every week or every month when you’re going to work on your finances and sit down to do it with a glass of wine, or put some good music on. Rename your savings account to reflect the goal (i.e. change it from ‘Savings Account 1’ to ‘Honda Pilot 2022.’) The idea is to do anything you can to encourage yourself to look at finances and help you stop flying blind.

The purpose of these tactics is to stop avoiding, and be proactive about your finances. The more you can do to identify the reasons for your anxiety, create pathways that ensure you’re paying attention to your finances, and take control of your situation, the less anxiety you’ll likely feel.