Your heart starts racing when a credit card rep calls about a payment you accidently missed, and then you turn on the news to see the stock market plummeting 10%, so you log into your 401(k) account in a panic as you berate yourself for not saving more and then wonder whether to sell your stocks to stop the bleeding, which reminds you of John from accounting who told you weeks ago to buy bitcoin, which is, of course, up 5,000%, and you just know he’s going to gleefully boast about it at work tomorrow, and since his son plays with your son on the same soccer team, you suddenly remember that you need to spend another freaking $100 on new cleats, along with league registration fees, but you’re tired of buying all this sports equipment because you don’t even know where to store it, which is one of the reasons why your partner wants to move into a larger home in that one neighborhood everyone wants to live in, except you worry it’s too expensive, but now you realize, after several tense arguments, you may have to surrender, though what you really would rather do is just run away and live in an apartment by yourself curled up under a warm, safe weighted blanket.
Any of it sound familiar?
There are certain financial situations when feeling anxious is a rational response: loss of a job, stock market crash, high unexpected expense.
This article is not about those. In a time of elevated financial FOMO (fear of missing out), many people may suffer from self-induced financial anxiety.
We are anxious creatures. Some psychologists suggest anxiety is a by-product of our transition from hunter-gatherers to sedentary citizens. After the agricultural revolution, we started to spend much more time thinking and worrying about the future. The problem is that we often worry more than necessary, our thoughts high-jacked by innumerable possibilities that never come to pass or undesirable situations that are never as bad as we feared.
Seemingly, nothing makes us more anxious than money.
Money-related issues are the death knell of love. Heck, some of us fear running out of money more than death itself. And it doesn’t matter if you’re rich. According to a Northwestern Mutual study, 85% of Americans reported feeling financial anxiety, spanning all levels of income, race and gender — and that’s before the pandemic.
Financial anxiety is unavoidable. We suffer because we want. Anything you want to achieve in the future is going to cause some friction in the present. But that doesn’t mean you should carry more than necessary.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I like to meditate on an old Buddhist Zen story.
A Heavy Load
Two traveling monks enter a town and encounter a young noble woman who is waiting to step off from her sedan chair. The rains had turned the street into a giant mud puddle. She stands there with arms on her hips and scolds her servants. They also hold packages for her, so they cannot help her down and across the puddle to keep her dress from getting dirty.
The younger monk notices the woman but dismissively passes by. The older monk, however, lifts her onto his back and carries her through the muddy water. After he sets her down, she shoves him aside and walks away without acknowledging his help.
The monks proceed on their journey, though the younger monk has become noticeably sullen and irritable. No longer able to conceal his contempt, he says: “The woman in town was selfish and rude. Yet you carried her on your back. Then, she didn’t even thank you!”
“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replies. “Why are you still carrying her?”
What are you still carrying?
The story encourages you to focus your energy on the present rather than the emotions of the past or future, to put down what is not there.
It is worth asking yourself, what financial anxiety are you carrying? Is it regret from past mistakes? Is it the heavy weight of worry about your long-term financial goals? Are you worrying too much about the market or the latest financial media hype?
One way I try to stay emotionally grounded about money is to do a little thought experiment based on this story. It may sound silly, but I focus on the cause of my anxiety and then imagine it as a physical object resting on my back. I try to fully visualize its shape and weight in proportion to the anxiety it induces. I ask myself, can I stand with this weight on my back? Can I walk? Do I have a choice in carrying it? If I do, is it worth carrying?
Some of the things I’ve come to tell myself is to:
Put down the weight of the notion that it’s all about you. If you get lost in your own desires (wealth, retirement, success), life around you becomes undesirable. Better to appreciate what you have now, which you once desired.
Put down the weight of guilt from enjoying your money. Extreme financial chastity in spending and saving can mean the loss of your identity. It is not worth beating yourself up over every misspent dollar. Like a bodybuilder, to stress over every calorie consumed and every single rep is its own mental workout.
Put down the weight of permanence. Nothing is permanent. What good times and bad times have in common is that they end. Work hard to create opportunities for success, but don’t worry too much about the outcome. The ride is much more fun that way.
As a Zen master once said, “It is not the wind nor the flag that moves, it is the mind that moves.”