Whether you want to blame capitalism, our culture, or an educational system that entirely neglects personal finances, most of us have incredibly toxic relationships with money. Being under quarantine for a fair bit of the year didn’t help. I developed an online shopping habit and patted myself on the back for staying out of stores. But it doesn’t take much for our financial health to take a downward turn.
Of course, many people seem to think they have a great relationship with money — until their income takes a couple of hard knocks. A car breaks down, a medical bill pops up, a family change happens. We blame the change for worsening our financial situation without taking responsibility for planning for life’s ups and downs. In fact, most households are wondering where they’re supposed to find room in the budget to plan for anything happening at all.
This subject is near and dear to my heart because I’ve gone through financial reversals on at least three significant occasions. I’ve been broke, and I’ve lived that paycheck to paycheck life for longer than I ever wanted. Now I tilt toward the other extreme — of having massive anxiety at the slightest change of the wind that might even hint at another downward cycle in my finances. That’s not healthy either.
But having a healthy relationship with our money is like any other relationship — it requires time, energy, practice, intention, and persistence.
We can’t expect to reform our finances in a day. It does take time. We might slowly make shifts toward better financial decisions, but we likely won’t see it immediately pay off. This doesn’t mean we stop putting in the time, but it does mean that we acknowledge that it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme meant to play out fast. Understanding this upfront can help prepare us to be patient.
Making changes to our lifestyle requires energy. Some days, there’s less of this to go around than any of our other resources. Luckily, it’s a renewable one, and we can take the time to rest and address our finances when we have the energy to do it.
To create a healthy relationship with our finances, we need to put in the effort. If we say we want to make a change, we need to follow through. It can start with a list — first, of our priorities. Figuring out what matters most is essential to crafting a budget that adheres to our values. Then, we have to actually begin to put our energy into making changes.
When we want to make our finances healthier, we have to put into practice techniques likely to have this effect. Making savings a regular habit is one way to shift our relationship with money to healthier ground. Whether we’re saving change we find in the couch, putting back a certain percentage of our pay, or simply hanging on to bonuses or gifts to put away for a rainy day, growing a savings is important.
It’s equally important to address our debt. Learning to use debt responsibly and take advantage of its benefits is a life skill worth having. This also requires practice, and it can be easy to get so used to simply charging what we want that we forget there’s another way (see: saving, above).
Once we know our own priorities, we need to live by them. If our intention is to save more and spend less, our behavior needs to reflect that. It means we need to pause and reflect every time we find ourselves hovering over the words “Add to Cart.” We need to be intentional with the choices we make.
Do we actually need that $5 coffee, or would it be better put back into adding up to all the others we decided to make at home because we were saving for a car repair or a vacation or simply an emergency fund? We’ll likely have to set that intention every day until the new way of living becomes a habit.
We’re not going to immediately be financially healthy because we decided to do things differently. We’re going to have days where we fall back into old habits, and we’ll likely make some mistakes. Impulse buys, and the regrets that follow might still happen. But we persist. We keep trying. We persist in the face of a changing economy, and job losses and life are difficult. We find ways to keep the relationship with money healthy even when there’s not a lot of money to go around.
Figuring out we have a toxic relationship with money easy — we stay stressed out about it. Debt gets out of control, or the ends never quite meet. We feel like our dreams for the future just aren’t possible.
But leaving that toxic relationship is hard. Oftentimes, our environment and circumstances have a major impact on the opportunities available. We don’t live in an equitable system. Despite that, there are things we can start to do to develop a healthier relationship with money.
Often, it starts slowly. We make those conscious choices, spending less, and saving more. We get better at telling ourselves “no” when it comes to impulse buys. We become more creative at stretching our budget — not just to meet our needs but to live our dreams. We study other people and listen — but mostly, we just learn by trying and failing and trying again.
We get healthier. It begins to feel more manageable. Slowly, we turn that toxic relationship around. We break up with that old way of being, and we start to fall in love with our lives again.