Updated: May 17
Worrying about money is one of America’s most popular pastimes even when things are normal. Add a global pandemic, stay-at-home orders, an economic crash, and massive unemployment, and you get a populace levitating from the force of their financial stress.
But there are ways to ease your money woes, aside from the margaritas-and-Netflix-bingeing strategy you’re probably already aware of. I know a thing or two about dealing with financial stress, and there are real, non-avoidant methods for relieving your financial worries, even when your problems seem insurmountable.
So if you’re spending your time chewing your fingernails and checking the couch cushions for loose change, try these strategies to help:
1. Remember That Money Is Meaningless
We’ve talked before about the fact that money does not exist. Money is only valuable because we have all agreed to treat it as valuable. It cannot be eaten, worn, used to build shelter, or even spent outside of the specific places that accept it as legal tender. We have a social agreement that money is valuable, and that’s all that keeps it from becoming worthless paper, metal, and numbers on a digital screen.
Since money is imaginary, it takes on the philosophical, psychological, emotional, and moral meanings that we assign to it. We feel so many kinds of ways about money, allowing it to be everything from a way to show love to an ego-boost to a source of shame. Those meanings are not inherent to money, and the sooner we recognize that money is no more than a single tool in our problem-solving toolbox, the sooner we are able to make financial decisions free of stress and panic.
Of course, this is far easier said than done. For one thing, our society also has its own views on what money means. Society’s views about money are so strong that even a newly arrived alien from another planet would quickly learn that money is far more valuable than its component parts and begin to emulate our emotional reactions to money in an attempt to fit in.
But even if there will never be a clean separation between your money and how you feel about your money, you can remind yourself that money is inherently meaningless when you’re feeling financially panicked.
That may seem like an unhelpful reminder, since meaningless money will still need to change hands when the rent comes due and you’ve got nothing more than meaningless pocket lint with which to pay that rent. But the reminder that money doesn’t have inherent meaning can help you with the second step:
2. Expand Your Solutions
When it comes to solving problems, money makes for an extremely convenient and easy solution. If you have money, it can smooth over and fix whatever issue needs to be solved. But just because money is a convenient tool people use to solve problems (particularly financial problems), that doesn’t make it the only one. There are other ways to solve problems.
You commonly see this advice among frugality experts who tout the money-saving benefits of learning how to DIY any number of things. And learning how to take care of things you would otherwise have to pay for is certainly one way of expanding your solutions so that you have more tools than just money. However, doing this can also be about identifying other approaches than simply DIY.
Expanding your solutions often means recognizing what is meaningful for another party--and this can help you find a path forward.
For instance, let’s say you can no longer pay your debts. You may feel overwhelmed and ashamed and avoid contacting your creditors. You are attaching emotional meanings to money and your current problem, which is doing nothing to resolve things.
But what if you started thinking about what is most meaningful to your creditors instead of focusing on the emotional meaning you have assigned to your predicament. Thinking about what your creditors want most (other than you to repay your debts) will help you recognize that they ultimately just want to know what to expect.
This is why debt counselors recommend alerting your creditors to the fact that you can’t pay and asking for a way to work with them. Creditors want to avoid going into collections since it will cost them time and money, and they would generally rather work with you to restructure your payment schedule so they can know what they will be paid and when. Recognizing what the creditors most want—to know what to expect about their payments—can help you find a solution that works.
But what if you’re facing a problem that seems insurmountable? For example, many unemployed individuals are finding that the state systems are so overloaded that they cannot get through to make a claim. Even if they can make a claim, it may take 15 to 20 weeks to process it, as a friend mentioned is happening with her unemployment claim. This is the sort of bang-your-head-against-the-wall issue that makes modern living feel like a Kafka novel. Other than trying again and again to connect with the unemployment office, what can one do to solve such a problem?
This is where it’s again helpful to remember that money is meaningless, because then you can identify what is meaningful to those who have the power to solve (or at least alleviate) this problem. Specifically, your representatives in government have some power to force movement in the unacceptable backup in unemployment programs. And what do your representatives find meaningful? Having a satisfied (or at least quiet) electorate and maintaining their reputation.
So an expanded solution to the unemployment problem is to call your representatives every. single. time. you are unable to get through to the unemployment office. Being a consistent thorn in their side (and encouraging others in the same position to make similar calls) can get your representatives to use their power to improve the situation.
In addition, remember that getting the media involved will get any politician’s attention. Whether you write a letter to the editor of your local paper or appear on a news segment, you can very publicly ask what your rep will do to make sure the unemployment office can meet everyone’s urgent needs.
3. Think of Money Like Tetris
When it comes to trying to allocate a scarce resource in the most efficient way possible, I have found that treating money like Tetris is a really helpful metaphor. Thinking of your income and financial obligations as a kind of money Tetris makes it possible to think only of the shape of your monthly finances and derive a kind of satisfaction from making everything fit. It allows you to gamify bill-paying, rather than hang your emotional reactions on it.
Like Tetris, allocating money efficiently to all of your financial obligations is a never-ending task. In traditional Tetris, there is no end-point where you have won the game and the blocks stop falling. Similarly, your bills will never stop coming. In both cases, it’s up to you to work within your current framework to deal with the blocks and bills that continue to come while also navigating the blocks and bills already cluttering up the “game.”
And like Tetris, it’s important to recognize when you’re pinning your hopes on something outside of your control. We’ve all tried to create a four-row block with just a single missing line in the hopes that an I block will magically appear to allow you to complete four rows at once. (Fun fact: this move is actually called Tetris!) More often than not, you wait in vain, watching the game get more and more cluttered as the non-I blocks keep falling, until you have to make a less-perfect fit just to keep things moving.
I had the financial version of this happen to me last year. I received a payout from a lawsuit at about the same time that I owed a large payment. While I had enough money in my Vanguard taxable investment account to cover the payment, I wanted to use the lawsuit settlement money to make it, since withdrawing the money from Vanguard meant losing out on growth until I was able to replace it. (Remember when our investments grew? Good times…)
What I didn’t realize was how long the settlement would take to arrive. The defendant waited until the deadline to send the check to my lawyer, who had to put the money in the law office’s escrow account before cutting a check, which was then sent via certified mail but still mis-delivered, and when I finally got the check in my hot little hands, my bank put a hold on the money for a week.
While I was waiting for my I-block (the settlement) to make my one large payment, other financial obligations were piling up. Finally, I realized that I needed to access my money in Vanguard, rather than continue to wait for the “perfect” piece. Using the money from Vanguard was a little messy, but it caused less mess to accept that imperfect solution than wait around for the perfect one.
Looking at your finances like a Tetris game that you can strategize gives you some emotional distance and may spark an intrinsic enjoyment of the process—both of which can do a lot to relieve your financial stress. It certainly helped me contextualize accessing my Vanguard money, which I had been so loath to do.
Stress Is Unsustainable
Our stress reactions are supposed to be quick bursts to help us deal with immediate dangers. But we so often live with long-term financial stress (not to mention the collective trauma we’re all living through at the moment).
While there’s very little we can do about the stress of Coronavirus uncertainty and all that has come with it, you can relieve your money stress. It’s a matter of changing the way you think about money, problem solving, and of course, Russian puzzle-games.
Note from Emily:
Things are chaotic right now. People are losing jobs or learning to work from home, kids are schooling online, and money is tight for a lot of families.
I want to help. Book a free 15-minute call with me and we’ll create a plan for how you can weather this difficult time. I can guide you through getting your financials in order, creating a plan for your stimulus check or just help you prioritize your bills.
Simple, easy, no catch, no push to hire me for more. I just want to help you be as financially secure as possible through all of this. Find a time and book your call here.