Why do so many people have money anxiety?
5 reasons you might not have considered.

written by Bari Tessler March 18, 2019
Why do so many people have money anxiety

Recently, a journalist asked me THE question. Again.

Why do so many people have so much anxiety about money?

This is probably THE money question I’m asked the most, by journalists, community members, and most anyone who hears that I’m a Financial Therapist.

So … why is that? And more importantly: what can we do about it?

First of all: deep breath.

If you’re experiencing anxiety around money — when you sit down to pay the bills or any other time — start with gentleness and compassion.

Anxiety can make everything feel like an emergency. But before moving into action, slow down and show yourself some compassion. Take another deep breath.

There will be time for problem-solving mode. And I’ll share my #1 tool for grappling with money anxiety (or any other challenging emotion) at the end of this article. But first, let’s consider: why do so many people struggle with money anxiety?

Here are five reasons you might not have considered.

1. Financial Literacy: nobody taught us how to deal with money.

How many fond childhood memories do you have of adults patiently, gently teaching you about money? Did anyone give you kind, loving lessons on how to spend, save, earn, invest, and give?

For years, I’ve asked students and community members: “how many of you received a financial education, in age-appropriate increments, from grade school on up?” And it is shocking: almost nobody raises their hand. And even those who did learn some money lessons from their parents rarely received a full picture of financial literacy: many pieces were missing.

Would you beat up on yourself for not magically knowing how to do calculus on your own — even if you were never taught how to do basic arithmetic, then algebra, and so on, over the years? I don’t think so! But this is exactly what most people do, with money.

So we arrive at adulthood and at some point realize how very little we know about money. And not knowing what you need to know, to survive in this world — this creates anxiety.

Even worse, most of us yell at ourselves that we should somehow already know all of this. (As if anybody could know something this complex, without being taught!)

It falls upon us to give ourselves the financial education we never received. This can feel urgent — like we have so much to catch up on, and it needs to happen now. But this urgency can add to our stress, making it even harder to learn.

Remember: it isn’t your fault that you don’t already know what you need to know about money. And it often isn’t even your parents’ fault for not teaching you more: many of them never received a financial education, or only had parts and pieces, themselves.

So be gentle with yourself. Learn at your own pace. Really take things in baby steps. Find the best teachers you can, and don’t let anyone shame you for what you don’t know — especially yourself.

2. Emotional Literacy: Nobody taught us how to deal with our emotions.

What do you do when you feel angry? Do you yell into a pillow? Do you clench your jaw and shove your feelings down, so they can’t be inappropriate in public?

OR do you know how to pull up an ottoman next to your emotions, greet them with a smile, and sit beside them sipping tea until they open up and tell you what’s really going on and why and what they’d like you to do about it?

Emotions can be overwhelming and unruly and challenging to navigate. But just like money, most of us weren’t taught how to deal with this area of life, in age-appropriate increments, from childhood on up.

So when emotions arise around money — and let me tell you, money is a VERY emotional thing! — we’re left lost and rudderless, with some less-than-enlightened coping strategies.

That’s why learning to work with money isn’t just about learning to work with money. We also have to learn how to navigate our emotions and feelings about it. Financial literacy and emotional literacy go hand-in-hand.

Before we know how to navigate our emotions (which is a process and not an overnight fix, by the way), we might simply feel anxious. We know there are feelings there — but we’re not sure what they are, let alone how to unpack them. We just FEEL. We feel SOMETHING. And maybe it feels like anxiety.

Or maybe we’re not sure WHAT we feel or how overwhelming it’ll be when it fully emerges to the surface — and so we feel anxious about even looking at this area.

Over time, we can recognize, name, and unpack our feelings and emotions. We can learn to work with our anxiety and fear — and its flavors of fight, flight, and freeze. But this is a process.

Again: go gently, here. Make space for your emotions. Anxiety doesn’t mean “turn back now,” but it may mean, “pause, please — I’m feeling a lot and need a moment.”

3. Money is primal.

Food, shelter, clothing. SURVIVAL.

Money lives right down there, at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Most of us need money to survive: we need to exchange services and goods for food and roof.

So when our financial life is threatened in some way, this can send us straight down to the bone: right into primal survival mode.

And it doesn’t take an eviction notice to trigger this. Realizing how much we don’t know about a mortgage or tax situation — or feeling uncertain about an investment strategy — any number of unknowns can trigger this financial-survival instinct. Especially when trauma is afoot.

That’s why I always recommend starting money work with the body. You’ll see my #1 favorite tool for deep money work below, the Body Check-In. I adore somatic practices like this because they regulate our nervous system in a way thinking simply can’t.

So if working with money stuff leads you into primal-survival-anxiety waters, just know: that’s normal and common … there are ways to work with it … and the best I’ve found start with the body.

{Remember: people with high bank accounts and low bank accounts may have money anxiety: it’s not always related to the numbers. People can experience money anxiety when they earn more money, move through a new money ceiling or the month or year or when they get a new high paying client too.}

4. Money is still taboo.

“Bari, I’d rather talk about my SEX life than my MONEY!”

So many clients and community members have told me this — and while most of them laugh as they say it, the truth is, it reveals a major cultural bias.

In our culture, money is more taboo than sex — at least, in a lot of ways.

Think about it: if you’re out to brunch with girlfriends, what’s easier to chat about over a mimosa: a recent bedroom encounter? Or what was on your last bank statement?

While we’ve had cultural movements opening up the conversations about sexuality, death, gender, race and other sensitive issues, we haven’t really had a one about money.

What would a conscious money revolution look like? Well, we might talk openly about our “Money Stories” and how much impact our lineage and upbringing have on our money relationships. We might learn to have Money Dates — and how to talk to sweethearts and colleagues, friends, parents and our children about money.

Certainly, there are pockets of our culture beginning to have these conversations — and I’m amplifying voices as much as possible, in my Money Memoir interview series, where I interview folks from all different economic backgrounds, lineages, and income levels.

But for now, money remains a taboo — a final frontier of a conscious lifestyle. And anything with this much shame and secrecy around it will be challenging to look at directly.

I remember when I first delved into my personal work around intimate relationships: it felt overwhelming, shameful, and embarrassing, too! This happens anytime we begin working with a neglected area of life.

So be patient, as you break through your own ingrained money taboos. Doing deep money work is a rare and courageous thing. You are a trailblazer. Keep going.

5. Money is never just about money.

And if those first four reasons weren’t enough to cause some money anxiety — well, don’t worry. Because when we’re working with money, all sorts of things can trigger anxiety.

That’s because — as I’ve said before and will say again — money is never just about the money.

Money touches on SO many other areas of life! Power. Value and self-worth. Safety and Stability. Spirituality. Enoughness. Connection and intimacy. Family and lineage and legacy and on and on and on.

If you have any anxiety or big feelings about any of those issues (and most of us do, they’re Big Deals), working with your “money stuff” may tug those threads.

That’s why this conscious money work asks us for so much patience and perseverance: it can open one rabbit hole after another. But that’s also why it’s such a powerful portal for personal transformation. Because when you work directly with your money relationship, you create ripple effects into so many areas of your life.

HOWEVAH: it’s not just anxiety.

So many people ask me about money anxiety — but the truth is, that’s just one emotion out of a whole slew and spectrum of things we feel about money!

From grief to anger, shame to pride, trembles to joy to nausea to chartreuse to wintry to bubbly to content and beyond … any emotion or feeling or mood we can feel, we can feel about money.

The point isn’t to get rid of these emotions — even the challenging ones. Our work is to make space for all of our feelings and facets, when it comes to money. To befriend them, and understand them better, so they don’t run the show completely.

The truth is: our emotions won’t ever away. But they can become more manageable and less overwhelming.

Over time, when we allow our emotions — and acknowledge and honor them, we can shift our relationship to them. We learn tools so we can name them and work with them, in the moment. We catch them quicker. We uncover the information they’re bringing us.

And as we do this, we can create a mindful, healthy, savvy, empowered, and confident relationship to money. We feel more whole. And we develop the resilience we need to feel all of our emotions — including anxiety and beyond.

This takes practice, my friend. It’s an ongoing dance: ever-deepening, ever-fine-tuning. But it’s simple to begin.

How to begin: The Body Check-In.

This is the simplest money tool I teach — and the most transformational. Whether you’re brand-new to money work or a veteran financial deep-diver, The Body Check-In is a fast, elegant way to work with money anxiety — or any feeling, when it arises.

Here’s a short, guided meditation to walk you through it. Relax … and enjoy.

Prefer reading? Here’s how to do a Body Check-In:

First, pause. Listen. Turn within. And notice:

  • What sensations do you notice?
  • What emotions can you feel?
  • How are you breathing?
  • What thoughts, images, or memories are passing through your mind?

Simply notice. Be open. Be a compassionate detective. Gather clues. Breathe. Remain curious and compassionate. Keep noticing. That’s it!

Then? Repeat, repeat, repeat. Practice before, during, or after any money encounter: in the checkout line, as you pay bills, when you’re stressed, when you’re talking to your honey.

The Body Check-In is extraordinarily simple — but this is what makes it so profound and powerful.

When you make time to practice the Body Check-In regularly, you’ll get to know yourself and your money story better. You’ll get to know why you’re anxious — and what you can do about it. And you’ll find yourself gradually, gently, practicing your way into deeper confidence and wholeness. With money … and beyond.

From here, you can move on to all the practical parts of your money relationship: bookkeeping systems, vales, cashflow, planning, increasing income, paying down debt, working with a financial support team, and on and on. I love teaching all of these things, and they’re essential.

But the first step is practicing the Body Check-In. Always, always, always.

Because money anxiety can be your reason for not looking at your money relationship … or, if you give yourself the gift of this gentle, compassionate, ever-so-simple tool, money anxiety can be your entryway into a whole new world of wholeness, peace of mind, and empowerment.

Here’s to you — and all your bravery and grace,

Note: there are broader, systemic reasons behind financial anxiety, as well, which are very important to consider. I don’t touch on them here, since my work and this piece focuses on our personal relationship to money: the micro (which includes the individual, couple, family and our work-livelihood), not the macro side. To explore more of the macro side, go here…

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