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Money and Mental Health: From Debt Shame to Financial Self-Care

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What if, instead of seeing dealing with our finances as something we ‘should’ do, like the responsible, grown-up (read: boring) people, we start to see it as a part of self-care?

Many of us find managing money stressful and dull. We ignore it as much as possible and procrastinate on the parts that we can’t avoid. Being ‘good with money’ has an image problem. It’s associated with slick, heartless bankers and dreary, penny-pinching accountants. Some people who consider themselves more creative or generous shy away from the topic of personal finance because of this.

For people who struggle with anxiety or depression, as I have from time to time, difficulty managing money (for emotional or practical reasons) can become a source of shame. Keeping to a budget, saving regularly and staying on top of our admin all feel like things we ‘should’ do, even when we have barely any energy and struggle to focus our thoughts.

‘Shoulds’ become methods of self-punishment, making our mental health worse, and, of course, the shame attaches itself to the existing negative feelings about money and builds further resistance. It doesn’t have to be that way.

We are often told that self-care is essential for improving mental well-being. I’ve personally found it incredibly valuable. There are lots of definitions, but I say self-care is a balance of activities that: (1) bring genuine relaxation, pleasure and joy; or (2) contribute to long-term well-being by removing a source of future stress or misery.

Managing money to make sure you can afford to pay your bills, save for future goals and insure against risks clearly reduces future stress or misery. Once you reframe taking care of your finances as taking care of yourself, instead of being mean or greedy, it’s surprising how much of the resistance to doing so melts away.

When money management is a ‘should’, the motivation to do it is external. It is something you do to live up to someone else’s ideas about proper adult behaviour. When it is reframed as self-care the motivation is very different.

Some examples of financial self-care motivations might be:

  • I deserve a life free from the stress of expensive debt repayments.
  • I deserve to spend my money on myself, instead of wasting it on credit interest, over-priced auto-renewed insurance or an inappropriate phone tariff.
  • Having an emergency fund, aka a ‘life happens’ fund, reduces my anxiety and makes me feel better able to cope.
  • Being on top of my finances builds my self-efficacy and self-esteem, making me more emotionally resilient.
  • It is important to me to have some spare cash to buy treats when I’m down without feeling guilty.

These will be different for each person and taking time to explore yours can be very valuable. Ultimately, money is just a tool and when we don’t know what we want it for, we are not motivated to look after it. When personal finance becomes a part of self-care it can transform our relationship with money, turning a source of shame into a source of comfort and strength.

Martha Lawton is a former financial adviser who has been helping people to achieve financial well-being for over 12 years. Martha hosts the podcast Squanderlust. 

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