These are challenging, stressful times, and some concrete strategies to reduce stress around finances can be helpful for us all.
We are on a debt-free journey, sure, but sometimes I find myself wanting more. I want to budget a little money over here for a new dining set, a little over there for reasonably priced flooring to replace the dingy carpet, a savings account for a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon trip to Morocco, this list goes on, because I feel like I deserve it. I worked so hard, we’ve been so good with money the past few months, the wedding planning is over, we are free! Haha, not yet. Our finances need some work.
This journey is a long one that requires grit and sacrifice. At the rate we are going, we will be able to maybe pay off our student loans in 3-4 years, and pay off our mortgage in 6 years. This might sound okay to some of you, but Mark and I are older for folks at the beginning of their careers. I am in my late twenties and he is in his early thirties. Our goals also include starting a family, getting a savings account going, and catching up on our retirement savings. Thinking about trying to get all of these things done in addition to paying off debt makes me feel defeated. It makes me feel like being debt-free and giving my family everything they want is a pipe dream.
It feels sometimes like I must postpone my “happiness” indefinitely. Adding to the frustration is that the reason we are here is because we are in school for higher degrees to be able to build wealth. Mark is still working on his Master’s degree in Computer Science, and I still have 6 more years in this MD-PhD program. I won’t be making peak income for at least another 12 years! The bright side is that we aren’t taking on any student loans at the moment, and we are just working on paying off past loans. That is such a blessing. And in times like these, I need an attitude of gratitude.
As Mark reminded me today, we really do have everything we need. We can afford to eat healthy food, we have a home, we have decent income and we are working hard to put all of that money towards achieving our financial goals instead of buying things we don’t really need. It’s less stressful to focus on making goal-congruent decisions on a day-by-day basis instead of freaking out about all of the things we need to get done over the coming years.
Here are three concrete ways you and I can reduce stress around our finances:
1. Create concrete goals for your finances- this month, this year, and this decade
Sometimes, when we make goals, we decide that it is okay to have a general idea of what we want to accomplish and write those down. Take for example, “losing weight” as a New Year’s Resolution. The whole concept of “losing weight” is abstract, and abstractness does not play well into our daily lives. It sounds great, but until we can bring that abstract idea back down to earth and make practical and realistic goals with a deadline, we can a.) end up not getting around to it, or b.) getting so stressed out about the idea of it that it haunts us everyday and keeps us awake at night.
Not getting around to it implies that there are other life priorities that are taking precedence over that particular goal, which is fine if we are honest about it. However, being stressed out about that goal implies that it is really important to us but we haven’t decided how to make it work in our daily lives.
The only way to address this anxiety is to actually sit down and make SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound. So, when it comes to big abstract ideas like “losing weight” or “taking control of my finances”, let’s reduce the anxiety by deciding what those ideas actually mean to us. For Mark and I, we had to sit down and write down all of our specific short-term and long-term goals around our finances in order to define all of the practical steps it would take for us to get there. It might even be easier to have separate SMART goals for each type of debt or savings goal that you want to achieve. This will help transform that dark cloud of anxiety into little bite-sized, manageable tasks that you can achieve easily.
For example, here is our SMART goal to pay off our student loans:
Specific (What is your goal?): Pay off student loans starting with Mark’s student loans, then mine (since mine are in deferment for longer)
Measurable (How will you know that you have achieved your goal?):We will track our progress monthly using Mint.com
Achievable (what ways can you ensure that the goal is met?): We have budgeted $2000 per month toward our Student Loan payments. This is a comfortable amount to contribute based on how much we spend on other items now, on average, not based how much we ideally want to spend every month.
Realistic (how does this work in the context of your everyday life?): Our payments will be automated so that we don’t forget to make these payments even as we get busy with our day-to-day. Additionally, $2000 will not cause us to be strapped for cash for our other major expenses, like our mortgage, or for an emergency if something unexpected should occur.
Time-bound (what deadline do you give yourself to complete this goal?): Our goal is to have all of our student loan debts paid off by January 2022. We could probably get it done earlier, but this is more realistic in case some unexpected emergency should arise and we need to stop making payments for a short time.
2. Figure out what spending categories you can cut and increase your income stream
One concrete way to reduce anxiety around finances is to increase your income and re-evaluate your budget so that you have more money to work with. This may make it easier to save for an emergency and save for retirement while also paying off debt and achieving your other financial goals. You can try for a promotion at work, or switch to a job that has more benefits. If neither of those things are applicable to your life, you can try a “side hustle”.
There are oodles of sites and blogs that discuss different side jobs that can be scaled to full-time entrepreneurial work. For example, I started this blog primarily to create a community around living our best lives on a budget and staying well while we do that. I also wanted this blog to create a passive income stream for my family since I can’t get a promotion or change jobs (graduate stipend) for the next six years.
There is a lot of information around starting and monetizing a blog, which can be a great side income idea if you can put in some solid time to write on a consistent basis. If blogging isn’t your thing, there are many other part-time jobs out there that can help increase your monthly income. Dave Ramsey would suggest even delivering pizzas on the weekend or driving for Uber or Lyft, and you can deliver for Amazon in your free time with Amazon Flex . Just find something that you like doing, that works with your schedule.
In terms of budgeting, we have used Mint.com for a couple of years now and generally find it useful. It is completely free and links to your different accounts so that you can see all of your money in one place. You can also create a budget within your Mint.com account that can help you see where your money is going and what categories you spent more or less than you budgeted. I have been able to pick up on recurring payments on subscriptions that we no longer need and notice trends in spending over time. This has helped us to find areas in our spending that we can cut to have more money available for debt payments and savings.
Creating a budget doesn’t have to be restricting, and does not necessarily have to be in place so you can militarily dictate where your money should go every month. I think it is, at its basis a tool for us to see where our money is going every month, and if that spending is in line with our financial goals in general. Creating a budget is a great starting point for taking control of your finances. There are many other tools out there to use besides Mint.com for that as well which you can find by a simple google search.
3. Write down all of the things you are grateful for
I know I can get carried away feeling bad that we can’t build wealth right away, and go on vacations all of the time, and eat out with our friends like we want to because of our student loan debt. Looking at instagram, which can be dangerous, it seems like some women have no cares and a ton of money to spend on fancy cars, fancy purses, fake eyelashes, expensive outfits, and a professional photographer to capture their fabulous lives.
So, yeah, I don’t know about you, but the jealousy bug has got me. When we are feeling the urge to compare, it can be super beneficial to just put the phone away and just be present in your own fabulous life. Our lives may not be Instagram perfect, but instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we should spend more time focusing on what we do have.
Spend more time talking on the phone with your sister or a good friend, or being present in the midst of your mess with your spouse. Social media and comparison can be a joy-stealer, because not only does it make us feel unworthy sometimes, it also steals time away from us that we can be spending pouring into the people we love, being present and investing in ourselves, spiritually and intellectually.
I find it helpful to reflect on what I do have, and sometimes I just need a reality check from my husband. It might feel like we are struggling, but every time we say grace over dinner, I am reminded of how much we take for granted not having to worry about where we will get our next meal. It makes me feel petty for wanting fancy materialistic things that don’t even matter at the end of the day, and don’t add contentment or fulfillment to our lives.
Contentment is a heart issue. If we don’t address that insecurity in our hearts, no amount of possessions is going to make us feel like we made it. So yes, if it helps, keep a gratitude journal and write in it or refer back to it when you feel like your life is a mess and/or keep track of God’s faithfulness in your life through prayer journaling. You don’t have to wait to have it all together or be “perfect” to be worthy and deserving of happiness right now.
So while our lives aren’t Instagram-fabulous, we have a home to live in, we have food to eat, we have family and friends who love us and we have opportunities available here in America to make our lives better that are hard to find in many other countries. Even the poorest of us Americans are much better off than most of the people in the world. We are privileged. So the question is, what are you and I doing about it? Even the little that we do have leftover after all of the bills are paid can go to someone in need.
I wrote earlier about being thankful for having food to eat, and so one of our priorities this year is to donate our time and our money to our church that takes care of our community and to our local food pantry. The only thing separating many people who are food-insecure and who access food pantries is one big unforeseen life event, like a loss of income or disability. Recognizing that helps me to have compassion for those people and to give what I can, because that could be me one day.
Choosing an organization to give to, volunteering or simply being hospitable to a friend that is having a hard time are good ways to find meaning in your financial struggle. It takes the focus off of ourselves and our own hardships and sacrifices and moves our focus to others, instead.
So, there you have it. Three ways that have helped me bring my financial anxiety down are to have concrete financial goals, create a budget and optimize income stream and to practice gratitude. I hope these tips have been helpful to you! Share in the comments section what you do to manage your financial anxiety.