Debt: When You’re Too Deep in Your Feelings

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To pull some lines from our post today, “Although money is not emotional, my attachment to spending was.” If you’re in debt, you’ve probably got some fairly deep feelings about it. Even if you’re not in debt, the emotions you have around money and spending could be leading you there.

If open conversations about money were never part of your life, it might be time to get to know your feelings and see if they’re working for or against your money goals. Or, maybe money was talked about too much and you’ve developed some trauma around money, causing you to act in ways that may not serve your best interests.

Be open and honest with yourself, delve into those feelings, and get clear on if your emotions are helping or hindering your long-term goals!

-Regina, WPF Editor

It All Started With A Tweet

Like any millennial my age, I’m a very avid Twitter user and occasionally respond to many tweets. I frequently find myself following other entrepreneurs and career coaches on Twitter. While I can admire them from afar, I often ask myself how I can become like them. 

You’ve heard the dream: “quit your 9-5, so you can work for yourself and make six figures.” Like many, I’d found this to be a challenge. But this didn’t even touch what was brewing in me emotionally, and it wasn’t until I saw a tweet that kept me restless for the following week. Before I knew it, I had to admit it: I had financial stress.

Another entrepreneur I followed for a few months shared that she had just finished paying off her student loans. At first glance, this doesn’t seem totally out of the ordinary, but it created an image in my head that I could not shake. How could this multi-degreed professional and entrepreneur who was always buying herself luxury bags and shoes, who owned a luxury vehicle only NOW be paying off her student loans? But of course, even though all those things were true, she had a family to feed, a thriving business, and other salaries to pay. As I would eventually learn- sometimes it’s better to pay those loans in installments and put some money away for retirement instead.

Then I started thinking… Why am I worried about a different person’s financial situation? I had buried my feelings for long enough and almost to the point of emotional numbness: I had to deal with my debt. 

After years of being underpaid but optimistic about getting a higher-paying job soon, I’d allowed myself to spend a bit more than I should have. Before I knew it… my debt ballooned to a whopping $20k in consumer debt. And for what? Some extra meals and trips to keep up with my partner who made more than twice as much as I had? He wasn’t in a bind… I was.

The healthier response to what had happened to me should have been to talk to a therapist and work out why I felt the need to buy things all the time. Maybe even finding a certified financial coach who could help me strategize and learn more about my situation would have been in order. That, unfortunately, was not my first step. At the time, I thought: well, I’m already in the hole; why should I dig myself deeper going to a therapist or coach that wasn’t covered with my insurance? No point.

I fought with these thoughts for a week. I consider myself a generally open person, but I couldn’t stand to admit to my boyfriend how broke I was and how insignificant I felt. I was paralyzed by the idea that my parents had worked so hard to ensure I wouldn’t have student loans, only for me to blow my own money. I knew if I had ever given my mother even a hint that I was in trouble that she would insist on having me live at home– I couldn’t have that. I cherished that freedom way too much, and I’m confident my other relationships would have suffered because of it. 

I felt an impending doom that I’d be setting up for a more significant road of travel if I didn’t get this inline. My financial goals towards pursuing a Master’s degree, going on my dream vacation, buying one of my dream luxury bags, and eventually purchasing a home and getting married…the weight on me because of my credit card debt made them begin to feel impossible.

What was my next move after a few restless nights? I confided in an internet stranger. Yes, you read that right. Another person I followed, for whatever reason, bared the weight slowly and surely as I’d continued to open up about this doom I felt. 

She had regularly posted about her financial wins and her adversities. A few friendly conversations we’d had in the past made me feel like I could tell her this. I hadn’t even told my best friend of 7 years what I confided to this stranger about. It would honestly take until after I crawled myself out of debt to tell my best friend, my sisters– even my boyfriend.

Looking Inwards

From a young age, money topics were mildly taboo in my house. I lived in a household where two money philosophies clashed. I had a father who penny-pinched and didn’t have a good work-life balance. I had a mother who was always upset about the lack of family time and believed that spending a little more money could improve our quality of life. 

Our family would have been considered upper-middle class. Still, I never felt it because of the penny pinching and how my peers always seemed to be keeping up with the Joneses more than my family was. We were privileged and gifted in many ways, but a teenage “Kay” became resentful of that. Some of what I felt I missed out on morphed into prioritizing everything that I could not do as a kid: going to Disneyworld, buying clothes and makeup that I thought would elevate me, etc.

When I began looking through the many, MANY credit card statements over the years that I could recall, I found myself seeing this same pattern. The trips, the clothes, the makeup– it was a stronger pattern than I had thought. I had always thought I had money, so I hadn’t put much more thought into it. When you don’t have money, you begin to think about it… constantly. Reviewing my credit history had me finally asking myself if my spending had always been this way? And I think the answer was just ‘yes.’ I just happened to inhibit it for just a bit longer.

It was time to whip out a book and get inspired. While I by no means considered myself a minimalist, I had a friend who had recommended the book “The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store” by Cait Flanders. That was JUST the book I was I needed to read at the time. 

I was so emotionally stunted by the financial stress that if I could not process it by working with a therapist, I needed to hear how another person’s journey went instead. And no amount of horror story videos from Dave Ramsey would make me feel better about my situation. It was not healthy to laugh at their pain when I had similar pain in my world. Hearing how Cait dealt with her shopping addiction and began looking at her life made me realize she presented a good way to approach my own debt freedom.

The book inspired me to start thinking about what I was overspending on. Sure, it was easy to begin with going cold turkey– cooking all of my meals at home, budgeting to the penny, unsubscribing to a million items. But there was one thing in the way: my concern about my quality of life. 

I was making under the average median income for the big city I lived in. I had a remote drive, so I rarely drove, and, considering I split rent with my partner, I couldn’t really cut down on rent. And the only subscriptions I was paying for were an HBO account and an Amazon Prime account. 

Then it dawned on me… my Amazon account.

I think I resonated so much with Cait’s book because it made me realize that I would often stress about not having something in the house that I would then purchase on Amazon… only to realize later that I had a few of those things already in some other part of the house. It happened frequently. And frankly, my desire to ensure that abundance put me in this debt. 

After a penny-pinching father who made me feel like I didn’t have enough, when I could finally purchase things for myself– I overcompensated by over-purchasing. This was a bad habit and deeply hidden financial stress I had already had but didn’t uncover until it was too late. It was time to go on a no-spend Amazon cleansing. I would go to the store to make my purchases– and I hated stores, so this was a very tailored way for me to get what I needed without overspending.

Enough Planning!

I consider myself a type-A personality who always feels that they need to plan for any and every possibility. Still, the reality is time can frequently work against you when attacking debt. I had wasted over a year, which is how my debt had ballooned in the first place, so time was of the essence. Reviewing my balances, my statements, and my spending history was important. But ultimately, no number of financial apps and books can do the #1 thing you need to do, which is consistently pay off the debt. I love my apps, but as lovely as they were, the irony was that the ones that were helpful cost even more money I didn’t want to be spending.

I ultimately chose the old fashion way- an excel sheet. It gave me the feeling of control and progress that I had been craving for all that time.

I channeled my itch for spending into seeing how many ways I could gain money to speed up my debt-free date. 

I used my current skills (valued considerably since I am in the Cloud tech space) and found ways to monetize my 9-5. I also took the leap of faith and found time to do more with the community I’d already built online through consulting. 

It was not a lot and not consistent; it took a few sacrifices, a lot of time, a lot of networking, and a few tiny bubble-tea rewards, to keep me going. Although money is not emotional, my attachment to spending was.

During this time of not telling those around me what I was going through, there were times that I wanted to slip. I felt lonely not going to social events. The stress of me worrying about a $100 outing (food, big city drinks, traveling downtown when I lived far) was enough for me to not go. I used my solitude to work on new personal branding strategies, played video games with my partner (who enjoyed them as much as I did), and whenever I had an itch to buy something, I whipped out a notebook to rationalize the purchase.

The stranger I confided in online would a year later become a friend as well as an accountability partner. I loved having a friend who reminded me that a particular item wasn’t worth it. Because as much as you KNOW you don’t need anything, it becomes harder to rationalize a silly purchase when you have to see the judgment from someone else. I had felt a lot of shame in my spending. 

Still, the more I responsibly argued about specific purchases, the less guilt I would feel after making the purchases. Sure, I wasn’t going to feel guilty about buying a soda, but buying a new raincoat when my old one didn’t fit me 100% and wasn’t long enough to use for a long hiking trip made me realize that I should be smarter with my purchases. It was time to focus on the number of wears I could get out of an item- not that just if the item was cheap.

Am I Done Yet?

I was fortunate to finally get that six-figure salary as time progressed. I would save enough on the side to hold me over for the three months during the pandemic that I was unemployed. And I would find another six-figure job. It gave me the nerve to finally use my current skills to do part-time work and monetize a small community of career folks who wanted to go in the same line of work that I did. 

I am pleased to report that while I can gleefully feel resolved in conquering that debt, I’m now more comfortable making choices to ensure I’m not in debt again. 

I’ve made several moves to ensure that I stay on track to meet my financial goals. I’ve been able to take advantage of a student trial to YNAB that I use to better handle my budget. I pay my credit card in full, and I send half of my paycheck to my school savings account that I never touch because it allows me to auto-pay for my tuition in installments. 

I learned that I attached a lot of emotion to meeting these goals, so the more I can make systems work for me, the less I can now worry about making these errors again. After all, it’s much easier to spend than it is to crawl out of debt.

If I have any advice for those trying to manage their financial stress it would be, I encourage you to get started by taking care of yourself first. 

Take a walk (it’s free)! If you can make it happen, put yourself in an environment that will not cause any additional stressors in your life. Light a candle, put some peaceful music on, grab a light snack and spend an evening getting to know where you are currently. 

If that’s too much, get inspired! Join a financial community online that you may relate to (I gravitate towards black women’s and women’s finance groups in general). You can even go by an alias and start communicating with others online. 

You’re not alone in this journey. Whether it’s online or finding expert help (a financial therapist, a general therapist, a financial coach, or an advisor), I hope you’ll find what you need to reach your goals!

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