Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Anxiety calling! Do you pick up?

I was giving a presentation with my colleague, Annette Lieberman, yesterday when she said the most amazing thing:

"The way people manage their anxiety usually reflects how they manage their money, and vice versa."

Can this be true? We often think about how money gets managed, but we don't often think of emotions the same way. Feelings are assumed to be automatic, almost as if they happen to us. Saying that we "manage" an emotion implies that we're somehow responsible for it.

Whether or not you believe we're responsible for creating our own emotional state, the truth is that we are always responsible for how we respond to it.

Anxiety is the herald that demands our attention. It's purpose is to get us to wake up and pay attention to something. If it feels uncomfortable that's because it's supposed to! We need to be motivated to take action to remove those circumstances that make us anxious.

So think about it: when you feel anxious, do you mobilize to address the cause of your anxiety? Or do you withdraw, ruminate, fret, and get depressed? Can you see a parallel with your money? When financial problems arise, how do you respond -- with action or avoidance? 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Are your finances a mess? That's curious.

When it comes to money, most of us have a problem-solution mentality. Got debt? You need a plan to get out of it. No savings? Here's a way to budget your way to a fatter balance. Hate to review your accounts? Try the butt-in-chair method.

The limitation with this approach is that most financial goals involve a significant amount of behavioral change, and slapping that "problem" label on yourself means you are probably going to overlook the very insight and information you need in order to change.

Instead of problem solving, try to cultivate an attitude of benign curiosity about you and your money. I say benign curiosity, because when we first start to simply pay attention to money it can bring up a flood of negative emotions and beliefs. We need to be conscientiously gentle and kind to ourselves, or the practice of self-examination feels overwhelming.

Benign curiosity begins with two important premises:

All financial behavior has meaning.

All financial behavior serves a purpose.

So if, when you start paying attention to money, you notice that you've been making a lot of impulsive purchases, try to step back from the self-recrimination for a moment and remind yourself:

I may feel regret about these purchases now, but at the time there was a reason why I felt I had to buy X. What was I trying to do, change, or fix? In what way did that work? In what way did it not?

Benign curiosity allows you to identify the true cause of the behavior and find positive, affirming ways to meet that need that aren't financially destructive. This way when the moment comes again you A) recognize it, and B) have an alternative response ready.

As someone said in one of my groups last night, "It's easier to change a habit than to eliminate it."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Treating is Fundamental

This morning I gave a talk to the graduating seniors of a prestigious arts college. One of the questions I got asked was how to deal with wanting to treat yourself. "I work so hard," the young man said, "and I feel like I deserve to spend money on something nice for myself once in awhile, even though money is tight."

As far as I'm concerned, you should be spending money on nice things for yourself all the time. I am not the treat police. Completely the opposite, in fact. I feel like meaningful treats** should be part of EVERYONE'S regular spending plan. But treating yourself has little to nothing to do with how hard you work, and everything to do with whether or not you have the money to afford your treat of preference.

When you try to buy yourself a treat that you can't afford just because you "deserve" it, you end up in a mental spiral:

Prosecution: "Do not buy those shoes! You will just go into more debt!"

Defense: "I deserve these shoes! Wait, I NEED these shoes. My other shoes are worn out and scuffed, the heel is broken, and I never have any nice shoes to wear when I have to go out."

Prosecution: "When you have to go out? Really? That's your defense? Maybe you want to try again."

Defense: "Whatever. Work has been making me crazy. I hardly ever buy myself anything. I should get myself something nice once in awhile. Besides -- these are on sale. It would be a waste of money not to buy them!

Prosecution: "Your Honor, the Defense should recuse herself because she is starting to sound insane."

Defense: "Ha! While you were talking to the judge I snuck up to the register and paid for them! Too late!"

And later... the "Defense" is nowhere to be found as you mope about, feeling ashamed that you spent money on shoes that you meant to put toward paying down debt. You're still tired, anxious, and overworked, but now you get to feel guilty and regretful on top of it. How is that a treat?

Buying something on impulse that you can't afford and telling yourself you deserve it is a self-esteem grenade.

A real treat starts with a plan. You think about what would be a meaningful, enjoyable way to spend money on yourself. If it's shoes, great. Or it could be going to the movies, meeting a friend for dinner, or buying fancy bath salts. When you know what it is you want to spend money on, revisit your monthly spending plan. Put said treat item into the plan. If you need to, pare back other expenses that are not as valuable in order be able to afford it. If things are really lean, see if you can identify what it is about your preferred treat that makes it so meaningful, and then try to find a lower-cost alternative (for movies, see if you can set a date with yourself to watch a movie at home with a favorite snack and no interruptions, or for fancy bath salts try mixing your own).

When you consciously and deliberately give yoursef a treat you get to enjoy every part of it: the dreaming, the planning, the selecting, purchasing, and using. Using money as a means of self-care can be an amazingly empowering experience. And THAT can be the real treat!

**For our discussion here, when I say "treat" I specifically mean SPENDING MONEY on something fun, indulgent, or frivolous. I don't just mean doing something nice for yourself.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

National Teacher Appreciation Day

I was always a geeky kid who loved school, so it's no surprise that I can name ten teachers off the top of my head to whom I feel grateful and who I think about with great affection. But hands down, the teacher who had the most significant impact on my life was never my teacher in any particular class, but the teacher who ran our drama and forensics department. She was my mentor, coach, director, and friend.

Kathy Mulay was a perfectionist. And she could be tough. When she cast me in our senior year production of The King and I, I went through a period of rehearsals where I was intimidated to sing in front of the girls playing the King's wives because I thought they had better voices than me. Kathy (Mrs. Mulay then) took me aside and didn't reassure me. She didn't give me a pep talk. She told me that the part was mine and I needed to "get it together." She was the director, she knew what she was doing, and she had given the part to me. It was time to deliver. I remember my blood turning to ice when she dropped this on me. But in the next second I knew I had to deliver. So I delivered.

My decent-but-not-fantastically-exceptional performance as Mrs. Anna aside, the area where Kathy really changed my life was as my forensics coach. Forensics, or competitive public speaking, is not the coolest way to spend Saturday mornings when you're in high school. But for some reason I loved it. I loved to write, edit, and endlessly rehearse my pieces in hopes of winning a trophy. And Kathy would work with me for hours into the evening, choreographing each cross of the room, each hand gesture. Under Kathy's direction I went to the state finals two years in a row, competing my junior year in Informative and senior year in Oratory.

Can you think of a better gift to give someone than the ability to craft and deliver a message that others can understand, and believe? I use these skills every day when I teach classes, lead workshops, and speak at events. I feel so lucky that I can take my passion for helping people bring money into balance and communicate it to as many listeners as I can muster. I never feel nervous in front of a room full of people. I get excited! I know that what I have to say can make lives better, and I don't have to worry about my ability to say it. When I consider that public speaking is one of the most common phobias, I cannot even express my gratitude for what Kathy Mulay has given me. But still I will take this opportunity to say it: Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Mulay.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Princess, Post-Doc, Publisher, Mom?

As the mother of two daughters, I want my girls to have dreams as big as the world. Fighter pilot? Astrophysicist? Go get 'em, girls. And yet one of the things that I love most about my own career is that I can organize my schedule to include a lot of mommy time. Half of the week I get home after the kids are in bed, but the other half I can cuddle the baby all day and be there to pick up big sister from preschool. Being a hands-on parent is a priority for me, but it does make for some hard choices when it comes to certain professional opportunities.

The balance that I've created is in large part due to the messages about work, family, and earning that I got from my own mother. When I was younger my mother was a teacher. She enjoyed her work, but even more importantly her career enabled us to survive those years when she was the custodial parent after she and my dad split. A few years later she remarried and continued to teach for awhile, but with a longer commute, another child, and a busier household the main message that I got from her was that it is very hard to be the mother in a two job, two kid family. As soon as we could afford for her to leave full-time work she did, and I remember that there was a lot less stress in the family when she was able to focus on home.

Reading this piece about the "princess mentality" by Amanda Steinberg and referencing an earlier op-ed by Laura Vanderkam, I can't help but think of how complex (and wonderful!) our choices are as women. I am so glad there are voices like Amanda's and Laura's that urge us as women to protect ourselves, to participate in own own financial lives, and to never depend on someone else for our own security. I agree wholeheartedly. There is absolutely no job security in being a princess nowadays.

But while that's undoubtedly true, it's still not exactly simple. My mother also encouraged me to dream big. Fighter pilot and astrophysicist were actually things I wanted to be when I was growing up, but as I got older I pivoted to something decidedly more family-friendly. I'm lucky that I am actually doing work that I adore, and pursuing a career path that fulfills me just as much as being a parent. But do I feel like I threaded the eye of a needle in doing so? Absolutely. And I wonder what message I'm modeling for my girls, even while I tell them to shoot for the moon.