AZ Unlearns: Financial Anxiety

Financial anxiety refers to obsessive and often debilitating fears around money. For working class people it may seem unnecessary pathological to view money worries through a medical lens as it’s something most of us are forced to come to terms with from a very young age. Coming to terms with something is not the same as addressing it, however, and financial anxiety can feed into other, more serious mental and physical health issues if left unaddressed. 

Money is the most powerful, tangible social concept of modern times yet it is governed by many (much less tangible) influences which often contradict each other. Money can literally dictate whether we live or die and so most of us prioritise making money as a matter of survival. Equally, wealth-hoarding, financial risk-taking and frivolous spending are presented to us as indicators of ambition, desirability, intelligence and social status so even when we have enough to comfortably survive, people continue to prioritise money as a principal determinant of happiness- and that’s where we fuck up.

Financial anxiety affects all of us but working class people, people from marginalised backgrounds and those who are otherwise predisposed to mental health problems are most at risk from financial anxiety. It can be difficult to recognise because it often arises alongside other anxieties such as social or career anxiety. As a person from an immigrant background, I become desensitised to financial anxiety in childhood. The adults around me rarely spoke about money and when they did, it was to express that there wasn’t enough of it to do or buy whatever it was that I wanted. I internalised that I was poor but also luckier than the many people who had less than me, of whom I was constantly being reminded of by parents who were always working to find money to send back home to Sierra Leone. This was confusing for me at the time but I was able to ignore the confusion because I was surrounded by other people with similar backgrounds and similarly conflicting relationships with money. 

When my father got a new, higher-paying job and we moved to a smaller, wealthier (whiter) city, my financial anxiety went from a niggling feeling in the back of my mind to the governing factor underpinning most of my social interactions and personal relationships. This change went more or less unnoticed and felt like a natural part of growing up. In my adolescence I got really good at compartmentalising my financial anxiety, so as not to come across as ungrateful to my family or broke and miserable to my friends. I would rarely ask my parents for money because I was haunted by a childhood in which ‘no’ was always the answer and guilt the resounding feeling. This meant I rarely had money to do things that my middle-class peers were doing such as school trips abroad, impromptu shopping trips and meals out etc, which led to feelings of inadequacy and isolation. I never told anyone how low I was feeling about money, instead I used my working class pride in being resourceful, resilient and hardworking and I got myself a paper round at 13 years old. 

The round took over an hour on foot and only paid me £13 for a week’s work so after a year or so, I quit. I was so scared to let my parents know I’d quit my first paid job that I carried on going for walks (pretending I still had my paper round) for months after and as soon as I was old enough to get a proper job, I did just that. I spent most of my life since that paper round earning menial wages in various hospitality and retail positions and though I was now financially independent, the anxiety did not fade away. The depression that came with feeling broke was now accompanied with a new feeling of manic excitement whenever I got paid, an excitement that led me to blow entire months wages in a single weekend, further perpetuating the cycle of brokenness that was feeding my anxiety. 

I graduated from uni in 2019 and started my first salaried position with a higher-than-average pay packet and you best believe I felt fancy. I now had more money coming in than I had ever imagined possible but I still struggled to manage it correctly and would end up near-broke every payday. It wasn’t until I left that job that I realised my problem had never been lack of access to cash but an unhealthy relationship with it. I was unemployed for months and had to rely on benefits and help from friends and family to get by, so I could no longer shirk difficult conversations about money. Swallowing my pride and borrowing money from my support system opened my eyes to the generosity of the people around me, allowing me to shed some of the shame I felt about my money troubles.

I realised that I would always be fine, regardless of how much money I had coming in because I have a strong work-ethic and an even stronger network of people who care enough to help me in times of hardship. If I had accepted this earlier I could’ve avoided a lot of stress and desperate decision-making in the past. All of this is to say that financial anxiety can be present and harmful regardless of the amount of money an individual has access to; it can manifest equally as reckless spending and overly-stringent saving, as apathy towards earning and obsession with it, so the only way to really identify it as an issue is through deep introspection.

In terms of practical financial support, there’s a wealth of resources available to people in the UK (especially marginalised individuals) who are struggling to make ends meet, some of which are listed at the end of the article. I also find the following practices really helpful in keeping my anxiety at bay:

  • Keep track of weekly/ monthly expenses and categorise per essential outgoings, social spending, impulse purchases etc. That way you can easily identify harmful spending patterns and plan any future budgets accurately.
  • Make a list of the people you trust to help you (with money) in a sticky situation. Even if this is just one or two people the knowledge of a safety net will help soothe the anxious and intrusive thoughts. For emergency loans it’s always better to borrow from people around you than from financial institutions, just make sure you pay everything back and express gratitude.
  • Tell your inner circle and anyone else who needs to know (i.e. your landlord) about any financial troubles well in advance so they’re prepared to help and treat you with patience if the situation gets worse or a crisis occurs. 
  • In emergencies, don’t be afraid to ask for an advance or two at work if you need to and it’s something that your employer facilitates (even if you’re not sure it’s an option, worst case scenario is they say no).
  • Read and try to gain a thorough understanding of any financial contracts you enter, be it with an employer, a bank or a credit agency etc. Any jargon you don’t understand can be looked up.
  • If debt becomes serious contact a debt management agency, they specialise in helping people overcome debt with advice and strategic planning (and most of them work for free).
  • If there are debt collectors contacting you do not ignore the debt. Legally in the UK you only have to pay collectors what you can afford, even if that’s just a pound or two a month.

Those of us with financial anxiety are likely to have been conditioned that way from youth, so it’s not something you can just shake off by seeking to earn more money or developing better financial habits, though that stuff might help, unlearning financial anxiety takes a deep and intentional reprogramming of thought patterns around money. Practising open communication around finances has helped me a lot and talk-therapy is recommended for anyone experiencing severe financial anxiety. I also find it useful in times of abundance to practice gratitude and affirm my financial stability out loud or through journaling. 

The most important thing to remember in your journey towards unlearning financial anxiety, is to be patient with yourself and remember that your financial capacity does not define your inherent value. 

Helpful links: 

Practical tips of managing your money and improving mental health from Mind

Coping with financial worries with the NHS

Turn2us UK financial aid charity

Apply for Universal Credit 

Apply for funding with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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