There are many parts of our lives where self-help gurus urge us to feel empowered: our careers. Our relationships. Our workouts.
But there’s one key thing that’s often missing from the list: our money.
And Americans could certainly use some help feeling less anxious in that arena. According to a poll from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a whopping 79% of people say financial concerns keep them up at night—far outpacing worries over the state of their marriages, job security or children.
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This statistic tells us one thing: We could all stand to take more of a power stance when it comes to our money.
Not surprisingly, power and money are inextricably linked—and the bond may be even stronger than we thought.
A 2014 Stanford study found that people who felt more powerful—defined as having control of valuable resources—chose to save more money because doing so reinforced their feelings of power.
But it can be hard to maintain a take-charge mentality if your financial picture is less than perfect. So we spoke to financial and behavior change specialists to figure out how you can work toward regaining control in your relationship to money.
According to the experts, it’s never too late—and you’re never too far gone—to show your money who’s really in charge.
Feeling Financially Defeated? How Guilt Can Get You Out of that Mind-Set
If you feel disempowered by money, it’s likely because you're ashamed of the financial mistakes you’ve made in the past. In order to take back power, you must first learn to forgive yourself, says Brad Klontz, a CFP® and author of “Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health.”
But how do you get over the past when it continues to stare you in the face in the form of credit card bills, loan payments or even IOUs to friends and relatives?
Power Trip Move #1: Although it may seem counterintuitive, let your guilt spur you to do better.
Klontz explains the distinction between shame and guilt: While shame leaves you feeling bogged down, guilt can work to spark change.
"Shame is an emotional glue trap, but guilt is a healthy emotion because you're saying, 'I feel bad, so I'm going to make a commitment to never do it again.'"
“Shame is what I call an emotional glue trap,” says Klontz, who's also a financial psychologist. “But guilt is actually a healthy emotion because you’re saying, ‘I feel bad I did that, so I’m going to make a commitment to never do it again.' Shame is when you tell yourself, ‘I’m screwed-up. I’m worthless. So why bother trying?’ It just keeps you stuck in the same sense of powerlessness.”
LaTisha Styles, 31, of Memphis, knows these feelings all too well. In 2010 she had just earned her second undergraduate degree in finance, yet she was having a tough time finding a job. And this wasn't helped by the fact that Styles had a monthly car payment to make, and she was more than $25,000 in credit card debt. After six months of unemployment, things began to look grim.
“My lowest point was being on the phone with a creditor who was telling me that I should be ashamed of myself,” Styles recalls.
The conversation left Styles in tears, but hitting rock-bottom also proved to be a turning point. “I said to myself, ‘Why am I crying about money? It’s not money that got me into debt—I made those decisions. I decided to purchase things on credit. I decided to go back to school full-time.' That’s when I put myself back in the driver’s seat.”
So Styles swallowed her pride and took any work she could get—from being a personal assistant to delivering sandwiches—to start paying down her bills. On top of that, her new attitude gave her a more confident demeanor when she went in for job interviews. “It helped me to project myself as the employee that they would be crazy to let go,” she says.
A few months later, Styles landed a job as an analyst for an institutional investment consulting firm, nabbing a salary that was $6,000 above what she was expecting. Her new, higher salary—and newfound money confidence—helped her forge an aggressive debt-repayment plan. The outcome? Styles was able to pay everything off within three years.
Money Memories: Finding Your Financial Baggage
Once you’ve decided it’s time to take action, the next step to taking more of a power stance with your finances is to become more self-aware. In other words, you need to get a clear grasp on the baggage behind your money decisions, so you can stop yourself from falling back into bad habits.
Klontz says it's key to recognize that how we feel about money is more fueled by nurture than nature. According to Klontz, we all have “money scripts” that we’ve heard growing up, which are ideas or preconceived notions about money that have been passed down to us via family members or other influential people.
Power Trip Move #2: To unearth your own script, write down three things you either observed or were taught about money from your mother, father and even from people in your neighborhood growing up.
“We are more likely to spend when we are feeling strong emotions: excitement, sadness, loneliness. However, the purchase doesn't satisfy the emotional need and typically makes things worse."
For example, if you had parents who consistently put you and your siblings’ financial needs ahead of their own, it may be why you feel pressure to fund your kids’ college over your retirement. Or if they preferred to keep their money in the bank instead of investing it, that may be contributing to your mistrust of the stock market.
Once you can pinpoint what makes up your script, “it wakes you up to the reality of your relationship with money, which you have all the power to change,” Klontz says.
Another way your mind-set could be getting in the way: You’re using money as an emotional crutch. Kembala Evans, a financial coach and author of “Get Your Money Right,” sees this time and again with people who feel powerless against debt. As a result, they spend on things that they hope will make them feel happier—only to stay stuck in the debt cycle.
“For example, they go on shopping sprees when they don’t have the money because they need to fill a void within them,” Evans says. “I’ve seen people who will go on vacation, and they don't make a car payment in order to fund that trip.”
To that end, it’s important to know your emotional money triggers.
“We are more likely to spend when we are feeling strong emotions: excitement, sadness, loneliness,” Klontz says. “However, the purchase doesn't satisfy the emotional need and typically makes things worse. So have a solid plan in place for meeting those needs, such as calling a friend, journaling or taking a walk—just not in the mall.”
The One-Two-Punch Approach to Reclaiming Your Money Life
Now that you’ve got your mind in order, it’s time to start whipping your money into shape.
But to know how to take control, you first need to know where to take control. “Just like with the check engine light on your car, if you don’t know where the real problem is, it’s harder to fix it,” Evans says.
Power Trip Move #3: So do some detective work by unearthing your financial blind spots.
Those are the parts of your finances that tend to fly under your radar, but could have a big impact on your budget.
For instance, if your biggest money power struggle is staying within your budget, it’s more likely that you’ve got a few chinks in your spending armor, rather than an entire budget that's out of whack.
“If you can’t say where you’re spending your money, I would encourage you to track your spending for 30 days to see where it's really going,” Evans says.
And once you’ve shone the light on the biggest culprits, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to change too much, too soon. Instead, focus on a maximum of three areas where you feel the most out of control with your money and tackle those first.
“Two of the biggest reasons why people don’t take action on an issue? It isn’t important enough to them, and they don’t have the confidence," Klontz says. "And if either one of those is missing, you’re never going to really take charge of your finances.”
“You might say, ‘I know I’m eating out too much,’ or ‘I’m shopping too much on impulse purchases that I don’t need,’” says Michelle Young, a CFP® and president of Young & Associates.
But now that you’re aware of your blind spots, every time you eat out or make an impulse purchase, write down how much you spent. “It’s almost like being on a food diet—when you have to write it down, you notice where your problem areas are,” Young says. “Even the act of writing it down can help change your behavior because you don’t want to have to admit that you did it.”
The next step is to come up with a targeted, proactive solution. For example, it could be deciding to stick with strict, cash-only spending at restaurants—and knowing that, when the cash runs out, you’re done for the month.
If your powerlessness has more to do with your big-picture money situation, it might be time to glean wisdom from someone whose finances you admire.
Power Trip Move #4: Seek out a money mentor whom you can emulate and reach out to for advice.
Similar to a mentor you might have in the workplace, your money mentor can help talk through your goals, provide a different perspective and speak to their own experiences. “It’s helpful to identify somebody who’s further along the path to where you want to go than you are,” Klontz says. “Then sit down and interview them.”
Questions to cover: Where did you learn about money? What do you think somebody in my position should do? What advice could you give me?
“This can be especially valuable to someone who grew up with parents who didn’t model positive financial behavior,” Klontz says.
Ultimately, what all of these take-charge tips boil down to is being motivated to make changes—and then arming yourself with the knowledge to make it happen, whether that means understanding your personal baggage, finding your problem money spots or even learning from others.
Think of it as a one-two punch to feeling empowered. “Two of the biggest reasons why people don’t take action on an issue? It isn’t important enough to them, and they don’t have the confidence,” Klontz says. “And if either one of those is missing, you’re never going to really take charge of your finances.”