In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.
Today, one woman shares how meditation helped her finally take charge of her finances and, ultimately, find stability to support her growing family.
Many people turn inward only after they’ve hit bottom and have lost everything. Not me.
Eleven years ago, before I began meditating, I had so many good things in my life. I’d graduated with a master’s degree from an Ivy League college, had a great job as a licensed clinical social worker and was celebrating one year of marriage to a wonderful man with whom I could travel the world.
But at that point in my life, I couldn’t say I was truly happy. I felt like my life lacked meaning. Something was “off”—I felt empty inside, but I didn’t know why.
Meditation wasn’t immediately appealing to me even though others recommended it. My former boss, who had been meditating for 20 years, insisted I try it. He was the total opposite of what you might expect from a devotee—he was a stockbroker, had three kids and was always on the go. But I was skeptical and always found myself too busy to give it a chance.
Later on, my minister also suggested I try meditation. By then, I was willing, so I began my journey inward to try to strengthen my spiritual life.
The First Breath
When I started, nothing happened right away. The thing I’ve learned about meditation is that it’s a skill that has to be built up—it comes with practice. But I wasn’t so sure about that at first.
I would sit quietly for a few minutes on my living-room sofa at 6 a.m. and listen to a body scan guided-relaxation CD. I wasn’t quite ready to follow my own breath in pure silence, so an audio guide seemed like a good first step. A voice walks you through the meditation session, helping to call your attention to how you’re feeling in different parts of your body. This helped me feel more connected to my body, and I worked up to listening to it for 20 minutes a day. After about four months, I stopped listening to the CD. I was ready for the silence.
Meanwhile, I read several books on meditation and looked into studies on people who have been doing it long-term, including research that found that as someone starts to meditate, the organization of their brain starts to change. For me, I found that as my mind began to quiet and de-clutter on the inside, I naturally wanted to clear up my outer world. This mindfulness helped me learn not to simply react to external stimuli but to respond to it thoughtfully before taking action, if at all.
By this point, I was meditating for about half an hour each morning, sometimes sitting cross-legged in my living room. I used a mantra—or a “tool for the mind”—which I repeated to myself to help focus my thoughts and follow my breath as it came in and went out. I also spoke regularly with my minister and another meditation mentor about the experiences, resistances and memories that would come up, so I could begin to process and work through them during my practice.
As I developed my routine, I found I was becoming more mindful of clutter in all parts of my life, from my thoughts to my relationships to the physical clutter in my home, except one—my money life. It was the one area that I realized was out of alignment with what I was doing in meditation: being more present and focused.
The more I reflected on this, the more the reality of my situation became clear: I had been using money in an incorrect way, and it was affecting my marriage. While my husband and I had steady jobs with a combined salary in the low six figures, the fact was, we were living paycheck to paycheck.
Growing up, I was never encouraged to manage my own money, and it became clear to me that I still wasn’t involved in my financial life. When I wanted something, I would just buy it and assume everything would work out … or that others would take care of the bills or debt for me.
This blind spending took a turn when a routine supermarket trip jolted me to reality. I had just finished ringing up $200 in groceries when I pulled out my debit card, only to learn that I didn’t have enough funds in our joint checking account to foot the bill. Instead, I stood mortified in the checkout line and called my husband to bail me out.
This was just one scenario of many where my husband and I weren’t on the same financial page. “We can have all the love in the world, but if you’re not a financial partner, it won’t work,” he had said before. And I knew he was right—devastating as it was to hear, I knew that discord around money is a major component that can kill a marriage. If I wasn’t on my game around money, our relationship would suffer.
That was the extra push I needed to address my money issues head-on.
Gaining Financial Clarity
To finally become financially responsible, I joined a program to help me understand money-management basics. Before I meditated and became more mindful, I would not have been open to addressing my shortcomings, and the old me would have resisted this kind of help.
Through the program, I was taught the basics of creating a budget, tracking my spending and living within my means. I learned how important it was to step back to determine my wants versus my needs, something I had never distinguished before. I also learned how to build an emergency fund, and my husband and I started stashing $400 a month into a basic savings plan.
We sold things we didn’t need. We started watching our food bills more closely, sometimes trading shopping at our pricey organic supermarket for a budget grocer instead. We cut out extra snacks. I clipped coupons and we used the simple (yet effective) cash envelope system. Once the envelope was out of cash, the spending for that period of time stopped until we paid ourselves again, which we did every week.
Four years passed, and my husband and I accumulated $25,000 in emergency savings. Then, we had our first child, and everything got a whole lot more challenging.
Obstacles to Progress
As a new mom, I had to learn to adapt my meditation practice. Being up in the middle of the night every night with a newborn meant au revoir to 6 a.m. Zen time.
Then came the tough realization that I didn’t want to go back to work after having a baby. While this is a completely normal decision families make all the time, problems arose because my husband and I had never discussed what our working situations would be with kids in the picture.
This created tension in both our relationship and our budget. Our financial situation didn’t easily allow us to eliminate my salary altogether while continuing to spend and save as much money as before. So when I didn’t return to my 9-to-5, we started dipping into our emergency fund to cover some expenses. On the bright side, because we had diligently saved $25,000 over the past four years, we had a safety net to work with and didn’t go into debt.
I meditated throughout all these changes, which helped me stay flexible because I could respond to the transition instead of simply react as if it were out of my hands, which led me to embrace what came our way. A little more than a year ago, after our second child was about 18 months old, we decided to revisit our financial situation.
Because we’d depleted much of our emergency savings to help cover expenses for two young children, our new focus became rebuilding that cushion. We enrolled in a financial course together and learned how to create a prudent budget for our family of four, and in the last six months we’ve stashed $2,000 in emergency savings while not accruing new credit card debt.
We continue to pay our bills every month and hope to boost our emergency and retirement contributions very soon. It helps that I am now working part-time as a social worker as well as a private yoga and meditation teacher. Meditation was such a powerful tool for me to open up and address the problems in my various relationships, so it’s rewarding to be able to help others do the same.
Had I not begun meditating all those years ago, I never would have confronted my money issues straight on. Meditation requires guidance and support as well as a willingness to take it on every single day. Once that willingness is there, it opens up a whole world of possibilities and revelations, which may end up benefiting your well-being—financial health included.