How to deal with your guilt about money

If you feel a lot of stress around the way you earn, spend and save money, you’re not alone. A survey by CreditWise® from Capital One® found that  73% of those polled said that money was the biggest unique stressor in their lives, above politics, work and family.

With all this stress comes a lot of guilt — and people feel financial guilt about nearly everything.  Spending too much, spending too little, spending on the wrong things, not earning enough, not saving enough, not putting enough money toward retirement … if it has a dollar amount attached, we feel guilty about it. (And that’s before we get into the guilt about our credit scores.)

How do you deal with your guilt about money? Are there ways to put your money guilt to good use? I reached out to a financial planner, a personal finance coach and a financial advice columnist to learn how we can better manage our financial guilt and, in some cases, break the money guilt cycle.

Where do people feel the most guilt about their money?

To break the money guilt cycle, you first need to understand what makes you feel guilty. “People tend to have the most guilt about personal finances with how and how much they spend money on themselves,” Betty Wang, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and founder of BW Financial Planning, explains. “The same people have no issue spending money on their kids, spouses or friends, but spending money on themselves triggers guilty feelings and anxiety.”

This kind of financial guilt can be exacerbated if the purchase in question was “nonessential” — a want, for example, instead of a need. Even if you create a budget that includes room for these kinds of discretionary purchases, it’s still easy to feel guilty about spending the money on something for yourself instead of saving it for the future.

People also feel guilt about past financial mistakes, such as getting into credit card debt. “A common area of guilt I’ve seen in my clients includes regretting poor financial decisions you’ve made,” personal finance coach Emma Leigh Geiser explains. “It can take a lot of inner work to overcome these.” Since your previous financial decisions often affect your current financial stability, guilt over an old money mistake can feel overwhelming.

People can even feel money guilt about financial mistakes they haven’t made yet. Charlotte Cowles, personal finance advice columnist at The Cut, notes that if you don’t feel like you know a lot about money, you might be anxious about making the wrong financial decisions. Then you might feel guilty because you are procrastinating on important financial tasks such as  building your credit score, creating a will or deciding how much life insurance your family needs.

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Do men and women feel different kinds of money guilt?

Although both men and women feel guilty about the way they earn, spend and save money, their guilt is often related to the cultural roles our society asks men and women to play. “Men are taught, in our society, to believe that they know about money or believe that they should know about money,” Cowles explained. “Women are not made to feel equally empowered around their finances.”

This means that women often feel guilty for not knowing enough about money or not contributing enough money to the family finances. Men, on the other hand, might feel guilty if their female partner earns more or handles money better than they do. Our culture has spent decades promoting the model of male breadwinners and female homemakers, and when that model doesn’t fit our modern lives, both men and women feel guilty.

Geiser and Wang also noted that women often feel guilty about balancing the multiple roles required to “have it all” at work and at home, especially when performing those roles costs money. “Women tend to feel guilty about how much they spend on personal care, such as manicures or skincare products, to look and feel their best,” Wang told me. “It seems vain rather than practical, so it triggers a lot of guilt and sometimes shame.”

What are some productive ways of dealing with money guilt?

If you’re feeling guilty about any aspect of your personal finances — and most of us are — it’s time to learn how to deal with it.

Wang suggests asking yourself whether your financial guilt is based on facts or on emotions. Do you feel like you are spending too much money or do the numbers suggest you are spending too much? If the numbers show that you won’t be able to pay your credit card bill this month, that might mean it’s time to cut back on your spending. But if the numbers are fine, there’s not as much to worry about.

Wang also suggests that you decide what is important to you and to allocate your money accordingly. “Spend on things, experiences, services that you value.  Save for what makes your life easier, better, richer.” Once you have your financial goals in place, it becomes easier to both save and spend toward those goals.

Before you start thinking about financial goals, however, review where your money is currently going. Cowles says that writing down everything she spent money on “de-shamed” the process of spending and helped her begin to make decisions about where she wanted her money to go in the future. “Once I started [tracking my spending], it helped me see what I was spending my money on that I really enjoyed, and what just wasn’t worth it.”

You can also take your money guilt to an expert. “Finding a coach, therapist, CPA or  financial professional with knowledge and training in financial therapy can be very powerful,” Geiser explains. “They can help you identify and reframe your underlying money scripts.”

Does money guilt ever go away?

If you’re hoping that you can someday live a life that’s free of financial guilt, well … that might not happen. “Money guilt tends to follow people in all stages of their life, no matter how much wealth they have accumulated,” Wang says. “It’s an emotional reaction to spending money.”

In other words: Every time you make a choice to save, spend or invest, part of you will probably always wonder if you made the right choice.

That said, there are ways to mitigate some of your money guilt. If you use a budgeting app to track your spending, for example, you’ll know how much money you can put toward discretionary purchases while still having enough left over to pay your bills. If you set up an emergency fund, you can feel better about spending your discretionary income because you already have savings in place to cover a job loss or unexpected expense. If you take out an affordable term life insurance policy, you can protect your family against even the worst-case scenario.

Once you start addressing your money guilt, whether through budgeting, goal-setting or working with a financial professional, don’t be surprised if it becomes easier to make financial decisions — or to start making better ones. “People do not make good decisions when they start the decision-making process from a point of guilt and shame,” Cowles says. “It’s not a recipe for clear thinking.”

Although your money guilt might never fully disappear, learning how to use money as a tool to achieve your goals and support your values should help reduce your anxiety about your finances. This, in turn, will help you make smarter, more relaxed, guilt-free decisions about where your money should go in the future. Once you break the money-guilt cycle, you might find money worries taking up much less space in your head — which should lower at least some of the financial stress in your life.

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Nicole Dieker is a full-time freelance writer. Her work regularly appears on Bankrate, Lifehacker, The Write Life and numerous other sites. She is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Haven Life does not endorse the products, services or strategies discussed here. Opinions are those of the individuals interviewed.

Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational information only. Haven Life does not provide tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal, or investment advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, and investment advisors before engaging in any transaction.

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