It’s the most wonderful time of the year…Or is it? During the holiday season, more than one-third of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they can afford, and one in five say that they’ll pay one or more of their regular bills late according to a Harris poll.
And while the holidays worsen our financial stress, most of us feel stressed about money all the time—no matter how much money we make. Our research has found that while 77 percent of people making $45,000 per year reported high financial stress, 56 percent making $125,000 are also similarly stressed.
Why is financial stress so rampant? Most financial advice doesn’t get to the root of the issue. It focuses exclusively on external fixes—asserting that we’ll be calmer if only we spend smarter, save more, or budget better. These strategies are helpful, but they simply aren’t enough—especially around the holidays, when every event seems to revolve around spending money. In order to enjoy financial freedom and security now and year-round, we need to examine our inner relationship patterns with money.
Step One: Understand Your Emotions Around Money
Money is a particularly emotional topic, and we can never be at peace with our finances unless we address—and change—how we feel about it. So ask yourself, how does financial stress make you feel? The goal is to become aware of your feelings so that you, not your emotions, dictate your reactions.
Example: Does spending fill you with panic? Do you feel guilty unless you buy fancy presents? Do you completely avoid budgeting in favor of splurging because creating a budget makes you insecure?
The solution: When you know why you feel the way you do about money, it’s easier to address the core issue. Think about how changing your feelings around money would improve your life. Why do you want to change? Pinpointing your “why” makes implementing the change that much easier.
Step Two: Quiet the Wanting Mind
Have you ever noticed that when you get something you want, you often end up wanting something else or something more? This is known as the Wanting Mind. We are wired to want—it’s a biological imperative tied to our survival, going back to the days of hunters and gatherers. When resources were available, they were hoarded and saved for the inevitable times of scarcity. Though we no longer have to forage in order to meet our basic needs, the impulse to collect resources remains.
Example: During the holiday season—when Americans are expected to spend over $655 billion—the Wanting Mind is at full force. “Once I buy this expensive toy for my kids, this holiday will be perfect!” or “If only my raise had been higher this year, then we could spend more and worry less.”
The Solution: As you go about your day, see if you can identify and let go of just one impulse of wanting, from a $5 latte to a new TV. Check in with yourself later: do you feel happier? Calmer? Do you still want it, or has your attention shifted? In the end, whether you end up giving yourself what you want or not, you’ll become aware of how much your actions are driven by the habit of leaping to satisfy every impulse.
Step Three: Confront Your Thoughts
We have around 6,000 thoughts per day, most of which we repeat. For many of us, those thoughts revolve around worst-case financial scenarios. Around the holidays, there are even more triggers, as we often feel pressured to spend more than we normally do.
Example: “I need to spend enough to please everyone on my list, and I need to host dinner for 20 people, and I need to decorate the house. I’ll have to charge everything to my credit card, which I may not be able to pay off in time. I’m going to go into debt, and then I won’t be able to pay the mortgage or my credit card bills, and my credit rating will be ruined. I’ll be homeless by next Christmas!”
The solution: Break the thought chain. Next time you spiral into a worst-case thinking trap, go through the chain step by step and ask, “Do I have evidence to support this theory? What’s the probability that this awful result will actually happen? Has this ever happened before?” Often, even before we get to the worst-case scenario, the answer is no.
Step Four: Change Your Belief Patterns
Once you’ve defined your thoughts and emotions, you can confront your beliefs. All of us hold deeply-rooted Iceberg Beliefs around money. These are the core stories we’ve told ourselves about money from a young age, and they directly but unconsciously affect our adult behavior.
Example: “Money is the mark of success, so I should show off my wealth” or “We’re not good with money in our family.” It’s these beliefs that drive us to donate more than we can afford to charity, splurge on showy gifts, or pinch every penny and still not feel as though there’s enough. Only when we uncover our deepest beliefs about money can we dislodge destructive patterns.
The solution: Recognize when a belief serves you and when it undermines you. Listen for those “must” or “should” statements that often indicate an Iceberg is looming. Is your self-worth truly dependent on showing up to the holiday gift swap with the flashiest present? No, there are plenty of other things you do well. Is it really true that you’re not good with money in your family? Just because your parents weren’t, doesn’t mean you have to be that way, too. Be flexible (and kind) with yourself—these beliefs didn’t take root overnight, and they won’t instantly dissolve. Like all good habits, it takes some practice—but it’ll be worth it in the end.
Planning and budgeting is important, especially around the holidays. But only when we understand our money mindset, uncover our personal financial values, and confront the beliefs that drive our stress will we achieve lasting peace of mind, all year long.
Alanna Fincke is meQuilibrium’s Vice President of Content. With a background in running media properties, marketing, and communications and public relations, Alanna understands the power of content from every angle. She has worked at some of the world’s largest and most recognizable media brands and companies, including Elle magazine, Us Weekly, and Martha Stewart Omnimedia.