Would you rather eat that ATM receipt than risk seeing your balance? You’re not alone. Keeping tabs on money can be stressful and confusing. Even if you know you should keep track of your finances, it can feel easier to just ignore balances, credit card statements and bills.
But what’s easy now may become hard to stomach later. Avoidance can lead to overdrafts, a lowered credit score, debt and perhaps missed opportunities to save and invest.
Sound familiar? Don’t feel guilty, says Justin Nichols, certified financial planner and director of operations at Garrett Planning Network. He tells clients in this situation: “Let’s just start new right now and figure out a plan to move forward.”
You’re already making moves by clicking this article. Read on to learn how to get a handle on neglected finances.
Determine if you need professional help
These tips are most helpful for folks whose finances aren’t yet in dire straits — just ignored. However, avoidance is particularly easy (and harmful) when you’re financially overwhelmed, says Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist for Morningstar and author of “Loaded: Money, Psychology, and How to Get Ahead Without Leaving Your Values Behind.”
If you can’t cover your basic needs or feel like you’re drowning in debt, talk with a nonprofit credit counseling agency. Credit counselors offer free budgeting help and may be able to create a plan to consolidate your debts and lower the interest rate.
Schedule financial check-ins
Acknowledge any anxiety you feel about dealing with finances, says Amanda Clayman, a psychotherapist and coach specializing in financial wellness. “Anxiety sucks our attention and energy,” she says, which makes problem-solving difficult.
If you address your finances only when you feel bad, you may associate the behavior with negative feelings. Clayman gives the example of seeing a shocking credit card statement, panicking and choosing that time to address your overspending.
Rather than waiting until you’re preoccupied with anxiety, Clayman recommends scheduling a weekly financial check-in at a neutral time. The idea is to “reprogram your emotional experience around money so that you can be much more effective,” she says.
Take 30 minutes each week to review your spending activity and the balances on your checking and savings accounts, as well as any outstanding debt. Then, take note of any upcoming bills or other money events — like payday — and make a loose plan to prepare pending expenses.
If you feel overwhelmed by a 30-minute money review, Clayman suggests starting with 15 minutes or even five. (Maybe you simply note your balances.)
Keep anxiety in check by focusing only on your current financial picture. However, in time, building comfort and familiarity with your money today may help you prepare for tomorrow. For example, tracking expenses could lead to spending less and having money to sock away. Or, after reviewing your paychecks, you may decide to contribute to your 401(k), a tax-favored retirement savings account offered by some employers. (Contribute at least enough to snag all the matching dollars your employer offers.)
Tackle small, achievable goals
Changing behavior “comes down to our sense of identity,” says Newcomb, who used to ignore her own finances. For example, she says: If you’re OK with being someone who pays bills late, you will probably continue to do so.
“There came a point when I decided I didn’t want to be that person anymore,” Newcomb says. “Being a person who is on top of their finances is the goal — it’s not that I care so much if the electric company gets their money.”
Tackle small, achievable goals, like those check-ins, to start identifying as a financially responsible person, too. To identify your goals, Newcomb asks: “What are the things that feel like a gut punch when you see them?”
Ashamed by overdrafts? Go the next two months without one — then another two months. Paying bills late? Make each of next month’s payments on time. (And for each bill, set up autopay, which Newcomb describes as a “godsend.”) Bad credit score? Aim for a certain score within a few years, and learn what will help, such as making those on-time payments and keeping your credit card balances below 30% of your overall limit.
Reap your rewards
Build that positive association with money management by rewarding yourself. Treat yourself to ice cream or your favorite TV show after your weekly check-in, for example.
Some benefits will be intangible but meaningful nonetheless, like the pride in taking on those important (if dreaded) goals, Newcomb says.
Later, you’ll likely see those small goals you accomplished help your finances — which is pretty satisfying, too. Newcomb, who’s now in control of her money, has seen her balances increase. “Now, my reward for going through my finances is that I can see I’m in a better place,” she says.