Jean Chatzky

Don’t let money woes get the best of you
August 18, 2008
Jean Chatzky, TODAY Financial Editor

You’re stressed. How do I know? Because my mailbox is overflowing with e-mail from people who are overwhelmed.

For some, it’s the combination of high gas prices and a 40-minute drive to work. Others have had their hours — and their paychecks — cut back. Countless others are sick of seeing higher prices whenever they walk into a grocery store. People all over the country are being hammered by this economy, and it’s taking a toll on not just our wallets, but on our health.

Financial stress can cause insomnia, it can cause depression, and it can trigger addictive behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse. To cope, you need to take control of it before it takes control of you. If it already has control of you, it’s time to take that control back. This means having some exercises handy that you can grab at the moment you need to calm yourself down. Here is what you need to know — and do — to stay grounded during these rocky times:

Evaluate the situation
You may be afraid of the credit card bill or the mortgage statement, but sticking it in a drawer is not going to help you in the long run. I want you to pull out all of the financial statements that you’ve been avoiding, spread them out in front of you and survey the damage. You might find that it’s not nearly as bad as you thought — or you might find that it’s worse — but either way, knowing where you stand when it comes to your finances is always the first step. The second is creating a plan of attack, which means finding excess money in your budget and funneling it toward your expenses and bills. Once you have that plan in place, I want you to put the debt in the back of your mind. Sounds counterproductive, but you have to do it for your mental health.

“I say don’t look at your debt more than one hour a week. That hour is when you pay bills, and it’s when you cry, moan and feel bad if you need to. The rest of the time, you need to be proactive, thinking about positive ways to save money. Be happy about the fact that you’re doing everything you can, and go to sleep at night,” says Chellie Campbell, author of “The Wealthy Spirit.”

Find a friend
Financial stress often leads to feelings of shame. People are embarrassed that they’ve managed to run up their credit cards, are behind on the mortgage payments or are not saving for retirement. Keeping your problems bottled up inside isn’t going to do you any good.
“What we know is that isolation kills, which means it drives up stress, and community, or being with other people in disclosure and telling the truth, is a healing balm,” explains Dr. Kathleen Hall, founder of The Stress Institute. Find one friend you feel comfortable confiding in, and then tell him or her everything. In this economy, you’ll very likely find that you’re not alone in your problems.

Give yourself a time-out
We all have something that makes us feel totally relaxed. For me, it’s going on a long run. Others have found that yoga, mediation or a bubble bath does the trick. Dedicate a portion of time — ideally a half-hour or more — each day to whatever it is that helps you unwind. Schedule it into your calendar, have your spouse watch the kids, do whatever it takes to do this one thing for yourself each day. It won’t keep you completely stress-free, but it will help release some of the tension so it doesn’t boil over.

Be grateful
“It is physiologically impossible to be stressed and be grateful at the same time, so when you see that bill and think that you just can’t take one more thing, take a deep breath and be thankful,” says Hall. If it helps, pretend it’s Thanksgiving and make a list of all of the things you appreciate in your life. Think of your kids, your family, your work, your hobbies — everything that gets you out of bed in the morning.

“The key factor right now, especially with all the trouble in the economy, is that you have to remain positive and optimistic. Keep an upbeat attitude,” advises Campbell. In the beginning, it may very well seem like you’re forcing yourself, but over time you’ll become more aware of the positives in your life and less aware of the negatives.

Take the reins where you can
There is a laundry list of things we, as consumers, just don’t have control over in this world. You can’t change how much you pay for gas. You’d have a very hard time talking your grocery

store into lowering the price they’re charging for milk, and you can’t do anything about the ups and downs of the stock market. But what you can do is get a grip on the rest of your financial picture. You can choose whether you go into a store and spend money you don’t have on something you don’t need. You can choose to tell your children that they can’t have a new toy this week, and you can decide to cook dinner at home instead of heading out to a restaurant. Often, when we’re looking to get rid of stress, we resort to spending money because we tell ourselves we deserve it. But take it from me, and then look back to your own experiences for proof: Spending money when you’re already short on cash is only going to add to the pressure.

With reporting by Arielle McGowen

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com.