Apparently, retail sales are up because of pent up demand due to Covid. Personal finance people are pleading, “Don’t go shopping if you don’t need more stuff!” This effort seems futile and wrongly focuses on the action rather than the motivation. It reminds me of a line on a podcast about weight loss: “We tell people to eat less. We never stop to ask why that person is eating so much in the first place.”
Anyone who’s been to an all-you-can-eat buffet knows that it is physically painful to eat beyond your stomach’s limits. Yet when we see someone eating excessively, we assume it’s a question of self-control. Why don’t we stop and ask, why are you hurting yourself?
The same goes with money. People shop when they are already overburdened with stuff they don’t want. That’s why we have a huge decluttering industry. We need to start with asking why. And at the present time, Covid, stress, and grief may be key causes to all the bad financial decision-making. Here’s how stress and grief affect your finances.
Are You Struggling with Stress and/or Grief?
You may be thinking, I’m not grieving and I have a manageable level of stress. And it may be true that nothing has specifically happened to you to cause more grief or stress than normal. But it might also be true that the grief and stresses of the past year can cumulatively affect you.
Our collective definition of trauma has changed over the years. It used to be that trauma was a term reserved for war, famine, or disease. Now it can mean any sense of loss, including the loss of our hopes and dreams. I’m sure some people may see this as us becoming pansies. We went from “only sticks and stones” to “words hurt too.” It can be a good thing though as we are able to recognize how different stressors affect our minds, our bodies and our emotions. It may give us license to recognize the collective stress and grief we are all going through and to be more empathetic.
Why Would Stress and Grief Affect our Spending?
I was watching a reality show where one contestant was dealing with some recent personal loss. The contestant asked to take a few minutes to compose himself before continuing to film and some blog commenters were very critical, saying “we’ve all gone through trauma and still went about our jobs.” The blogger replied that this comment seemed unnecessarily harsh. After all, the contestant didn’t shirk his responsibilities, he wasn’t rude – he merely asked for and took a few minutes to cry quietly outside. And yet even that small bit of humanity can be criticized because so many of us think, I’ve always held it together.
Taking some time to cope with our emotions might be considered weakness. I know some may try to spin it as strength, but so what if humans are frail? We are not robots. Sure it’d be great if we could compartmentalize the stress or grief so it doesn’t leak out at our jobs or in in opportune moments, but we don’t know how the stress will affect us or how we will react. We don’t necessarily act rationally when we are under the duress of extreme stress or grief.
Our Collective Stress and Grief
It’s been a rough year for me. In a six-month period, I was in 3 car accidents and 3 fires. None were my fault and I walked away from all of them but I think that just adds to the feeling of a lack of control. I broke up with my boyfriend, ended my career break, started a new job, moved, and am dealing with some medium-level health issues. It’s been a lot for me.
In my close friend group, people I talk to at least weekly, there have been 16 deaths (grandparents, father, father-in-law, brother-in-law, uncles, friends, a child) and 6 medical problems (new or recurrent cancers, mysterious ailments). There’s been good stuff around me too like births and pregnancies but it just adds to the stress.
And I fight off the urge to say, other people have it worse. Because this is not great. The term for this is “compassion fatigue” where the sheer number of calamity surrounding you starts weighing on your emotions.
How We Act Under Stress
I only noticed how stressed I was by how oddly I was acting. I was desperately pursuing a dead-end relationship. And of course, the archetype is “low self esteem” but I’ve never done this before. And I think the appeal was the shallowness of the situation. So many people were unloading on me and I knew he wouldn’t. And it was a nice distraction because I knew it was a dead-end, he wasn’t connected to anyone I knew, and he was happy. I was trying to capture some of that happiness.
Right now I’m at the airport. My flight was delayed 40 minutes and I feared I would miss my connection and be stuck in an unfamiliar city until morning. And fortunately, my connection is delayed. But I was still stressed out enough to buy $10 white chocolate covered gummies. My stress language is sweet and chewy.
How to Handle Your Finances Under Stress
It’s easy to say, don’t engage in retail therapy! Have some self control! I don’t want to give advice on this matter. Really I just wanted to point out the emotional tolls of stress and grief. And as I’m a lawyer, I don’t have the expertise to advise anyone on how to handle their trauma. This is only advice on how to keep the stress from wrecking your financial goals.
1. Believe in Your Control.
There are lots of things out of control. It can be easy to focus on these things and quickly let the place spiral. But there are still lots of things you can control. You can control your reactions, work on stress management, avoid malls, and cut up your credit cards.
2. Remember Your Long Term Goals
Because you believe you have some control in the matter and because you know that this stressful time is temporary.
3. Acknowledge the Pain and the Emotions
So much of retail therapy is distracting yourself from your pain. But that just makes the pain’s power so much stronger.
Honestly I felt a huge sense of relief after I finally admitted I was stressed. We exert so much energy keeping all our emotions bottled up. Sometimes, just releasing the need to be perfect, the need to feel perfect, can be like pricking a hole in a balloon. It gives us enough room to breathe.
4. Try to Find a Respite
It’s unrealistic to make a bullet point checklist that includes “remove the stressor” as glib advice. Maybe you’re in grief. Or you’re in a stressful job whose income you depend on. This is all to say that if we could easily extricate ourselves from our stressors, we probably wouldn’t have financial problems caused by them.
But you can find a brief respite. Maybe it’s carving our time to sit with your thoughts and emotions. It could be talking to a friend or counselor. Maybe it’s $10 white chocolate gummies at the airport. Or finding meditation in the woods. Maybe it’s just crying. Even if it’s not directly solving the problem, even if it’s a slight distraction, at least you aren’t torching your financial future.
So as a millennial, many of my friends are flakey and unreliable. That’s part of the culture these days. Setting up dinner plans in my mind means we are having dinner that night and in someone else’s mind, it’s “I will decide at game time.” To me, reliability is so important. It makes me feel loved and respected.
I can withstand flakiness when I’m in a good place, because I have a foundation of good emotional reserves to draw upon, but I can’t stand it when I’m low. And it’s fine if you find that you need more support during certain times and can’t tolerate certain behaviors. If you feel you need to withdraw from certain people or certain activities because you just can’t add to your stress, I would consider doing so. You don’t have to take on extra burdens and it’s ok to watch out for yourself and your emotional health first and foremost.
Conclusion – How Grief and Stress Affect Your Finances
It’s been a rough two years for a lot of people. Try not to beat anyone up -including yourself – for letting the stress and grief get to you.