Money Problems in America: Guilt, Shame, and Other Lies
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Originally published at our sister website, TheFrugalite.com
There’s something about suffering from money problems that bring up feelings of guilt and shame. Sometimes those feelings are self-inflicted, and other times, they’re caused by other people, whether intentionally or accidentally. Nearly always, guilt and shame are built on lies that our brain is telling us.
This isn’t true of every single person who has had financial difficulties, of course. All of our psyches are different. Poverty and money problems are universal dilemmas that can happen to anyone, and that’s the brutal truth that most folks don’t want to believe. Financial distress is accompanied by guilt, shame, and all sorts of other lies.
You may read this and wonder why on earth someone who writes about frugality is talking about these experiences. Why doesn’t she have her sh*t together? Why is she having trouble with money and if she is, why am I reading this site for advice? I totally get it. I practice what I preach but any of us can get into a tight spot, particularly in the current economy. If this is not relatable to you, I hope you can find inspiration in other articles on this website.
Why do we feel guilt or shame when money is tight?
When my output is higher than my income, I feel an entire gamut of negative emotions. It’s like running a gauntlet with one side of my head telling me I should have done better and the other side of my head saying, hey, stop that. Things happen.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family where everyone was well-to-do and if there were money issues, I certainly never knew of them. Perhaps it’s because I have been so rock-bottom poor as to have dug through dumpsters to feed my toddler. It could be because I’ve fought my way out of deep, dark holes of poverty on more than one occasion and the idea of going back to that place scares me. (You can read about my experiences with extreme poverty in this free book.)
Sometimes it’s other people who make us feel terrible
It’s important to think about the psychology of why they do that. It’s my opinion that if they can convince themselves that your financial problems are completely your own fault and you have nobody but yourself to blame, then those problems can never happen to them. Because they would never make the mistakes you did. It’s like an imaginary cloak of safety when they can believe it’s all your fault.
But the reasons why we have these feelings don’t really matter, do they?
The fact is, many of us feel them. We can’t make our feelings simply not happen, but we can learn to manage them in a healthier way.
Negative emotions surrounding finances can have physical consequences.
I know that guilt and shame, for me, can turn a financial crunch into a physical health trigger due to the whole soup-pot filled with a mix of bubbling emotions.
When I feel those feelings, I throw myself into work, telling myself I will not rest until I fix it. I work relentlessly, day and night, putting in 14-16 hour days in front of the laptop until the letters are too blurred for my tired eyes to continue. I push myself far beyond what is healthy and I do it 7 days a week, never really stopping until I simply am too exhausted to keep going. Then I fall into bed, toss and turn for a few hours, and get up to do it all over again.
Obviously, this is not a recommendation.
What are the results?
- My joints start aching because I’m not out walking a few miles a day with my dog or doing yoga.
- My back and neck hurt from sitting at the computer for such long periods of time.
- I don’t eat well because I don’t stop long enough to prepare myself healthy meals.
- My eyelid starts twitching obnoxiously.
- My stomach aches from the coffee consumption that fuels me.
- I don’t drink enough water because water doesn’t give me an unhealthy spike of energy.
- Sleep, which is nearly always elusive for me, becomes nearly impossible.
And then, eventually, my body says to me, “Okay, I asked you for a break and you didn’t give it to me, so now I’m going to force you to.” And I get sick which often costs even more money that I don’t have.
Sound familiar to any of you?
Then there’s the mental health aspect of financial problems.
We’ve published content about this before in this article. It can often be a chicken or the egg scenario. Your financial problems lead to stress that leads to unwise spending that leads to stress that leads to… you get the idea.
But that’s not all. The guilt and shame attached to it are hard on us.
Maybe some of the following will ring a bell.
- How you feel when you can’t pay for something your child really wants, like piano lessons or a school outing
- The embarrassment of having to make an excuse to avoid social obligations because you certainly can’t swing paying for “your round” of drinks
- Thinking back over every single dime you’ve spent during the last 6 months and feeling bad about 98% of it – did you really need that roast instead of hamburger meat? Did you truly require a new winter coat or could you have mended the old one? WHY did you buy that pizza dinner 3 months ago when you could have made it at home for a fraction of the price?
- The way a family member or friend looks at you with either pity or disdain and you imagine the negative dialogue about you that is going on inside their heads
- The family member that makes no bones about telling you that it’s all your fault
- The complete stranger who smugly suggests that maybe if you didn’t have tattoos (that you got 10 years ago when things were flush) or use a cell phone (that you bought used but they don’t know it) or manicured fingernails (that your kid in cosmetology school did for practice) that then you’d have the money to do whatever it is they feel you should be doing
Those thoughts and more ring in your head like a gong
The berating thoughts echo all the ways you could have avoided this situation if you’d only been better, smarter, wiser, thriftier, or more austere. You feel guilty for not “doing better.” You feel ashamed for not having made “the right choices.”
Soon, your house is a mess because you work constantly and don’t have the time, inclination, or energy to clean it. You can’t sleep because you lie in bed and ruminate over your financial sins. Furthermore, you don’t want to be around other people, even people you care about, because you’re freaking embarrassed about your situation. You turn down invitations to things you’d enjoy because “what if someone finds out?” Your financial problem becomes a dirty, dangerous little secret in your head.
And now, on top of everything, you’re depressed, angry, anxious, and perhaps even a bit agoraphobic.
How do you stop this cycle?
Financial problems are becoming far more prevalent but that doesn’t mean people are being forthcoming about talking about them. Your next-door neighbor or cranky uncle might be just as badly off as you, but they’re trying to hide it so they can feel better than someone else, and thus, better about themselves. Your cousin or your friend might be just as embarrassed as you and not mention it due to the fear of being judged.
- Talk to someone. If you have someone trusted that you can talk to, who won’t be full of “I told you so’s” or “I don’t have any money to lend you” the minute you open your mouth (not that you were even asking), talk to them. A problem shared is a lighter burden to bear and they might be able to help with some good ideas. If you don’t have a person like that, a member of the clergy at your church might provide a sympathetic ear and even resources in a desperate situation.
- Don’t be too proud to accept help. If there’s someone offering you a hand up without strings attached, for crying out loud, take it. As well, remember that you have worked and paid taxes and are every bit as entitled – actually more so – to any help offered by the government as people who use that assistance as their career.
- Stop beating yourself up. Seriously. It’s so easy to just beat the crap out of yourself mentally for ending up where you are but it’s not going to help you to get out of it. When you catch yourself devolving into the whirlpool of negative self-talk that will surely drag you down even further, STOP. Let the other, kinder part of your brain remind you that you are human, you may have made mistakes, or you may just be in a situation beyond your control.
You feel like you are completely alone in this, but I promise you are not.
- Remember that our country is on the verge of economic collapse. Lots of people think of economic collapse as this one huge disaster that occurs on a certain date that wipes out everyone’s finances. In truth, it’s a slow slide of lots and lots of people just like us who either get hit with one big, unexpected expense that takes out their emergency fund and puts them into debt, or whose income can no longer keep up with rising prices. There are more people than ever in your exact situation, but nobody wants to share the story of their self-imposed shame. Ever since Covid mandates shut down businesses and ended jobs, more people than ever are finding their personal finances decimated. You are not alone.
- It only takes one thing to go wrong. It just takes one unexpected expense or financial emergency to put you into a terrible spiral from which it feels like there is no escape. And often it happens in bunches. I recently lost a source of income, then had to move twice due to the first home not being in line with city codes, then paid some staggering vet bills before my dog died. Our system is built to kick you when you’re down – suddenly you’re subject to fees and penalties and all sorts of issues. Poverty is a trap that can feel impossible to escape.
Positive steps to overcome guilt and shame
The last thing you might want right now is some Pollyanna bullsh*t about thinking happy thoughts and looking on the bright side. But the fact of the matter is, you can’t hate and berate your way out of financial problems. Making yourself sick physically and mentally will not make your situation better, and will, in fact, make it worse, when your body and brain have had more than enough.
Try taking one or more of the following steps.
- Clean your house. That might be the last thing you feel like doing when you work all the time. But getting things fresh and orderly really will help with your state of mind and will help you not to waste food or let things get ruined. Even if the weather is cold, let a little bit of fresh air circulate and cleanse your space. This is not a waste of time.
- Cook some healthy meals ahead of time. Instead of grimly shoveling Ramen noodles into your mouth, spend one afternoon in the kitchen making nutritious meals that you can heat up during the week. Nourishing your body through this is important because it will help you to remain healthy. You deserve good food. Throw together some generic V-8, either meat or lentils, and some canned veggies to make a soup. Add rice or pasta at serving time. Get some dad-gum veggies into you.
- Give yourself breaks. I’m notoriously bad for working non-stop. It’s my go-to, my way of trying to control a situation that has gone awry. “If I just work harder, I can fix this,” I find myself saying. But, at the advice of an annoying (but very good) friend, I have written 2 hours into my daily schedule to drive to a nearby wooded park and walk my dog. It nearly kills me to do that – I feel so guilty! But I’m doing it and every day, the guilt recedes and my head gets a little bit more clear. While I’m living proof that you definitely can work every single waking hour, I’m also living proof that you should not. For me, the forest or the beach are my happy places. Find yours and make it a hard-and-fast part of your day to go there.
Love, gratitude, and stress management
- Spend time with people who build you up. Don’t spend your time with people who tear you down and make you feel even worse about your situation. Those people just underline that negative voice in your head telling you that you are unworthy. Avoid them for now if you can at all, and if you can’t don’t engage on the subject of money. Instead, spend your time with the people who love you for you. Hang out with your children, your loved ones, your very best friends, and allow yourself to feel the love and acceptance you get from them.
- Think about the good things in your life. Colette wrote an awesome article about gratitude journals and the funny thing is, the very worst points of your life are the best time to start them. No matter how dark things are, there are still good things in your life, even if it’s just the bumblebee visiting the flowers on your patio bringing you a smile.
- Find a way to manage your stress. Stress management is essential. You will not get out of your current situation driven sheerly by stress. There are some awesome, thrifty stress management ideas in this article.
Remember that our life has seasons. This might be a dark season for you but it doesn’t mean that a brighter season isn’t still ahead.
How do you cope with money problems?
While we’d all like to think that once we bail ourselves out of financial trouble it will never happen again, that’s simply not the case for many of us. Some don’t make enough money to ensure financial comfort. Others will be hit by some crazy monetary meteor they never saw coming. And again, let me remind you, our economy is in rough shape.
Accepting the fact that this can happen and having a plan to deal with it can really help you when hard times hit. It doesn’t make it painless and stress-free – not by any stretch of the imagination. But it can at least serve as a reminder that just as things can be difficult, they can also get better – and you know this because you’ve done it, my friend.
Have you ever run into serious money problems and suffered from guilt and/or shame? How did you manage it? What coping mechanisms were helpful for you? Did you have any epiphanies during those times that have helped you in the future? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments.
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