The Lionel Shipman Shape Your Finances Show.
Guest – Dr. Alex Melkumian.
Title – Is your Money Behaving?
The Lionel Shipman Shape Your Finances Show.
Guest – Dr. Alex Melkumian.
Title – Is your Money Behaving?
Forbes Advisor Article written by Lisa Rowen
Americans say they’re saving money. Retail spending is up. Low interest rates have sparked the housing market and the stock market has rebounded from its initial pandemic dive.
But how does any of this make sense when so many people are struggling financially months into the Covid-19 crisis and the recession that came with it? The unemployment rate is high, unemployment assistance is about to expire again in some states, overall consumer spending is down and mortgage delinquencies are on the rise.
The reason is what’s expected to be a K-shaped economic recovery, which disproportionately impacts different segments of the economy. Even now, more than six months into the pandemic, some households’ finances are largely untouched, while others are looking at a long and arduous recovery.
For many, weathering what has become a longer-term financial storm will require more than just an emergency fund. An individual’s financial issues are so closely tied to the state of their mental health, and the ongoing stresses of the coronavirus pandemic are well documented.
While you cannot predict how—or when—the American economy will recover from this period, you can take some time to reframe how you think about your finances on an emotional level.
Here’s what you need to know about protecting your finances and your mental well-being during these uncertain times.
An economic downturn and its eventual recovery can take many shapes. You may have heard of a V-shaped or U-shaped recovery. But one thing these often-referenced shapes have in common is that widespread financial challenges usually are met with widespread recovery, albeit by various degrees for individuals.
A K-shaped recovery, however, sees two groups diverging from an economic turning point, instead of tracking a single curve of decline and recovery. More affluent individuals see their situation as stable or improving during a downturn—they’re the upper portion of the K—while others experience devastating losses.
There are signs that this is happening now during the Covid-19 crisis.
People earning between $25,000 and $35,000 were nearly three and a half times more likely to report having a “very difficult” time paying for usual household expenses than those earning between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, according to a late-August survey by the Census Bureau.
Take the hospitality and leisure sectors for example, explains Brian Kench, dean of the Pompea College of Business at the University of New Haven. “Only about half of lost jobs have come back,” in those sectors, he says, due to continuing virus concerns.
Benefits designed to stabilize people who haven’t been able to return to work or find new employment—if they have been able to access those funds—are likely to run out. The grim employment outlook plus strained finances compounds the recovery process for these individuals.
“The lower part of the K feels like it’s sliding even deeper,” Kench says.
If you have large swaths of people who can’t earn money to pay their bills and make purchases, it’s going to take longer for the economy as a whole to show vast improvements, even if there are a lot of people who are doing relatively well.
And for many people, the impact of that slower recovery track can have long-term effects on their ability to earn and amass wealth.
A recent survey found that households of color face a more challenging financial landscape than their white counterparts, often with less access to aid programs like the Economic Impact Payments, popularly known as the stimulus checks, authorized by the CARES Act.
Households of color were still trying to regain ground from the last financial crisis before the coronavirus pandemic came along. Income for Black households didn’t surpass 2007 levels until 2019, according to new Census Bureau data on income and poverty.
“But that’s already old news,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, during a presentation this week. “The impact of the pandemic and the recession has had a disproportionate impact on Black workers and their families,” Wilson explained.
Recognizing a K-shaped recovery can help acknowledge that not every part of the economy recovers at the same pace. Much of the process is ultimately felt at a personal level.
“A lot of industries are going to be hard hit for an extended period of time,” says Leigh Phillips, CEO of financial technology nonprofit SaverLife. “Schools aren’t back, childcare is not back and that obviously impacts a lot of families.”
Almost 90% of users of SaverLife’s financial education platform—who tend to earn about $25,000 per year—have reported a loss of income due to the pandemic.
“But that loss of income has been paired with simultaneous increased spending,” Phillips says. Households who weren’t already set up for remote work or online learning had to figure out how to cover the costs of internet access or devices, she explains.
And families who may have had their grocery costs supplemented by school meal programs may suddenly have been faced with the need to provide three meals a day at home, during a time when food costs increased, Phillips says. “Even for people who receive supplements from the government to pay for food, we’re still seeing much higher spending in that category,” she says.
SaverLife has been encouraging members to claim their stimulus checks or unemployment benefits if they haven’t already, along with pointing them to food assistance programs in their areas. The organization also partners with financial coaching programs around the country to help users work with their creditors.
But taking those first steps to access help can be challenging, especially since some of the initial shock of the pandemic’s economic impact has dulled.
“People don’t necessarily want to confront some of these issues right now,” Phillips says. “They’re frightening. But the more that you can [do to] get all the assistance you can, the better off your family’s going to be.”
With the U.S. pandemic response in its seventh month, you may have already exhausted your initial sources of financial security, whether in the form of an emergency fund or government aid. But before you strategize a long-term budget to weather this period, it’s helpful to recognize your emotional state.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, you may have felt a fight-or-flight response to adapt to the immediate changes. But that response may no longer be enough to support you through this next phase, warns Dr. Alex Melkumian, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and the founder of the Financial Psychology Center.
Some people have fewer coping mechanisms to maintain that “fight” response for a long period, or never had the resources to be in the position to fight in the first place, Melkumian says. He uses the example of someone who loses their job suddenly and needs to apply for unemployment. “For some people, that’s a devastating place to get to in their career.”
Add that grief onto the difficulties of navigating state unemployment insurance systems and the health concerns brought on by the pandemic, and the stress you feel can start to stack up—which can do long-term damage to your relationship with money.
“Money can be a conduit for anything we’re emotionally filled with,” Melkumian explains. “If we’re full of fear and anxiety, it’s going to [show] in our behavior and our decision-making with money.”
Melkumian says that beneath patients’ frustration with their financial situation are often feelings of shame and guilt. And, to persevere over the long term, you need to address that emotional side of dealing with money. “When we fight our emotional nature, we do ourselves a disservice. The longer we ignore, the longer recovery will take.”
Whether you were struggling before the pandemic or your financial challenges are more recent, recognize that a lot of people are in a tough position. This is not the time to feel guilty because you weren’t better prepared.
“During this crisis, priorities may need to be made that focus on the present, and that is okay,” says Sarah Parker, senior director at the Financial Health Network. “Emergency funds may need to be tapped, and that is okay because it’s exactly what they’re there for.”
If your funds are coming up short for basic needs, don’t wait to ask for help. “Don’t be so ashamed and guilty that it prevents you from reaching out for help,” Melkumian says. Many financial institutions are still working with customers to offer forbearance programs, and you may be eligible for aid beyond the channels you’ve already pursued.
“Understand you need to give yourself the room to process, to get through the emotional stuff,” Melkumian says, but don’t let it pull you into a spiral of shame that’s harder to get out of later.
Don’t worry about making the perfect budget right now. But do your best to plot out your obligations, resources and any accommodations you’ve requested.
“Our research shows that planning behavior is highly correlated with improved financial health,” Parker says. “People often don’t plan because they feel overwhelmed by it, especially those with strapped budgets already. But starting somewhere with a small degree of planning for the rest of the year into the next will help.”
Thinking about your goals—even if it’s just covering the basics—can help you start to see incremental progress, Parker says.
For a boost, try using free budgeting apps that can help you track your spending and help you plan ahead. “There are many apps that analyze spending patterns and cash flow to help consumers determine what their disposable income is without jeopardizing their financial obligations when those bills roll around,” she says.
Melkumian recommends taking a few moments to do a daily emotional self-check to catch brewing financial fears before they grow larger than life.
Since you can’t predict how long the widespread economic recovery will take, you can’t let yourself get overwhelmed with daily what-if scenarios, he warns. “Everyone wants their financial world to improve immediately,” Melkumian says, but that hope can manifest irrational expectations.
It’s important to develop a mindset that can see how small improvements in your finances that may seem insignificant now can have a bigger impact a few years from now. Doing so can take time, so be patient with yourself as you continue to check on your emotional state and financially recover.
There are plenty of reasons to feel worried about money right now. A financial therapist can help.
As the COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on healthcare, education and the economy, it has also taken a toll on our psychological and emotional well-being. Millions of people have lost their jobs and are filing for unemployment. More than 5 million people in the US have been infected, and many of them are facing an onslaught of medical bills. If you’re worried about money right now, you’re not alone.
But financial anxiety isn’t exclusive to the ranks of the unemployed. It can just as easily plague people who have enough money at the moment but are worried about the future. And regardless of where you fall on the socio-economic spectrum, money can be difficult to talk about — even in a regular therapy session.
“Financial trauma has unfortunately become a reality for some who’ve experienced extreme financial hardship,” says Alex Melkumian, founder of Financial Psychology Center. “In times of the pandemic, the overall level of financial stress and worry has risen exponentially and has negatively impacted the financial wellness and mental health of so many.”
Financial concerns can ripple into all areas of your life. After all, money isn’t always just about money; it can be a surrogate for stress, anxiety and trauma, too. That anxiety can manifest through fears about end of life and mortality — running out of money in retirement or during an emergency, for example.
There’s a type of counseling specifically for money-related anxiety: financial therapy. Read on to see if it might be a good fit for you.
According to the Financial Therapy Association, this form of counseling can help people change the way they think and feel about money — and, most importantly, change negative behaviors. It gets right to the heart of your financial attitudes.
Melkumian says financial therapy can help those who need to dig deeper into why they can’t stop living paycheck to paycheck or keep getting deeper into debt.
“If you make the same financial mistakes and can’t seem to figure out why, if money is a major source of conflict with your significant other, [or] if your financial situation is creating turmoil in your life and causing extreme emotions,” financial therapy may help you, Melkumian says.
Different people have different needs, he says, but financial therapy can help develop a detailed financial plan.
“One of the most common tasks addressed in financial therapy is setting up and implementing a spending plan,” Melkumian says. “A client can implement a comprehensive spending plan in a span of three months. For clients who struggle with extreme financial stress, worry and trauma, addressing those issues may take longer to process.”
Financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, author of The Financial Anxiety Solution, says there are a few important distinctions between a financial therapist and a traditional therapist.
“Many therapists have a specialty in other tough areas such as trauma, sex, abuse, gambling, addiction and/or neglect — but very few specialize in money,” she says. “Money can absolutely be brought up in a regular therapy session. However, most therapists do not have additional training on the psychology of money.”
And, of course, a conventional financial advisor helps you manage your money — not manage your feelings and emotions about money. “You cannot call yourself a therapist if your background is in finance,” says Bryan-Podvin. “You can say you have financial therapy training, but to call yourself a therapist, you must have at least a Master’s degree in Counseling, Social Work, or Psychology.”
While Bryan-Podvin has a Master’s degree in social work, the Financial Therapy Association requires a financial or mental health background for those seeking to become a Certified Financial Therapist. General therapists might recommend seeing a financial therapist if they don’t have the extended knowledge, training and expertise surrounding the psychology of money.
You can find a financial therapist on the Financial Therapy Association’s database. Melkumian, who is also an FTA board member, says there are approximately 350 financial therapists in the US. The cost of a session varies by provider and location.
Many financial therapists, including Bryan-Podvin and Melkumian, currently offer remote service. If you don’t have a financial therapist near you, you may be able to set up a virtual session.
There may be less expensive alternatives, too. Many banks, credit card issuers and other financial institutions offer some form of education or counseling. Capital One offers free money coaching. You may not get the same level of counseling as you would from a financial therapist, but it may help you begin to address some of your issues with money.
And you don’t need to wait until you’ve gone through financial trauma before getting into financial therapy. Melkumian says you can look into financial therapy before issues start.
“Why wait to see a financial therapist until you are broke?” he asks. “You can save yourself from the pain and suffering by starting now.”
More than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment during a single week in March External link as the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19) forced businesses to shutter and people to stay home. Job loss, reduced work hours and financial insecurity caused by the pandemic are exacerbating stress that already stems from money.
“Whether people have a lot of money or people have no money, money is a really stressful thing in our lives,” said Maureen Kelley, a Denver-based financial therapist and founder of MADRE (Money, Assets and Durable Relationships). External link “This crisis we’re working [with], dealing with and living with now, it just accentuated it. And the fear and the panic around this is exponential.”
Financial, physical, mental and emotional health are all intertwined.
“We can’t just assume that it’s only financial stress,” said Alex Melkumian, Psy.D., LMFT, founder of the Financial Psychology Center External link in Los Angeles. “It’s also psychological stress, emotional stress [and] the stress that compounds our concern about our physical well-being.”
Fear and panic associated with stress can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response. Melkumian explained that we react to stress because our emotional brain, or limbic system, can take over and cloud our ability to make rational decisions.
“And that’s when you see the really negative response to the stress, which can be overthinking, a lot of anxiety, worry, sadness and despair,” he said.
Studies have shown that financial stress can lead to a range of physical and psychological complications. Depression, anxiety and poor work performance are among the possible psychological effects of financial stress (PDF, 254 KB). External link The physical health complications of financial stress External link can include cardiovascular disease, increased mortality, inflammation, hypertension, diabetes and digestion problems.
Long-term financial stress can also negatively affect immune response.
“When we’re stressed—chronically stressed—that stress response takes away from our immune system functioning,” Melkumian said. “We’re actually reducing our ability to cope with the virus.”
Kelley has seen an uptick in fear and panic among her clients. And although she believes the economy will bounce back, the lingering question for many people is when that will happen.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with this,” she said. “People are losing their jobs, their hours are cut, retirement portfolios have been decimated. These fears are very real for us as a country.”
Rather than becoming paralyzed by fear and making irrational decisions, Kelly says that it’s important to learn how to manage fear, stress and anxiety.
“Look at the small things that are in your control right now around spending and know that this will pass,” she said.
OnlineCounselingPrograms.com asked a number of experts in the realm of financial counseling and coaching for tips on how to manage financial stress during crises.
Become more aware of how you are feeling and identify the root of those feelings in order to move away from a panicked state.
Financial coach Jenn Steliga External link explained that it’s important to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
“The more we push our feelings away or ignore them, research actually shows that they grow and get out of control,” she said. “Then, we’re in a position where our emotions are controlling us.”
Simple mindfulness practices can help ease anxiety. Steliga said that if you notice you are feeling anxious, stop and ask yourself something simple.
“Sounds very silly,” she said, “but if you can say, ‘Where are my feet?’ you bring focus to something.”
Melkumian also suggested making time for short, incremental meditation sessions for a few minutes throughout the day to alleviate the buildup of stress.
“Money is still the last taboo in our culture,” Kelley said. “Nobody likes to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. People don’t know how to talk about it.”
Money can be difficult to discuss because it is often surrounded by feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment. Those feelings can be heightened in a crisis. Kelley encouraged people to find a safe space to talk about money with a friend, family member, financial advisor or therapist.
“Often when you’re just able to verbalize it or share it with someone else, that in itself relieves a lot of stress,” Kelley said.
Free budgeting apps can help families create and track budgets
“A budget is not just tracking their expenses,” Steliga said. “It’s spending every dollar on paper on purpose, before they ever hand it out to anyone at all.”
For those facing true financial hardship, it’s best to prioritize spending on basic needs including housing, utilities, food and transportation. Kelley suggested cutting down on nonessential spending and “really looking at what are the things that I can control in my spending and what are the things that are not essential that I can cut out.”
When it comes to shopping, shop intentionally, Steliga added. Take stock of products you have in your house; then, make a shopping list and stick to it.
After meeting your basic needs, including bills and legal obligations, make your minimum payments on loans and credit lines but don’t worry about paying off debt.
“A lot of people would say, ‘Hurry up and get out of debt,’ which is a really big misconception,” said Wendy Wright, LMFT, a financial therapist External link based in Denver. She encourages clients to build savings while paying down debt.
It can be tempting to take on more debt when money is tight during a crisis, but try to minimize new debt. Don’t let short-term panic dictate long-term financial decisions.
Wright suggested tracking how much money is required to meet basic obligations and then putting extra funds in a savings account for a set period of time. She encouraged using a timeline of three months and revisiting the situation after that time has passed. Having a set window to focus on saving can help reduce anxiety.
“Our brains like a beginning and an end,” Wright said.
Financial stress from the coronavirus outbreak can compound general stress surrounding the pandemic. It can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
The following strategies can help mitigate financial stress when paired with other mental health concerns in a crisis.
Creating and maintaining a schedule can provide structure for people who are home-schooling or caring for their children while dealing with struggles like job loss and financial insecurity. Schedules set boundaries and can help people avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms like binge-watching television, drinking too much or online shopping.
“Within that schedule, give yourself very specific time to job search and to get yourself on a budget,” Steliga said. “Be very specific.”
Rather than committing to looking for jobs without a real plan in place, Steliga suggested telling yourself, “I will job search for 30 minutes tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. at my kitchen table with my coffee while my kids are doing homework.”
Eat well, exercise, and try to avoid round-the-clock binge-watching. Avoid heavy social media use and excessive news consumption.
“Do the things that bring you into a good place so that you can continue to make good choices,” Steliga said.
People are being asked to make important decisions while dealing with fatigue. Wright said that “pacing yourself, building a routine [and] sticking to your routine as much as possible” can help create a sense of steadiness during uncertain times. That can also include maintaining previously established mental health interventions.
She also said that it’s important to remember everybody is doing the best they can.
Crises can bring a heavy sense of loss. Identifying the stage of grief that you’re experiencing (denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance) can help you build connections with others. People experience grief at different rates, so naming which stage you are in can allow you relate to people in different stages.
Melkumian also encouraged “scheduled worry sessions”—actually set aside 5 to 10 minutes during the day where you allow yourself to worry. The paradoxical intervention helps contain anxiety.
“You get your worries out for 10 minutes, but then the rest of the day you’re worry-free,” he said.
Although worrisome thoughts may still arise throughout the day, it’s up to you to guard your own mental well-being and protect yourself from those automatic thoughts, Melkumian said.
Staying connected in times of crisis is vital.
Seek financial advice from people who are grounded. Look for support from friends, family members and counselors who are financially stable. And if you are unable to see your regular counselor, look into telehealth options.
These resources can help alleviate financial and other stress-related to the coronavirus outbreak.
This article is for informational purposes only. Reach out to a financial professional before making any important financial decisions. If you are experiencing mental health issues related to financial concerns, consult a mental health professional.
Are you interested in supporting people through mental and emotional challenges? Learn more about how to become a counselor.
If your finances make you anxious, you’re not alone. Before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, 60% of Americans were stressed out by money, according to the American Psychological Association. None of us are untouched by uncertainty about what lies ahead, and that can cause unexpected emotions.
“Entering into this crisis, most of us already had anxiety and stress around money,” says Brad Klontz, PsyD, CFP, a financial psychologist and managing principal at Your Mental Wealth Advisors and associate professor at Creighton University. “Then you throw the virus on top of it. You’re worried about your financial situation, and you’re also worried about people you love getting sick.”
It’s normal to need time to come to terms with layoffs, business closures, investment losses, or other financial upheaval due to COVID-19. And it’s OK to be upset about the situation, says Patricia Tidwell, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker. “It’s incredibly stressful,” she says. “I’d be worried about people if they weren’t upset.”
But there are many ways to move through the financial stress, anger, and sadness to a place of action. By recognizing your emotions, you can use them to drive your effort to take as much control of your financial situation as possible. Financial and mental health experts share insights on how to get started.
“We all have feelings and beliefs about money: earning money, having money, losing money,” says Tidwell. “Anger, grief, anxiety, and sadness are all feelings that are healthy, albeit uncomfortable, to have about what is happening now.”
Alex Melkumian, PsyD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center, adds fear, worry, and avoidance to the list. He says that financial stress from the pandemic can force people into survival mode. “Being in survival mode activates the fight, flight, or freeze response,” he says. “Considering the sudden onset of the pandemic, many people are in the freeze cycle. They feel paralyzed or are overthinking what to do next.”
The first step to working through these emotions is recognizing them and understanding that they are normal, Tidwell says. By taking a moment to identify what you’re feeling, you’ll be able to more easily find ways to work toward solutions.
“The sooner you can get to acceptance, as difficult as it may seem, everything else will be easier,” says Melkumian. “It’s a mental pivot that will disengage the emotional part of your brain, which is not helpful in moments like these.”
Unlike other, more personal financial upheavals, remember that many of the economic forces of COVID-19 are completely out of your control. Your state or local government may have told you that you can’t go to work or need to work altered hours. And it’s necessary for people to stay away from businesses in order to stop the spread of the virus. If these circumstances have altered your financial situation, it’s important to recognize that it’s not your fault, says Klontz.
“The good news is you don’t need to feel ashamed about it,” he says. “You’re also not alone.”
By recognizing this, you can avoid “personalizing the pandemic,” says Melkumian. Keeping an eye on the big picture can protect you from some of the negative emotions that are often associated with financial trouble, such as shame and guilt.
Once you’ve identified your emotions, it’s important to find mindful ways to manage them, says Tidwell. She suggests a physical exercise for a serotonin boost and meditation for reducing anxiety.
“Putting feelings into words also helps reduce the experience of feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “Talking to others helps you feel less alone. It can be helpful to learn that others are in similar situations with similar feelings.” Consider talking to a therapist or other mental health professional for more personalized methods for handling your emotions, she says. If you’re employed, check if your company offers free counseling through your health benefits or an employee assistance program.
If you still feel paralyzed by fear and anxiety, Klontz suggests confronting it head-on by thinking through any worst-case scenarios. What if you lose your job? Maybe that means you wouldn’t be able to pay your mortgage, and would eventually have to move in with your parents. Though it’s difficult to think about, letting this hypothetical play out can actually calm your body’s “life or death” reaction, by demonstrating that even in the very worst-case scenario, you will likely still be physically safe, Klontz says.
With so much uncertainty ahead, it can be easy to fall into regret about the past. Why didn’t you start that emergency fund earlier? Why did you take that vacation last year, when you could have saved that money? While it’s natural to wonder about the what-ifs, it’s important to remember that dwelling on the past will do nothing to improve your current situation, says Tidwell.
“Regret is about mourning a lost opportunity, and is often filled with shame,” she says. “It can take over, making it harder to do what will help now.”
Instead of letting your regret balloon into shame, which can keep you stuck, use any missed opportunities as lessons for the future, helping you chart a path forward, Klontz says.
“Did you have an emergency fund?” he asks. “Probably not. That makes you the average American. But now you see why you need one. This is a perfect opportunity for you to look at your spending habits.”
Being stuck at home may actually give you the time to start sorting out your finances in a way you haven’t been able to before. Maybe you can create a pandemic-specific budget, or place some monthly subscriptions on pause and use those savings to start a rainy day fund. This type of action might be exactly what you need to ease your financial worries, says Tidwell. “Taking stock and making plans can reduce anxiety and help you feel more in control,” she says.
“Become conscious of your spending, looking for ways to minimize expenses that are unnecessary,” Klontz suggests. “Interest rates are really low, so maybe now is the time to refinance your mortgage. There are opportunities right now for people.”
He also suggests researching some of the federal relief programs to see what type of assistance you may qualify for, especially if you’re a small business owner. And to keep yourself motivated, remember that, eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic will be in the past.
“Picture yourself when this is all over,” Klontz says. “How do you wish you would have gone through it, including your mindset, attitude, and behavior? Try to be that person now, because eventually this will be over.”
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