What to Do if Dealing With Money Feels Overwhelming

By Ellevest Team

So here’s the deal: Women are socialized, from a young age, to believe that money is not for us. That pretty much any time we buy something, we’re wrong. That we’re just plain bad with money. Ugh.

What to Do if Dealing With Money Feels Overwhelming

And so a lot of women feel bad when it comes to money. We hear this from women who make do on very little, and we hear it from women who live quite comfortably by comparison — so many of us seem to feel embarrassed, anxious, and alone.

That kind of feeling comes in a lot of different flavors. For some of us, the words “money” and “someday” always go together — it just never seems to be the right time to think about it. Some of us give a hard pass to the thought of making a budget. Some of us have made a few mistakes along the way that we’re scared to face. And some of us just feel lost and overwhelmed about knowing where to start.

So that’s us. If it sounds like you, here’s something good to fight the bad. Those feelings are valid. And they also don’t have to be permanent. You’re not alone. And no matter where you start, there are always things you can do to move forward.

Six steps to overcoming financial stress

You might think that sitting down to organize your money will be overwhelming and generally unpleasant, but we’re willing to bet that it’ll actually make you feel more in control. All you have to do is do the damn thing.

But you don’t have to go into this process blind. Here’s a checklist of steps you can take (and some deeper advice on each one, too). We recommend starting at the top and working your way down, one at a time, at a pace that works for you.

  1. Give your brain a boost. Picture a future where you’ve already done the thing. You don’t magically have a ridiculous pile of cash — but you’ve taken the time to think about your goal, you’ve thought about tradeoffs along the way, and you’ve mapped out the steps you’ll take. Sometimes projecting that feeling of accomplishment before you do anything else can get you from “bad feeling” to “hey … I can do this.”

  2. Look at your current spending habits and use them to make a high-level spending plan for the future. Here’s a how-to on our favorite flexible, high-level approach to “budgeting” (a term we use loosely).

  3. Sign up to get your employer 401(k) match if you have one and you can swing it financially. Here’s more about those and why they’re important.

  4. Make a plan to pay off high-interest debt. Because it’s costing you big time, so every dollar you pay off is a win. Here are a couple of approaches and how they work.

  5. Set a goal amount for your emergency fund and then work on building it up so you don’t have to play that “what-if” game anymore. Here’s how much to save, where to keep your savings, and a few other things that can help.

  6. Make a plan to invest for your goals. That might include retirement, buying a house someday, having kids, starting your own business, or just growing your net worth.

Some ideas to make it all easier

Break it down

If that list up there looks like a mountain of work, you could start out by breaking it down into little bitty steps. Something like this:

Goal: Look at your current spending habits and use the 50/30/20 rule to make a future spending plan.

  1. Log in to your bank account and download your most recent account statement.

  2. Make three “buckets”: Needs, Fun, and Future You. Categorize each purchase from your bank statement into one of these buckets, and then add them up. This is how your spending looks today.

  3. Look at your most recent paystub. What’s the final amount of the check? That’s your take-home pay. Multiply that by the number of paychecks you get each month to find your monthly take-home pay.

  4. Calculate 50% of that number (for needs), 30% of that number (for fun), and 20% of that number (for Future You).

  5. Look at your current spending habits and see whether you can make adjustments so that you’re spending within those buckets. If it isn’t doable, adjust the buckets’ percentages until they work for your real life.

  6. Aim to stay inside your buckets next month. Then, next month, see if you can tweak things to get them closer to that 50/30/20 ratio — and then plan to keep adjusting on the reg.

Once you have your little bitty steps, you can start with just the first one. Or maybe you do three little bitty steps at a time. Or you go until you really want to stop, and then you take a break.

This can really help you build momentum — and it can also help you avoid that big overwhelmed feeling by focusing on one small thing at a time.

Schedule a fun thing after

If money stuff has a history of making you feel bad, try this trick: doing it right before doing something you know will make you feel good. Like drinks with friends. Or your favorite workout class. Or curling up with a good book. (Sure, it’s a little Pavlovian, but hey, mood boosters are mood boosters.)

Also, if you have something to look forward to after you do The Big Thing, you might be more motivated to keep going as you work through it.

Let go of “have to”

“Ugh, I really do have to sit down and deal with my money this weekend” probably isn’t a mindset that’s doing you any favors. Neither is “I have GOT to stop spending so much” or “Wow, I have to stop being such a hot mess with my money.” You wouldn’t try to motivate your best friend that way, would you? (And tbh, you’d probably shut it down pretty fast if your best friend tried to motivate you that way, too.)

We’re big fans of switching off the “I must do this” mindset — which can feel unforgiving and judgmental, and who needs more self-criticism? The magic is trying to shift it to something more positive. Maybe a “This is a thing I’m doing for myself” mindset. Or a “Hey maybe I can’t get a raise tomorrow but I can do this” mindset. Or an “I’m brave, not perfect” mindset. Or whatever mantra works for you.

Think of it as self-care (because it is)

The idea behind today’s self-care movement is to protect your mental health so that you can bring our best self to your everyday life. In pop culture, that usually looks like candles and warm baths and spa masks and a glass of whatever you like to drink.

But here’s the thing: While money is people’s #1 source of stress, the act of saving and investing are the top drivers of women’s confidence when it comes to building the future we want. So if finally dealing with the money stuff is going to improve your mental health — by helping to knock out all that stress and guilt and anxiety about money, and helping you feel good about tomorrow — then doesn’t that count as self-care too? (Note: This is also extremely compatible with candles and wine. Just sayin’.)


© 2019 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The information provided should not be relied upon as investment advice or recommendations, does not constitute a solicitation to buy or sell securities and should not be considered specific legal, investment or tax advice.

The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific person.

Investing entails risk including the possible loss of principal and there is no assurance that the investment will provide positive performance over any period of time.

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Ellevest Team

Ellevest helps women build and manage their wealth through goal-based investing, financial planning, and wealth management. Our mission is to get more money in the hands of women.