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You Have the Power to Slay Your Money Monsters

July 10, 2015
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By Kathryn Hauer

Learn more about Kathryn at NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

If you have children — or a lasting memory of your own childhood — you understand a child’s fear of monsters under the bed. Even when Mom or Dad turns on the light and crawls under the bed to check, the youngster may still be petrified.

Money monsters terrorize grownups just as much as vampires scare 5-year-olds. Why are we so anxious about the concept of money? And how can we calm our fears?

What makes money a monster

Monsters are big. Kids are little, and monsters are big. Our paychecks are little, and our bills are big. Being small in the face of a towering troll is frightening, and money worries can appear similarly gigantic and terrifying. As Daniel Crosby, a behavioral finance expert, told Reuters last year, “So much subtext and hidden meaning [is] wrapped up in money. … Money is shorthand for happiness, power and personal efficacy, so it can be very scary.”

Monsters might hurt you. Kids don’t know what a monster might do to them, and a strong imagination magnifies the terror. Adults are no different when it comes to scary money monsters, especially when they lurch our way clothed in unfamiliar jargon. A bad investment can hurt you, and that’s a very real terror. You don’t always know whether a financial decision will turn out to be a fiend or a friend.

Monsters pop out unexpectedly. Kids dread the moment the monster finally jumps out. Grown-ups wait in fear to be blindsided by a car accident, a health crisis, a plummeting stock market. The uncertainty makes life itself uncomfortable.

Monsters can sometimes be real. Unfortunately, actual scary things can happen to kids. Children can’t be protected from all danger, and neither can your pocketbook. Tornadoes tear apart homes. Life-threatening cancers develop. And, as the well-known billboard bluntly says, when your teenager drove drunk and “just blew $10,000,” it’s your financial dragon to slay.

Facing your money monsters

Parenting experts Dr. Sears and Reshma Yaqub offer these ways to reduce a child’s fear of monsters; their advice applies well to soothing grown-up money worries as well.

  • Turn a problem into an opportunity. Having a parent “scare” the monsters away can build a child’s trust and security. Addressing money monsters has upsides, too: Continually being short of cash can be the impetus for you to train for a new job. High car insurance bills might make you a safer driver. Worries about paying for health care in old age could inspire you stop smoking.
  • Acknowledge and draw out fears. Just saying “I’m scared” can start the process of feeling better. As psychologist Robi Ludwig says, money is “a powerful symbol representing many different things …. It can symbolize the comfort of being taken care of and loved, as well as bring up issues of dependence and survival.” Acknowledging the power money has over us can start us on a path toward greater control
  • Track the trigger. Often it’s just one thing that’s really terrifying you — like paying for college. In that case, doing your research and identifying the worst-case scenario can minimize the T. rex looming over you.
  • Tell the truth. Ignoring money issues won’t make them go away. On good days, try to face the money ogre, take stock of your financial situation, make some plans, and do your best to stick to them.
  • Create a less scary environment. Try to be realistic about what you owe. Making a list or putting together a spreadsheet can show the facts, which are often less dire than what you imagined. Tip: Make your list after dawn, because realism usually doesn’t work when you’ve seen every half-hour on the clock since 1 a.m. In the light of day, you can take the time to honestly ask yourself whether things are as bad as they seemed under the covers last night.
  • Change false perceptions and beliefs. Many fears are just plain silly. Social Security is highly unlikely to disappear. You’re not going to end up digging through dumpsters. Being wealthy doesn’t make you a bad person. We invest money with all sorts of emotional baggage that can stagger us and slow our financial progress.

And don’t feel bad if you’re reluctant to talk about the money monsters disturbing your sleep! You are not alone: Americans would rather talk about death, politics, sex or religion than money, according to a recent Wells Fargo study. We all know that monsters lurk in the shadows and disappear when light shines on them; try some of these ideas to banish your own money monsters.

Image via iStock.