How to Face Your Greatest Financial Fears

Financial Fear

When Eleanor Roosevelt famously said “Do one thing every day that scares you,” she probably wasn’t talking about checking your bank balance.

Then again maybe she was. After all, millions of Americans – including top earners – are paralyzed by financial fear, stress, and negative self-esteem related to money.

  • Money is the top source of stress for American adults according to the annual Stress in America survey.
  • 72% of Americans said they felt stressed about money.
  • More than a quarter of Americans are stressed or “extremely stressed” about money most or all of the time.

Many people cope with money stress by pretending it doesn’t exist. Research shows people deal with anxiety “by avoiding whatever it is that makes them anxious.”

An example of this can be seen in a comment on Tiller’s Product Hunt listing:

“Another product I’d like to use to monitor my spending, BUT still can’t bear to look at my bank account.”

Regardless of what they earn, millions of Americans dread looking at their bank balance. As reported in the Atlantic, nearly half of Americans – including those earning over $75,000 – would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.

Not only that, but most families – even those close to retirement – have basically no money saved for retirement.


Financial fear is debilitating.

A low bank balance can mean everything from skipping a night out with friends to not being able to cover health care costs, family expenses, or even a mortgage.

These are terrifying fears to confront. No wonder many people are compelled to look away, despite knowing that looking away only makes their problems worse.

What you imagine is always scarier than what you know. Research and experience repeatedly show that confronting a problem – even without a solution at hand – soothes anxiety, allowing the mind to productively switch to focusing on next steps.

FDR’s famous quote that the “only thing we have to fear is…fear itself” is as true in personal financial matters as wartime politics.

Here are five insights to help you (or someone you know) face down financial fears and get moving on a happier path.

1. Your financial fears aren’t really about money.

“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” –  Mark Twain.

When we feel insecure about money, we really feel insecure about other things.

You’re not afraid to check your bank balance because it might be low; you’re afraid to see proof that you don’t have enough money to take care of yourself or your family.

The first step in confronting financial fear is naming what really scares you about not having enough money. Is it being judged by your peers? Is it fear of losing your house? Is it fear that you can’t afford necessities for your kids? Fear that you’ll never be able to retire?

Breaking your fear down into basic elements reduces its power. Really question the root of your fears. Write them down on paper; research shows getting them out of your head and onto a page can markedly reduce stress. With less stress comes less paralysis and the ability to progress.

“Reduce your plan to writing. The moment you complete this, you will have definitely given concrete form to the intangible desire.” – Napoleon Hill

2. Excessive self-criticism is counterproductive.

“What’s gone and what’s past help — Should be past grief.” – Shakespeare

It’s easy to say that money is just a social construct. In reality, it’s a very potent, very powerful construct that can shape self-perception.  A low bank balance can spin up a tornado of self-loathing.

Self-criticism is only helpful in small doses. A little goes a very long way. Self-criticism in excess is crippling. It makes us freeze and prevents us from taking necessary action.

Hating on yourself won’t solve problems – financial or otherwise.

Reframe self-criticism by reminding yourself that you can’t change the past, but only learn from it. Remind yourself that you are learning from setbacks by taking action today. Today is what matters.

As a practical matter, be honest yet gentle with yourself. Don’t waste time with self-criticism. Note your regrets – write them down, like you did with your fears above – then forgive yourself and move on.

You’ll already be far ahead of where you were yesterday simply by facing your fears and logging into your accounts today.

3. Your friends and neighbors are in the same boat.

The average U.S. household credit card debt balance totals $16,748. The average household with any kind of debt owes $134,643, according to a 2016 Nerdwallet study.

According to Pew Research, seven out of 10 Americans are strained by financial issues ranging from crushing debt loads, insufficient savings, or income that’s too low to cover their expenses.

The point is, you can take a form of comfort knowing that you’re not alone in your money mistakes, struggles, or fear. The stigma or isolation you feel is false. Very few Americans are where they want to be financially. Many are facing dire trouble.

4. Talking about it helps.

In a study from Umpqua Bank, 77 percent of respondents said they didn’t talk about personal financial stress because they were embarrassed about it.  For the 23 percent of people who did talk about it, 70 percent felt better after doing so.

Research consistently finds that talking about stress and traumatic events alleviates distress, leading to better outcomes.

While talking about money is considered taboo, this NBC News article outlines several ways that having a frank discussion about finances is “a seriously good idea for just about, well, everyone.

You don’t necessarily need to confide in family or friends. There are dozens of online forums where you can ask questions, get advice, and vent about your money stress. Personal Finance on Reddit is helpful. Wisebread has a roundup of 9 Online Forums That’ll Help You Reach Your Financial Goals.

5. Even the simplest financial plan will make you feel much better.

“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” George S. Patto

As Carl Richards recently noted in the New York Times, “Worry is a terrible business strategy.” It’s also a terrible strategy for our financial lives. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it’s the default setting for how most people confront money issues.

When a problem feels too big, it’s almost impossible to confront. But you don’t need to confront all your financial fears at once. And you don’t need to spend months developing a flawless financial plan to start making positive change.

In this blog post, Peter Polson, Tiller’s founder, notes the path to better financial fitness begins with “one goal that transcends individual circumstances and is universally relevant.”

“It’s a goal I want to practice more in my family life. It’s transformative for anyone who wants to improve their finances (and shape the world around us). This goal is the driving force behind our work at Tiller. Simply put: become more aware of your spending.”

Another way to say it comes from “The #1 Rule for Achieving Financial Success,” where Peter notes “Being engaged doesn’t mean having the answers, but it does mean asking questions, paying attention, and digging into the numbers.”

Being engaged, paying attention, asking questions, becoming aware of spending: these simple guidelines are everything you need to get started with a long-term plan to financial relief.

Starting even a very simple plan can make you feel better. It may not solve all problems, but it does solve the biggest problem: fear of engagement with your financial future.

“Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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