Money matters during a global pandemic
Fear and Money
As we are immersed in another month of global pandemic, I sense the rising fears of my family, friends, and clients. Many of these fears center on financial concerns. Some are losing sleep, having trouble focusing, even feeling physically troubled amidst fears regarding economies. And why not? The global economy is seeing collapses unknown since ‘the great recession.’ Indeed, many of our own personal economies are being drastically reduced in the form of lost wages, furloughs, and unemployment. Our savings and retirement accounts, if we had any, are being reduced substantially as well. So, it stands to reason many of us are worried, even downright scared, about things very basic to our core sense of security in the world.
Mindfulness and Money
I submit that the ancient practices of mindfulness meditation have something to offer us in these times of deep concern. So, what is mindfulness exactly? It is ‘the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind, and discerning way (Shauna Shapiro).’ When it comes to your budget, mindfulness can help with everything from curbing impulse buys (think toilet paper) to deciding where to share your abundance or save/invest for long term goals. Most importantly, mindfulness allows us to be discerning and think of money management as an ongoing practice, a series of deliberate choices that reflect how you want to live your life. Mindfulness can also help us understand the realities of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations surrounding money including how those impact our decision-making process.
A foundational aspect of mindfulness is the intention with which we approach the practice of paying attention. Intention can be described as ‘setting the compass’ of the heart. Not a destination, but a direction. Intention in meditation practice asks why you are sitting on that cushion or mat. Intentional spending asks you to consider each dollar you spend as an extension of your personal values, creating an individual economy that centers on what you love, not on what society (or fear) tell you that you have to have. Articulating our core values is not an idle exercise. It is powerful and humbling and sometimes requires uncomfortable honesty with ourselves about what is really important and whether or not we are acting in accordance with those beliefs. One of the questions regarding money for me right now is what I’m going to do with the Federal stimulus monies I just received. Thankfully, my wife and I are blessed to continue to have work. So, in my abundance, am I going to buy needed goods and supplies? Or save for future financial goals including travel or retirement? Or spend on local businesses to help strengthen my community? Or donate to a worthwhile charity or individual I know is struggling? The answers to these questions will depend in large part on my values and whether I’m living in alignment with those when, or if, I decide to spend.
A 2019 Debt.com poll concluded that 67% of Americans have their family on a budget. This number is down over the past few years. However, economists predict that budgeting spikes in times of economic retraction. While budgeting in hard times may help stop the bleeding, it won’t help you build on your future financial goals. I liken this to trying to meditate when you are in panic mode. It’s very hard to sit still and focus on your breath when your body is saying, ‘get outta here.’ So, budgeting and tracking spending becomes a lifelong practice. Our family has recently revisited our budget and evaluated expenses during this time of stay at home orders and quarantine. We found we are saving money on automobile gas, kid’s activities, educational expenses, and food (because we are not eating out as much). While there are other expenses that have increased slightly (i.e. utilities) we are experiencing a net decrease in expenses, which allows us to save for our goals including travel and donate more to charity. We even recently purchased a home. I share this not to diminish other’s challenges or struggles, but to highlight that we have been working on this for YEARS. From tracking our spending to balancing our budget to paying off all our debt in 2019, we’ve had a long practice of planning and budgeting. So, if you have not started a budget yet, now is a great time to do so. If you have a budget, take a closer look at your spending and evaluate your needs. Maybe there are options there you wouldn’t have considered had you not paid closer attention. With available technologies, tracking and budgeting are easier now than they have every been.
Some of the challenges that arise as we consider our relationship to money have to do with the stories we tell ourselves. Paying attention sometimes reveals some uncomfortable truths we’ve inherited from our families, cultures, and class backgrounds. For example, I grew up in a single parent household. While my mother worked hard to meet all our wants and needs, she was often exhausted and in debt. I told myself growing up I would never be poor like my mom. I would be a rich stock trader or banker. And when I got into college that all changed. I discovered my love for people and I became a social worker. Needless to say, I’m not rich. However, I noticed there is a pervasive belief amongst those of us working with marginalized and disadvantaged people that those with money are selfish and controlling and only looking out for themselves. While there are wealthy people like this, I have also met some very generous, humble people who have a lot of money. What were the messages you heard about money growing up? How much was ‘enough’ in your family? What are your ‘truths’ about money? These beliefs impact our behaviors. People with wealth sometimes hide their riches while those who struggle with money sometimes hide their debt. Many of us don’t talk about money, which is a problem if you and your partner aren’t talking about it. (Recently discussed in our workshop, Couples and Finances). Shame is a powerful emotion that can have detrimental effects on our mental and financial health. In contrast, becoming aware of the ways these thoughts and feelings manifest can be an invaluable tool in being a discerning consumer and contributor during these challenging times.
In order to counteract feelings of shame and isolation that can result from fears about money, mindfulness also offers us the opportunity to practice compassion. Whether we need more self-compassion for the fear we are feeling related to money, or the suffering we are experiencing due to a lack of money for our needs, or the embarrassment we feel about having to apply for unemployment. Or perhaps we need more compassion for those who are worrying about money, are unemployed, or are quarantining surrounded by friends and family. In any case, we can recognize in these moments of suffering our common humanity. In whatever way we are suffering there are likely millions of people having similar thoughts, feelings or experiences. If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us that we are not alone.
Mike Bouck, MSW, LCSW