For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been putting a lot more effort into money management. While my bank account is by no means where I want it to be, and my habits are far from perfect, I feel like I’ve finally gotten to a place wherein I believe that I’ll be able to achieve my financial goals. And from that place, I’ve begun to see that getting out of debt and spending wisely isn’t so different than ending emotional eating (or emotional not eating) habits and getting to a healthy weight. Just like my relationship with food and with my body helps form my body image, I’m realizing that my relationship with money and my bank account has helped form a financial self-image.
I always say that you have to work on your head before you can work on your ass, and now I’m starting to feel that similarly, you have to work on your head before you can work on your bottom line. Women tend to focus on body image and check in regularly to see how theirs is doing. Do I feel confident in my looks? Am I doing right by my body? How do I feel about myself? But it took a while for me to approach my financial situation the same way. Am I confident in my financial choices and future? Am I doing right by my talents? How do I feel about myself?
Figuring out that I have a financial self-image was a really critical “getting it” moment for me. Once I started asking myself those questions, I realized that I really didn’t have a good financial self-image. I was past getting discouraged when I saw a thinner woman, but I still got discouraged when I looked at women who were earning more money, spending wisely, and who had positive attitudes about their financial futures. I wanted their confidence but I didn’t think I could get it until a miracle happened and I had tons of money to solve all my problems. Right. Just like I used to think that losing weight would give me confidence. But that’s not how it works; the confidence and self-love has to come first.
After I realized that, I was able to take the many lessons I’d learned about my health, fitness, and body image and start the process of repairing it. Here is what worked for me.
I had to believe that I wasn’t a lost cause. I can’t tell you the number of times when I was 75 pounds heavier that I told people, “I’m just not naturally thin” and “I’m never going to be a runner” and used that to excuse the fact that I was eating like shit and not exercising. Similarly, I felt like my financial situation was just the hand I’d been dealt and I was incapable of changing it. I accepted that I had a lot of student loan debt and was going to be dealing with it for years to come. I accepted that I was always going to be a “starving artist” who had to bust her ass for years before making a decent living. I accepted that I was materialistic and doomed to spend the rest of my life chasing impulses rather than spending responsibly. Basically, I gave up on myself before I’d even tried. It took me a long time to truly believe it was even possible for me to manage my money better. Getting in financial shape was just as intimidating as getting in physical shape, and in both cases, I really needed to believe I could do it.
Learning more helped me build confidence. I was so overwhelmed and intimidated by everything I didn’t know about money that I just tuned it out. But if I wanted to feel confident, I had to force myself to learn more. I didn’t make myself start putting it into practice right away, but I at least wanted to know the right thing to do. It’s similar to how I’ve felt with diet and exercise in the past. I don’t think anyone should expect herself to know exactly what to do and be motivated to do it from the start; I think it’s OK to take your time and let yourself collect a little information first. The less financially illiterate I felt, the more confident I felt.
I had to find real motivation. For me, spending less money now so I can afford to buy more stupid shit later on is as futile as crash dieting for a week so I can look good for an event. Focusing on a quick fix without changing your habits isn’t a good approach to dieting, and, turns out, it’s not a good approach to money management. But for a long time, that was all I wanted to do. Real motivation came for me when I started looking at what my friends were earning and accomplishing. Every time a friend talked about planning a trip or taking money from her savings account to buy something she wanted or needed, I’d wonder, Why can’t I have that too? Eventually, I was faced with an inevitable conclusion: I could. And slowly, I began to want to. And what I wanted at that point was sort of like the difference between wanting to be skinny so you can wear a cute dress like your friend, and wanting to be healthy so you can be fit and active like your friend. I wasn’t motivated because I wanted to buy nice stuff, but because I wanted to have less financial stress and a solid future.
I seriously had to believe that I wasn’t a lost cause. For a long time, I felt like I was doomed by my background and chosen career path to be broke forever. When you grow up without a lot of money, it’s hard to envision not being worried about money. And it’s really easy to just accept that creative work is low-paying work, especially when you’re starting out, so a lot of creatives don’t measure their success in terms of dollars. And while that’s all well and good — money definitely isn’t everything! — it makes it very easy to start seeing yourself as someone who will never have a savings account or a 401(k). But looking at my well-paid, equally talented, and rather creative friends and colleagues who were using similar skills in way more lucrative ways, I realized I was selling myself really short. Look, being able to do what I love whenever I feel like it is great. Getting paid to do what I love? IS AWESOME. But getting paid a decent living to do what I love so that I can live the life I want to live? That should have been the real goal, and once I realized it — and realized that I could absolutely have it, and have it soon, without fame, without going viral, without a book deal — I could not get it out of my head.
I had to stop feeling so guilty. Our culture treats both weight and money as issues of self-control, problems that could be solved if people simply tried a little harder. Advice is given with a tone of superiority, judgment, and “concern” that just comes across as condescending. I’ve felt strongly for a long time that that’s both incorrect and really harmful when it comes to weight — like, if you could shame people into losing weight, I’m pretty sure no one would be fat — but I still judged myself really harshly when it came to my lack of self-control over my spending and saving. But slowly, I started to ease up on myself. I began to realize that the embarrassment was holding me back and I knew I needed to just own up to it if I wanted to do something about it. With “sorry I’m not sorry” as my motto, I stopped apologizing for my shitty finances. It wasn’t that I wasn’t sorry about the situation, because I definitely have my regrets…I just stopped being so ashamed of it.
At this point, I approach the actual process of earning, spending, saving, and being smart with money very similarly to the way I approached losing weight and getting healthy. I don’t expect myself to do it overnight. I don’t expect to be perfect. I seek out advice and information. I make goals, take baby steps, and celebrate small victories. I stick to the plan and think hard before I splurge. And I recognize the role my financial self-image plays in everything. While I’m definitely not 100 percent confident yet, I hope that eventually, just like I can step on a scale without the number ruining my whole day, I’ll be able to look at my credit score and not head straight for the bottle of tequila.