Rahkim Sabree owns a home in Hartford, Connecticut, invests and has money in savings. But that is not always enough to make him feel safe. Unexpected expenses, regardless of the cost, bring him discomfort.
“I get very worried when I have to spend money,” Mr. Sabree, 33, said. financial coach and consultant, said. This sometimes causes him to delay paying for necessities such as new shoes or home repairs.
During his teenage years, Mr. Sabree, who is Black, lived with his family in subsidized housing and paid for groceries with food stamps. “When things got really bad, we went without electricity and water,” he said. More than once, they were almost kicked out. Seeing an eviction notice on the door was embarrassing, Mr. Sabree recalled.
Those experiences shaped how he spends and saves. Feeling in control of your money brings peace, Mr. Sabree said. But when that control slips, anxiety creeps in. “It feels like something is happening to me, instead of me making something happen,” he said.
Experiences like Mr. Sabree’s can lead to what financial psychologists call “financial trauma” — an intense and sustained emotional response to current or past financial distress, said Alex Melkumianpsychologist and the founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles.
Financial trauma can cause negative thoughts, flashbacks and anxiety – symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Unlike everyday stress, trauma does not wax and wane. It ends up hurting your relationship with money, said Thomas Fauplfinancial therapist in San Francisco.
Common causes of financial trauma include medical debt, financial insecurity, and economic crisis. For example, survivors of the Great Depression were less likely to invest in the stock market because they feared another crash that would hurt their retirement savings.
Trauma can also travel through generations in different ways, such as inheriting your parents’ debt. Dr. Melkumian added that systemic problems, such as racism and discrimination, could also play a role.
Unlike PTSD, financial trauma is not a mental health diagnosis, so financial counselors and therapists often overlook it. Many people are never told that scary experiences involving money can hurt their financial and psychological health, Mr. Faupl said. Despite this, 2016 an inquiry found that 25 percent of Americans, including 36 percent of millennials, reported PTSD symptoms caused by financial distress.
Recognize stress signals
One telltale sign of financial trauma is money avoidance, Dr. Melkumian said. In other words, some traumatized people may refuse to create a budget, open their bills, or discuss their finances.
Avoidance can also mean neglecting to spend when you should. For example, Mr. Sabree used to count his behavior towards frugality. But he noted that unlike saving for a rainy day, his choices were sometimes driven by a desire to avoid another brush with poverty.
Any painful experience involving money can make you feel insecure, said Aja Evans, a financial therapist in New York. This often leads to negative thoughts, she explained, such as “I’ll never have enough money” or “I’ll never be good with money.”
Overspending can also be a sign of financial trauma. You may try to compensate for feeling deprived as a child by over-indulging as an adult. For example, you could blow your savings on vacation, eat too much, or spend all your money shopping online.
Chantel Chapman, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Richmond, British Columbia, was once prodigal in this way. For nearly a decade, she bought gifts, clothes and dinners she couldn’t afford, she said. That left her with nearly $10,000 in credit card debt and $10,000 in tax debt, which put a dent in her savings.
Like Mr. Sabree, Ms. Chapman grew up without financial security. But while Mr. Sabree’s financial trauma made him frugal, Ms. Chapman’s resulted in overspending.
“I had a lopsided relationship with money,” she said. Ms. Chapman said she was afraid of debt, but that her desire to belong to a wealthier crowd led her to spend beyond her means. Trauma made her a people-pleaser, she said, adding, “I thought I had to look a certain way to be accepted.”
Sabotaging your financial future is another red flag. You may believe that having a high-paying job makes you selfish or is something you don’t deserve, Mr. Faupl said. As a result, saboteurs may give up asking for a higher salary, or they may never ask for a raise.
Once you can recognize the signs of financial trauma, you can work toward a solution. For starters, try looking at the “problem through the window of money,” Mr. Faupl advised. From this point of view, ask yourself: “What do I need to do to deal with my financial situation?”
Watch out for triggers
Any thought, feeling or memory paired with the trauma can trigger distress. For example, if you lost money during the 2008 financial crisis, seeing the stock market fall can produce anxiety. Or if you’re burdened with student loan debt, the end of the payment break can be worrisome.
“It can feel like watching a scary movie all over again,” said Michelle Griffith, senior wealth advisor at Citi Personal Wealth Management.
Ms. Griffith has seen an increase in financial trauma among some of her clients. In 2009, some people lost up to 40 percent of their retirement savings. Now, with the possibility of another downturn, they are worried about a repeat. This can make people afraid of the risks that come with investing, Ms. Griffith said, prompting them to spend their investments or retirement accounts too early.
When the emotional tide is high, Ms. Griffith recommends letting facts drive decision making. “Even bear markets bounce back,” she said. And over the past 70 years, the stock market has fallen 5 percent several times each year. Knowing that dips are temporary can help soften the sting, Ms. Griffith said.
While no one can predict the future, being able to spot your triggers puts you in a better position to take care of yourself, Ms Evans said. Even taking a few deep breaths, going for a walk or talking to a friend calms you down, making you less likely to resort to impulsive actions, she said.
Establish financial limits
Boundaries help us feel secure in relationships, and they can also keep our financial behaviors in check.
For example, Ms. Evans recommends that overspenders remove credit cards from apps and online stores. The thrill of shopping provides a dopamine rush that can interfere with your self-control, she said. But if your credit card isn’t convenient, it’s harder to indulge.
People who avoid money may take small risks, such as pushing themselves to spend $10 or $20 on a joyful experience. Dr. Melkumian calls this “compulsive splurging,” and said it’s one way to get out of your comfort zone. It does the opposite of what the negative emotion is telling you, he said.
Any behavior that captures avoidance is also useful. Ms. Griffith suggested setting up automatic transfers of money from your checking account to your savings each month. You can also automate your monthly bill payments and allocate funds from each paycheck to your retirement account.
Recovering from financial trauma is a two-pronged approach. You have to deal with the financial aspect as well as the trauma that caused it, Mr. Faupl said.
Talking with a financial therapist who specializes in financial trauma is the first step. With a background in psychology and money, the financial therapist can help you understand the connection between your painful experience and your financial issues. For example, if your family fought about money when you were a child, Mr. Faupl said, you might avoid difficult financial conversations as an adult. Or if you grew up without financial security, you can accumulate money later in life.
In addition to therapy, taking a financial literacy course or talking to a financial advisor can set you up for success.
As part of her recovery, Ms. Chapman turned to psychotherapy and financial education. However, none of her therapists made the connection between her trauma and money problems. She was told to exercise willpower, which led to more shame, she admitted. Hoping to educate others, Ms. Chapman co-founded the Trauma of Moneyan educational website that teaches financial trauma literacy classes.
Mr. Sabree also strives to help others, especially those in the Black community, develop healthier financial habits. In his personal and professional experience, financial trauma never really goes away.
“It’s not like turning off a light switch,” he said. It can’t be erased, but you can work through it.