How are you with money?

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Keeping up
(Original photo by Hughes Leglise-Bataille.)

About two years ago, I started thinking about how much stress I’d felt about money in my life, how much I’d seen people around me feeling the same, and then what I might be able to do about that. I began interrogating everyone I met about how they managed their money and how they felt about it. Pretty much immediately it became clear that my original ideas for helping people with money (which I’ll talk about some other time) were never going to work. Just as quickly, though, it became clear that money was a much bigger stress in peoples’ lives than I’d realized. Even many of the people I thought of as well-off and stress-free were convinced that they were bad with money.

Since then, I’ve tried to ask everyone I can — friends, coworkers, friends of friends, casual acquaintences, people in airports, cabbies … you get the idea — how they deal with and feel about their money. Over time, I started classifying people into one of three camps:

The “Accountants”:
People who know where every penny goes, who reconcile their checkbook against their bank statement, and who feel much more annoyance about the amount of time they spend dealing with money than stress about it. Fewer than 1% of the people I interviewed fell into this category.

The Stress-Free:
People who do not manage their money tightly, but who spend less than they earn, and generally feel fine about their finances. Some of these people are very well-off and express that they are no better at managing money than anyone else, but have “dodged that bullet” one way or another; others just feel like they’ve always known about money. This group was a little less than 5% of the total.

Everyone else:
Nearly everyone else I spoke with — from those with the least money to many who were very well-paid — express a huge amount of stress about money, and usualy feel that they have much more stress about it than other people they know. Many of these people use exactly the same descriptions of their feelings about money (lack of understanding, feeling ripped off by banks and credit card companies, having a lot of fear about the future) no matter what their economic circumstances really are. This group was roughly 95% of everyone I spoke with, over a two-year period.

It’s not surprising that people have stress around money — what surprised me was how wide-spread that stress is, and how broadly it is spread across class, race, gender, geography, and many other characteristics. Nearly everyone seems to think that everyone else has some secret manual for dealing with money better than they do themselves.

For myself — and I’m sure this is true for others, too — I go back and forth between categories. Some of the time, I’m an “accountant,” and I’m incredibly diligent about filing receipts, tracking down those last three cents that just won’t reconcile on my checking statement, and entering in every upcoming transaction so I know what my bank balance will be months in advance. Other times, I fall completely off that treadmill and into the “everyone else” group, and just spend without knowing what will come next. Being an accountant is too much work, and tracking down those three cents is blisteringly boring; but the other option is if anything more work, if you count panicking as work.

The next time you’re feeling stressed out about money or as though you’re much worse with money than others, look around you. For every hundred people you see, about 95 of them probably feel just the same. Of course there are real differences — some people have no credit card debt, others have lots of debt — but just acknowledging that money is an incredibly hard issue for nearly everyone can be liberating. In fact I think it’s the best first step. This stuff is hard, and it hits everyone from time to time.

It’s my hope that Wesabe can make some dent in this stress for the people who join. I think you can get out of “everyone else” without having to become an “accountant,” and without having to dodge bullets. Isn’t that an amazing thing to be able to work on — reducing the number one cause of stress in many people’s lives?

One Response to “How are you with money?”

  1. Erik Benson Says:

    I think I personally fall into the stress free category, although I dip into the everyone else pool occassionally because I tend to spend a bit more than I make if I’m not too careful.

    I agree that trying to find ways to remove stress from people’s lives is a great direction to go in. Most of the financial assistant apps I have found tend to reward the “accountant” behavior… replacing money stress with tons of manual reporting and data entry. Mvelopes.com is pretty good at automating a lot of the reporting stuff, but I never got my head wrapped around the envelopes metaphor. I’m curious to see what you’re coming up with.

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