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How to Reset Your Thinking Around Spending Money, According to Experts

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Money is one of the most significant stressors for Americans, according to a 2023 American Psychological Association report

The number of Americans who reported money as a stressor, has only increased since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Of parents who said they have multiple stressors causing significant strain on their lives, nearly 80% said that money is one of those factors. Single adults pointed it as the most significant source of stress, over housing costs and personal safety. 

The report comes despite a resilient U.S. economy. Job growth seems to be at a steady pace—although numbers fell short of the gains seen in 2021 and 2022—and the unemployment rate has remained below 4% for the past two years. However, inflation has remained persistently high, with rising energy, food and housing costs putting a strain on households.

Still, even Americans who appear to be doing well financially struggle. More than 50% of Americans who make more than $100,000 a year are living paycheck to paycheck as of September 2023, according to a Lending Club report. “A lot of Americans don't necessarily realize that there's a difference between your wants and your needs,” says Dr. Traci Williams, a financial therapist and board certified clinical psychologist. “When things are tight, we have to focus on our needs and maybe let go of our wants temporarily.”

According to the American Psychological Association report, 61% of adults say that people around them expect them to just “get over their stress,” without providing any actionable guidance on how to do so. 

TIME spoke to experts about how to better manage your relationship with money. Here are their tips.

Understand your ‘money story’

Before trying to budget and figure out a financial plan, experts advise people to assess their personal relationship with money. That involves thinking about their parents’ relationship with money, how adults around them modeled spending, and whether they personally overspend or underspend. 

“The hard part is it's not something that's really tied to your personality,” says Jack Heintzelman, a certified financial planner. “It's just really how you grew up and how you were educated on money…If you're able to think back on [it], It gives you a different perspective.” 

In order to best assess areas to improve, Williams advises folks to recognize their triggers and note their reaction. “What are the things that money is providing that speak to you as a person that can help you to get some indicators,” says Williams. “For some people that might look like: ‘I am looking for security’ or ‘I am bored,’ or ‘I do not feel a sense of high self esteem. And so money helps to provide that for me.’”

Read More: 7 Ways to Manage Financial Stress

Williams notes that spending money releases endorphins and dopamine, triggering feelings of pleasure. “There are other things that you can do to feel good in your life, that can create those feel good hormones,” she says. “Whether it's spending time with loved ones, or baking with your kid, or going for a walk, listening to music, things can be affordable.” 

Meanwhile, so-called underspenders, who worry about money despite being financially stable, might have to work on neutralizing what it means to spend money. “​​There is no such thing as the right or wrong way to do things. They're just the choices that we make,” Williams says. 

Come up with personal goals

Experts say that everyone’s financial plan should accommodate their own desires, needs, and lifestyle. For some, it can be as simple as checking their credit card’s app and looking at the amount they spend on categories like food, bills, or subscriptions. For others, it might be better to physically highlight a bank statement or write out purchases to adequately visualize their spending. 

Heintzelman says he’s personally a fan of the 50-30-20 method, which has individuals spend 50% of their income on their needs, such as rent or food, 30% towards less essential “wants,” and 20% towards savings. But he stresses that everyone should work around what best suits their future goals. “Try your best to not worry about what other people are doing and just think about the path that you're on and be comfortable with that,” he says.

Read More: Why a 60/30/10 Budget Could Be the New 50/30/20

The goal is to eventually be able to instinctively set aside a certain amount of money and know that it cannot be touched. “If you can be more natural with it and let it automate, then that can help with being more under control,” Heintzelman says. 

Recognize when you need support

While finances are one of the leading causes of stress, only 52% of U.S. adults say they feel comfortable discussing it with others. But experts say it's better to discuss financial goals, plans, and stress with a spouse, friend, family member, or others to get different perspectives and share anxieties.

Around 35% of U.S. adults have a financial advisor. Heintzelman says they can be helpful for clients who are looking for someone to make them accountable for their financial decisions. 

Financial therapists, meanwhile, work at the intersection between a client’s finances and their mental health.

Read More: 11 Ways to Get Free Financial Advice

“If your worries are affecting your ability to work or your relationships with your family members or your friends, or your ability to take care of yourself, those are usually indicators that you need extra help,” says Williams. “That help can look different for different people depending on what your situation is and what your need is.”

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