I’m a Financial Therapist, and ‘Survivor Guilt’ Is My Most Common New Complaint

Photo to accompany story about financial survivor guilt. Getty Images
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In normal times, earning a secure income is a thing to be proud of. 

But what if it makes you feel guilty? 

With roughly 30 million Americans unemployed right now, and more economic pain potentially in the pipeline, I’ve witnessed a growing trend in what I call “financial survivor guilt.” 

What exactly is this financial survivor guilt? Let’s start with survivor guilt. After a traumatic event, some people find gratitude in their health or safety, while others are burdened with guilt for not having been impacted as severely as others—aka survivor guilt.

Survivors may rack their minds to figure out why they were “saved” when others weren’t.

“Financial survival guilt” isn’t a term you’d find in the DSM or other psychology textbooks, and it’s not something I’ve seen coined anywhere else. It’s just something I’ve been noticing as we all undergo this collective grief and trauma. 

As a financial therapist, I see all aspects of mental and emotional wellness. Traditionally, financial anxiety (feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge about money, which can push someone into perfectionism or procrastination) was one of the most common things I saw. But now? Financial survivor guilt is the most common complaint I hear.

At the start of the pandemic, one client told me she felt bad that she kept her job when her company laid off nearly a dozen people. When her coworkers went for a socially distanced happy hour in one of their backyards, instead of telling them that she kept her job, she danced around the subject. After the happy hour, one of her former coworkers told her she put two-and-two together that her job was secure, and she told her she was upset that she’d lied to them. 

Another client kept his job when his wife was furloughed. He said he picked up extra emotional labor around the house, making a concerted effort to cook, clean, and do more yard work than usual because he felt terrible his wife had lost her job. 

In our current economic climate (hello, trauma), if you’ve been mostly spared economically (hello, survivor) — say, a 15% pay cut or losing your 401(k) employer match — but you haven’t lost the roof over your head, you may be experiencing survivor guilt. 

Survivor guilt might look like asking yourself why your income has been “saved” when others haven’t, or having repetitive thoughts, wondering if you could have done something differently to prevent others from being financially harmed. You might feel uncomfortable talking with friends and family members who have lost work, especially when financial topics come up. Outside of thoughts and worries, people who experience financial survivor guilt might be feeling immobilized, numb, or burnt out on economic news.

So what can you do? I’ll share with you the same tips I share with my financial therapy clients. 

How to Take Small Actions

Let’s start with what you can do on a micro level, for yourself and for your family: Practice gratitude.

Research shows that practicing gratitude can help people reduce stress, increase the quality of their sleep, and improve on their interpersonal relationships. Pausing for a moment each day to be thankful that you have an income can help. I recommend an easy gratitude practice for my clients: I have them journal one thing at the beginning and end of each day for which they are grateful. 

While it can be tempting to throw money at others when you are feeling financial survivor guilt, your time and energy is better spent helping others take more long-lasting action. Assist them in filing for unemployment, connect them to people in your network, and review their LinkedIn profiles and resumes. Upwards of 70% of jobs are filled via referrals, so make use of your network and connect people out of work or furloughed with those who might be hiring. 

Another method I’ve seen that can be helpful is hiring folks for tasks that you need completing. If you have children, could you pay anyone to provide tutoring a few times a week? Are there household projects you’d be open to hiring someone else to do, like yardwork or renovations? This helps circulate money to others and helps the person who is unemployed add work and skills to their resume.

You can also create healthy boundaries around media consumption. When we feel guilty about what we have, refreshing our feeds and seeing unemployment numbers rise can notably increase our guilt. This isn’t about avoidance; it’s about consuming media in a healthy way. This brings me to what to do on a macro level.

How to Make Bigger Changes

Shop and buy locally. We know that the dollars we spend within our communities tend to stay more local than those we spend at big box stores or conglomerates. Can you buy handmade soap and local produce instead of brand-name items that get shipped in from other states or countries? Right now, it may be important for you to ensure you are shopping from BIPOC-owned stores. 

If you are dining out or having your groceries delivered, tip generously as those workers are putting their health on the lines to keep you safe and healthy.

In my book “The Financial Anxiety Solution,” I encourage readers to adopt new healthy money mantras. A mantra is a simple, often positive statement that a person adopts and uses daily to help cultivate positivity. For those experiencing financial survivor guilt, a healthy money mantra might sound like, “Being gainfully employed means I can support causes that are important to me.” Another healthy money mantra is “I can give back to others in non-financial ways.”

Make sure you are registered to vote and help others register and get their absentee ballots. Voting is one of the best ways to have your voice heard and represented, and during an economic crisis, having your values represented in politics is invaluable.

And if you are able, stay home. Staying home and masking up helps keep our healthcare workers, delivery drivers, grocery store workers, postal workers, warehouse workers, and municipal employees safe. 

Bottom Line

Remember that as you cope with your financial survivor guilt, no one wins when we compare traumas or ruminate on what might have been. Giving away your money without careful thought or volunteering yourself for furlough doesn’t help your community in the long run. Self-care is community care, and right now, practicing financial self-care can help dial down the symptoms of financial survivor guilt.