During the last year, my wife has made the choice to get her masters degree in order to not only improve her professional skills but also increase her range of employment opportunities and income. I'm glad that she's doing it and I'm fully supportive of her doing so. We can afford to pay for this degree on our own without tapping any kind of financial aid and we're both very confident that the higher degree will pay for itself in just a few years. So, what's the problem?
Image by Alberto Ruggieri via Getty.
Trent Hamm is a personal finance writer at TheSimpleDollar.com.
The problem is that the class is eating up a lot of her time. She has a class after work once a week for four hours, plus a class every other week after work on Friday and then most of the following day. On top of that, she's had reading, homework assignments, and projects to work on and is also working on a lengthy paper.
The result of that commitment is that she has significantly less time to devote to other aspects of her life. Her time on housework is significantly reduced, and her time spent on hobbies and personal interests, as well as time spent with the children and with me is reduced as well.
That change has an impact on our family as a whole. I've had to step up and devote more time to a number of areas of our life. I've taken on a greater share of household chores and a greater share of meal preparation. I'm spending much more time on child rearing responsibilities, as it's almost always me that ensures that homework is done, helps with homework, and takes children to after school activities at this point. These are tasks that I don't mind doing at all, but the time has to come from somewhere. It's time taken away from time I spent with my wife. It's time taken away from hobbies. It's time taken away from other social commitments.
What happens when you cut away pieces of your life that you value deeply? You feel some stress. You feel a little less happy about things.
It's in those moments of stress that it becomes very tempting to spend money to put a temporary bandage on the problem. There are a multitude of ways to spend money that could return a bit of that free time that could be spent with my wife or on hobbies or on professional projects, time that's now spent on errands or household chores or meal preparation.
For example, on a busy evening, I could simply order a pizza for supper or get everyone sandwiches from the sandwich shop. That would reduce (but not eliminate) the time spent on meal prep (I still have to order food, pay for it, handle all of the cleanup, and so on, so there's just a reduction in time, not an elimination of it). I could hire a local laundry service to do several loads of laundry and then deliver it folded, which would save some laundry time. I could hire someone to do some light housecleaning, such as vacuuming and dusting. Sarah and I could hire a babysitter and go out on a date on a Saturday evening when she doesn't have a class. We might spend money to have a "special day" where we try to increase the supposed "quality" of family time when "quantity" becomes difficult.
You get the idea.
Beyond that, it's also tempting to simply spend money to feel a blast of joy when things aren't easy. Quite often, this makes things more stressful over the long term, but in the moment, buying a new item or an experience can take you away from the stress for a little while, and that feeling is very tempting.
The reality is that stressful life situations encourage you to spend money. There are many, many opportunities in life to throw your money at something that will seemingly save a little time or else provide some easy fun or easy pleasure and those temptations amplify when things are challenging. The problem, of course, is that when you spend that money, you usually end up making the stress worse over the long run.
The question then becomes how do you manage personal stress without resorting to throwing money at the problem? Here are the best solutions I've found, solutions that are really helping during this rough patch.
Protect Yourself from "Emotional Spending"
The simple fact of the matter is that when you're feeling stressed, your decision making process goes a bit haywire. You don't go completely off the rails (usually), but you find yourself inflating the importance of some factors and minimising the importance of other factors when you make decisions, and those changes come in ways that you wouldn't otherwise support without the stress affecting your mind.
I'll use my own mindset as an example. When I sit back and calmly look at my decision making processes from when I'm stressed, it becomes obvious that I put much more weight on "quick fixes" for problems. I don't look at what the best solution is for the long term. Instead, I look for whatever solution will most effectively take this problem off of my plate right now and I jump for it. For instance, if I'm unhappy, I'll look for that big burst of momentary happiness rather than the harder, longer work of eliminating that source of unhappiness.
I'm unhappy because I don't have enough time to go to a board game night with my friends and I miss it several weeks in a row? I might respond by buying a new game for that burst of happiness, or maybe even finding some way to shirk a responsibility so that I can go spend time with those game-playing friends by maybe buying my kids some take-out food for supper.
Those kinds of choices are purely emotional. They're driven not by rational choice, but by stress and by amplified personal feelings. So, one of my best strategies for handling stress in my life without undermining financial progress is to simply make it much more difficult to spend emotionally.
I do this by doing several things at once.
First of all, I automate a lot of my finances. Almost all of our bills are paid automatically, which means I don't have to think about paying them. I also don't have to think about saving for the future, as our savings and investments are all automatic, too.
Second of all, I basically deny myself access to an ATM card. I don't use one. I basically don't ever carry it. It's in my home, but in a place that's not immediately easy to access. Thus, when I'm in an emotional state, I can't just drive up to an ATM and pull out cash from my checking account, and I can't just use that card to buy something at a retailer. I don't have access to it unless I really work for it, at which point I'll usually catch myself.
Third, I use a credit card with a fairly low credit limit for most purchases. I use it for gas and groceries and sometimes for other things, too, but if I spend on it with reckless abandon, I hit that credit limit pretty quickly. I just decline increases in my credit limit when they're offered to me.
Finally, I don't store my credit card information or passwords at online retailers. To make an online purchase, I have to remember the password (it's not stored) and then manually enter payment information (it's not stored, either). Often, those hurdles make me rethink the purchase entirely. I'll realise how foolish it is, then I'll stop.
Step Back from Less Important Commitments and Responsibilities
Stress in my life grows exponentially with each new commitment and responsibility. I can handle a lot of commitments and responsibilities easily, but there comes a point where adding another commitment or responsibility to the puzzle escalates the stress rapidly, and when I'm stressed, I'm prone to spending mistakes.
Thus, one great solution is to simply remove the least important commitment or responsibility from the mix for a while.
Personally, I often skip out on housework. I'll leave the laundry undone and let it pile up, just doing enough to make sure people have things to wear. I'll skip vacuuming the floor. I'll let some dishes pile up in the sink. I can handle those things later, during a lower-stress period.
Knowing that I don't have to think about those chores right now feels like a relief. I can instead focus on other things that need to be done. If I just put the laundry aside for a day or two and wait until the weekend to vacuum the living room, I can easily make dinner tonight or get this article finished. I suddenly feel much more in control of things.
Here are two key things you can do.
First, figure out which things on your to-do list can be delegated or postponed, and then delegate or postpone them. Pass tasks off to other people. Put non-urgent things off until the weekend.
Second, step down from longer-term commitments as long as they're in good hands. Perhaps you're on a committee that's eating up time and you realise it's not that important to you. Don't be afraid to step back or step down, as long as you can ensure anything you're personally responsible for is handled.
Combining these steps can wipe a lot of things off of your plate during a stressful time.
Turn Off Social Media and Electronic Devices
Social media diverts your attention from the challenges at hand. Electronic devices — particularly your mobile phone — aids in that distraction, providing easy access to texts, social media, games, and other things.
Turn them off. Shut them down for a while.
When I'm stressed out, my mobile phone and my social media accounts do nothing more than prolong the stress (unless I am using them for a very specific task). They pull my attention away from what I need to complete, and the longer it takes me to complete the things I truly need to complete, the less time I have for my other life responsibilities and life tasks.
When stress takes hold, you have to drop as many distractions as possible, and mobile phones and social media are chief among distractions in the modern world.
Turn off your phone. Get things done. When things are done, you have fewer demands on your plate, and thus your stress naturally melts away.
Find Free Ways to De-Stress
This final suggestion is just a group of little techniques that I use not to eliminate the source of the stress, but to improve my ability to handle stress itself and to minimise the psychological impact of stressful situations on my life.
I'm very much in the category of wanting to tackle the causes of stress head-on, but sometimes that just doesn't work. Things in life that cause stress are sometimes outside of your control, and so simply knowing how to minimise stress without eliminating the source of the stress can be incredibly valuable for helping you to keep your head on straight.
Here are some techniques that I use regularly in my life to keep stress from overwhelming me.
#1 Meditate and/or pray
This is something I make time for each day, at least for ten minutes, but usually for multiple sessions and sometimes longer sessions. I view them as being very similar in practice, with the only real change being the target of one's focus. I find that a simple, regular practice causes the effects of stress to melt away and actually strengthens my ability to focus if I keep up with it every day.
Here's how I personally do it. I simply find a comfortable spot where I'm seated or laying down, then I close my eyes. For ten minutes, I focus on one single thing. Usually, for me, it's my breathing — breathing in, breathing out. You might choose to focus on a word or a particular phrase. Just get one thing central in your mind.
For the entire time, keep your focus on that one thing. Your mind will wander. When it does, notice it, then gently bring your mind back to the target of your focus.
That's it. Believe it or not, stress melts away when you do this and your ability to focus on the task at hand improves, too, particularly when you repeat it every day.
#2 Spend time in nature
Whenever I have an opportunity to complete a task outside or need time to think about something, I go out into nature. Usually, I'll go on a short hike to a secluded spot and do my thinking or studying there.
I find that when I'm out in nature, the positive effects are greatly reduced if I stare at an electronic device. If I'm reading a book or writing in a notebook, it's somewhat reduced. The best positive effects come when I'm just thinking and walking and looking around. The stress just melts away for a while.
#3 Start a gratitude journal
Each day, take a moment or two to list three things you're grateful for in your life. Think about the good things that your life contains, whether big or small, and simply write them down. I usually do this via handwriting, as I find that I focus more on what I'm writing and retain it better if I write by hand.
This practice forces you to intentionally turn your mind away from the problems and challenges in life and toward the multitude of good things in your life. You have to think about the good in life in order to make this practice work. In doing so, you'll often see that the big stressors in life really aren't all that big in the scope of things. I recommend it as a great daily practice for de-stressing.
#4 Get adequate sleep
Quite often, when you're overburdened with things to do, you'll cut down on sleep in an effort to get more things done. In the extreme short term, this is a helpful strategy as it gives you a few more waking hours immediately, but in the long term, it's disastrous.
A full night of sleep essentially refills a person's decision-making capacity. If you don't get a full night of sleep, you don't refill the tank. You can operate, but your decision making starts to go downhill much faster than normal. This can be fine if you're just trying to complete something that requires time and not quality work, but if you have anything on your plate that requires quality work, you're going to have a hard time with it and your capacity for stress management will be low.
Don't cut out the sleep. If you need to, take naps. If you're having difficulty sleeping, talk to your doctor. Never, ever leave yourself in a state where you don't feel well rested.
#5 Block off personal time
No matter how intense your life seems, if you don't have time for things that deeply matter to you personally — whatever they might be — you're going to grow disillusioned with your life and that's going to contribute to stress.
Not taking time for yourself leads to a cycle of negative feelings that just escalates stress. You begin to feel that you're giving everything in your life to others — your energy, your time, your creativity — and you have nothing left for yourself, which leaves you wondering why you're doing this at all. That leads to less progress on the things that are stressing you and lower quality effort. That, in itself, makes the stressors even worse.
The solution is to block off time regularly for things that are important to you personally. Maybe that means an hour a day spent reading a book. Maybe it means an evening a week spent playing games with friends. Maybe that means a hour a day spent running or exercising. The point is that you're spending some time on something that's personally important and personally enjoyable for you, whatever that might be.
That time is not only a natural de-stresser, but it also leaves you with a life that feels more meaningful. You retain a sense of importance in your own life. You don't feel like merely a servant of others, but as a complete person that matters.
Stress is a tough challenge for anyone to face, but it becomes even tougher when you're trying to tackle a path to financial independence. Given how easy it is to use money for a temporary stress reducer, it can become a button that we push over and over again, delaying the stress but also taking us away from our dreams of financial freedom.
The best solution is to figure out for ourselves how to manage our stressful situations as well as managing how we respond to those stressful situations. The techniques above help me to juggle all of the things in my life — they form a lifeline that keeps me on a good financial path, even as I juggle the responsibilities of my writing contracts, my three children, my community responsibilities, my marriage, my wife's reduced role in household efforts as she completes her degree, and many other items.
Good luck in whatever stresses life hands to you.
Handling Stress Without Undoing Financial Progress [The Simple Dollar]
This post originally appeared on The Simple Dollar.