One of my best friends went back to school a few years ago and for a psychology assignment she had to interview people about the “Big 5” Personality Traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. She asked me to rank myself from 1-5 for each — 5 indicating that I most strongly associate that trait with my personality.
When it came to neuroticism, I responded, “Well, do you mean like at work? Or at home? Or when I’m out at a party? In what context should I rate myself as neurotic or not?” I remember her response vividly: “I’m just gonna put down a 5” she said with a laugh.
This memory still stays with me because I never thought of myself as a neurotic person before that moment. Sure everyone experiences doubt and anxiety at one point or another, but I did not see it as one of my defining personality traits.
I remembered this exchange last month while eating dinner with my fiancé and his sister. After a few glasses of wine, the issue of spending came up (which I’m normally thrilled to talk about). However, sometime during this conversation I had an “out-of-body” experience. I felt as if I floated above the table and heard myself make comments about all of my recent transactions, instantly observing how full of worry I sounded.
I don’t particularly know why I felt the need to justify every purchase at that dinner. Before I went too far deep in the money rabbit hole, I luckily possessed enough self-awareness to laugh off my money compulsions and pivot the conversation to something else. But the neuroticism I displayed during this casual dinner conversation prompted me to reevaluate my preoccupation with spending.
My path toward Financial Independence (FI) has been an overwhelmingly positive experience — I haven’t paid credit card interest in almost two years. My private student loans are history. My savings account could now be a respectable emergency fund. I actually know what’s in my retirement accounts. With these positive experiences though, came obsessive questions about my money.
A healthy dose of questioning is necessary for aligning your budget to match your priorities. It’s smart to ask about investment options and research where your money should go. Second-guessing a non-essential item helps avoid frivolous spending. Calculating how to grow your savings rate is incredibly motivating.
But these questions can ultimately lead to self-doubt and distress. Am I using the correct budgeting method? Is that ETF really right for me? What are all the opportunity costs of every little purchase? Why can’t I get to over 50% savings like other bloggers? Overanalyzing every financial decision is exhausting and can suck the fun out of progress.
Money dominates the recent discussions between my fiancé and me. How much will this decision impact the wedding budget? What should I increase my 403b contributions to this school year? How is the spending spreadsheet looking today? What’s the best credit card to sign up for next to travel hack? We make good money, but are we saving enough? Really, are we?
Questioning rooted in comparison and insecurity can trigger my neuroticism about money. I’m proud of how I’ve worked to cut costs and build my savings, but sometimes the doubt I’m “doing it the right way” creeps up.
I’m so grateful I found Personal Finance blogs and Twitter accounts because of the extra inspiration they provide. However, strictly measuring my growth by the yardsticks of people who make double my income or have been investing for decades is counterproductive. The PF community can be a little insulating and make me feel like a failure for having a lower net worth or not retiring in my 30s.
Comparison is the thief of joy, right? It’s the comparison that’s leading me to not celebrate some of the little wins that are big deals for me. Or making me hesitate to spend money on things that make me happy.
It’s important to remind myself I’m doing a good job, especially when I look back on my messy pre-2018 financial life. I’m making an effort to be more mindful of how my financial health shapes my mental health by letting go of my tendency to stress out or feel guilty about every money move. The fear of reliving the mistakes of my past or not having enough for the future should not prevent me from enjoying the progress I’m making in the present.
There are always going to be people who are wealthier. There are always going to be more ways to “optimize” spending and saving. But the ruthless pursuit of statistics and numbers can cloud the true goal of FI — freedom. How free can I be if I’m spending hours agonizing over one purchase? If I’m sacrificing my happiness now to achieve some savings rate to impress others?
Seeking FI is a balance. After almost two years of Being Better With Money™ I’ve experienced tremendous growth. Personally, I’m not as stressed about bills and loans and retirement. I have goals and understand how to reach them. I feel confident talking about finances with my students.
However, I’m also trying to accept my decision to loosen up the death grip I have on my budget by allowing more room for things like charitable donations and gift giving. I’ve made peace with my higher summer spending because I have an amazing trip, fun times at the pool, and a well-behaved dog to show for it. When I enjoy a rare dinner out with my fiancé, it’s not worth arguing about whether or not to order a delicious, but expensive, dessert — we’re getting the dessert. What fun is achieving FI if you turned into a different, more anxious person along the way?
How has pursuing FI changed you?