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5 ways to conquer money anxiety and set yourself up for financial success, according to mental health experts

Margarita Tartakovsky
Steve Debenport | E+ | Getty Images

Money can make people nervous. You might avoid checking your bank accounts or just assume you're awful with money, because nobody ever taught you how to handle it. And if that's you, you aren't alone. More than 50% of people polled in a 2018 survey from financial services firm Northwestern Mutual reported feeling anxious and insecure around money.

But financial anxiety isn't insurmountable. Try these five methods mental health professionals recommend to feel more confident around money, so you can manage it effectively and meet your financial goals.

1. Explore your anxiety

To better understand what sparks your anxiety, create a "money map," suggests Ed Coambs, a certified financial planner and a licensed marriage and family therapist based in North Carolina. Think of this tool as a snapshot of the emotions underlying your financial life.

"The first step is to note all the places money intersects through your life," he says, such as work, bills, retirement, friends, and vacation. Next, on a scale from 1 to 10, write down how comfortable you are in each area, with 10 being completely comfortable. For lower-scored categories, jot down the emotions that come up.

Coambs recommends asking yourself: "What happened in my past to lead me to feel this way?" Growing up with parents who were spenders or savers can shape our financial behaviors as adults in ways we might not fully realize. For example, psychologist Frank Murtha told Grow last year, "People [who] experience money worries as kids are more likely to carry forward that sense of scarcity and insecurity."

Understanding when and how your feelings of money anxiety began can help you move forward and create consistent, healthy money habits.

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2. Shift your mindset

Worrying that you're doing money all wrong and will make a mistake leads to avoidance and procrastination, says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a Michigan-based couples financial therapist and coach, and the author of "The Financial Anxiety Solution." When you finally do take action, Bryan-Podvin says there is a tendency for people to feel like they've fallen behind, which then "fulfills your original worry."

To help encourage a more positive mindset, be realistic and kind to yourself. And choose language that feels good to you, says Bryan-Podvin.

Instead of changing "I'm terrible with money" to "I'm amazing with money," which can feel fake and forced, tell yourself, "I'm working toward understanding money." Instead of "I'm such an amateur," say, "This is the first step of my money empowerment journey."

3. Establish structure

Part of what drives money anxiety for most people is the "fear of the unknown," or not knowing where your money is going, says Alex Melkumian, a financial therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles.

"Having systems and structure provides containment for our emotions," says Melkumian. With that in mind, he suggests finding a budget framework — like the 50/20/30 rule budget guideline — that works for you, to give you "the most comprehensive view of what's coming in and what's going out." Automating a specific amount that you save from each paycheck, for example, can make saving and investing easier habits to stick with.

If your anxiety stems from lack of knowledge, Bryan-Podvin recommends tackling a new skill or small task each week, like setting up your 401(k) or learning about how compound interest works. That slow and steady pace prevents you from getting overwhelmed with information — and "over the course of the year, you'll have learned 52 financial skills."

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4. Don't go it alone

It's easier to make changes and adopt an optimistic money mindset when you have support. Melkumian suggests finding an "action buddy" to hold you accountable. For example, you might text them before you make an impulse purchase.

It's also helpful to make money part of everyday conversation, says Bryan-Podvin, such as, "Congrats on your raise! How did you negotiate that?" or "That's awesome you got a new car. What dealer did you work with, and what did you think?"

Another simple way to connect with others in the same boat is through social media and following finance-themed hashtags like #debtfreecommunity and #financialfreedom, Bryan-Podvin says.

5. Make it fun

For many of us, money feels serious and tedious, which only amplifies our anxiety and angst. According to Bryan-Podvin, it's important to make money fun, "otherwise it's not going to feel good."

For example, Bryan-Podvin says with that in mind, she and her husband set aside $50 per person each week. They are free to spend that money on whatever they like, no questions asked. It can be used for a spontaneous lunch or dinner out, or even something like a tattoo, which Bryan-Podvin recently saved for over the course of a few months.

Bryan-Podvin helps her clients create shorter-term savings for bigger purchases, such as vacations. "A lot of people think that saving money means they no longer have that money." But saving for six months for a fulfilling purchase can feel empowering.

Anxiety can easily overwhelm us. But by actively learning new skills and finding a framework that makes you feel confident, you'll be able to keep moving forward.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She's been writing about psychology and mental health for over a decade. You can learn more at https://www.margaritatartakovsky.com.

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