Afraid to open a letter from the bank and break into cold sweats at the mere thought of money planning? Same! Here are the steps I am taking to improve my relationship with my finances.
At an early age, I enjoyed watching late-night horror on television. The thrill lasted until one vampire show featured an iconic scene of a newly turned juvenile bloodsucker floating outside the window of his best friend's bedroom. I couldn't sleep a wink for weeks afterwards. While I eventually forgot about the trauma, to this day I can't sleep if the window and curtain isn't firmly closed.
My relationship with money has followed a similar path. As a child, I held on tight to any money that came my way. As I was not the one paying the bills, money that I received from relatives when I was 12 was still safely resting in a savings account when I turned 18.
Then two new worlds collided: I went to university and simultaneously got well-paid work as a freelance writer. This might have been the perfect recipe for success, had another phenomenon not interfered: the student bar and a large social group.
I was quickly spending my wages as soon as I had earned them. Not much later, my spending surpassed my earnings. Reality came crashing down on me in year three, when the tax office sent me a letter about a massive, multi-year tax bill, plus penalties. It took more than a year of monthly post-dated cheques, signing away substantial portions of future income, to get out from under the burden.
Years later, I have maintained a decent work record. But I constantly worry that I will find myself back in debt. Worse, I have found it difficult to read bank statements or correspondence about my pension. Many official letters have been thrown unopened into an untidy drawer. The mere sight of the distinctive envelop used by the tax office can make me tense up.
A widespread problem
It turns out, I am not unique in this. Studies conducted in various countries suggest most of us worry about our finances at least some of the time, and between 15-25% do so constantly. Much of the stress comes from being on minimum or low wages or being in debt already. I count myself fortunate not to be in that group. However, I am in an even larger group: Aegon's retirement research indicates that two in five people globally (41 percent) feel stressed about their long-term financial plans for retirement at least once per month.
Just knowing the issue of my pension is looming makes me stressed, as does the notion of undertaking any kind of planning in connection to my finances and retirement savings. A letter from my bank or pension provider - not to mention the tax office - still sets my heart racing.
Recently, I decided this relationship had to change. So, I joined the communications department of an insurance company with over 29 million customers. This puts me in the privileged position of facing my fear up-close. I am more acutely aware than ever that personal finance remains complex and not without risks. At the same time, I feel I am making real progress on several fronts:
Through Aegon's research, I have learned that only 30 percent of people globally can correctly answer all of the "Big Three" financial literacy questions developed by Drs. Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell.
The questions test our knowledge of compounding interest, inflation, and risk diversification. Having accepted the challenge, I have found this basic knowledge can help minimize the terror of financial language.
Confused, stressed already? There are plenty of financial literacy aids online and courses available near you.
I have come to accept money is a tool that should work for - rather than against – me! In the past, I would have no idea where I stood. Now, I regularly calculate my expenses versus my income. Do they add up? Usually.
This for me is the hardest part. It is also the most rewarding in the long term. I can "use" all my wages now on things I enjoy. But what about the future?
Aegon's research indicates that only 16 percent of people have a written plan for retirement. Fewer than half are currently factoring future healthcare expenses into their retirement savings needs. Your pension provider, adviser or indeed online resources can get you started. I am happy to report I'm busy with this now.
I have a direct transfer in place that coincides with pay day. It's a safety net for any nasty surprises. I also have a smaller savings account for pleasant times such as that dream holiday.
Apart from automated savings, the online environment is also a good haven for me from the terror of the printed letter. Both my bank and pension provider/employer have easy-to-navigate platforms where I have a clear overview of my current finances. I can even track my modest investment account. Occasionally the returns dip, but it is not so stark as reading it on paper.
Having learned a valuable lesson from the tax office, I track any debts and plan to pay them off as soon as practical. I realize I am fortunate that my debts are optional and marginal. For too many people, debt is a constant burden. It is vital not to run from the problem, as I did early on, in relation to my tax arears. There are many official and charitable resources that can help you tackle the debt demon.
Suggesting you get professional advice is obvious. This is true in terms of debt problems and in terms of financial planning for the present and the future. Don't just wait from monthly or annual letters from your provider.
Ask what advice services are available and ask questions about things you don't understand. Don't stop until you have the answers!
While I have no illusions of becoming a financial whizz, I am continue learning and finding techniques to help me manage my personal finances in a calm and organized way.
The next step in my personal growth is to find the courage to sleep with the windows open, knowing I am not inviting a vampire to come in.