What's Really Happening When You're Too Stressed to Look at Your Bills

For the 72 percent of Americans who have anxiety about money, simply opening the bills can be a battle. Here's what's really going on when you're hiding from your finances.

Want me to tell you I'm stressed about money without telling you I'm stressed about money? The first thing I'll do is point to a stack of unopened bills.

For people who aren't experiencing the nausea-inducing emotions of facing seemingly insurmountable debt, opening bills might seem like a benign task. It could even be something you do absentmindedly. But for the 72 percent of Americans who have anxiety about finances, the bills can be a battle.

"You just get to the point where you don't open your bills and hope you're paying the minimum," says Andrea Pariseau, a 38-year-old mother of two who experienced a financial crisis recently after ending a long-term, financially dependent relationship. "He took care of our finances. He told me he was paying our bills, until we broke up and I found out he wasn't."

After getting a consolidation loan to repay her credit cards, Pariseau was left living paycheck to paycheck—with a hefty monthly loan payment. To get by, she fell back to relying on the credit cards she had only just paid off. "There's a feeling of dread when you see that bill coming in," she explains. "You just don't want to open it. You have so much stress and anxiety because you know you can't pay all of it. When will the day come when you won't be able to pay it at all?"

Pariseau's experience isn't unique—as it turns out, avoiding things that make us anxious is a common thing we humans do.

"One of the primary characteristics of anxiety is avoidance," explains Dr. Brad Klontz, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute. "If you're feeling anxious about something, it only makes sense to avoid it. This manifests itself as not wanting to think about finances or look at your accounts."

It's an anxiety that can hit us no matter how much we owe—and even if we do have the funds to pay those bills. Sometimes, it's the surprise of an unexpected expense that triggers anxiety, or the shame of a forgotten credit card bill that went to collections.

When it comes to money, that anxiety can be compounded by simply not knowing what to do next. We hide from our bills because they're a part of our financial life that we "don't want to think about because it's overwhelming," Klontz says. "Sometimes, we lack the confidence to tackle it. We don't know what to do, so we avoid it."

Klontz explains that he often starts his work with new clients by reassuring them that they aren't "lazy, crazy, or stupid." After all, our approach to money is often a learned behavior, and one that can be changed. "We rarely have the opportunity to see how people behave around money, and nobody wants to talk about it. It's no wonder that we don't know what to do," Klontz adds.

So, now that we know more about what's really going on in our brains while we're refusing to open our bills—what are the key steps to changing that behavior and facing our finances?

Don't ignore the problem

"There's a lot of things we can let go of in our life, but finances have compounding negative if you let them go too long," explains Shannon McLay, founder of The Financial Gym. "It's like when you don't want to step on the scale but the weight is still there. It's not going away. It's the same thing with finances."

While you might be able to ignore the problem temporarily, eventually your bill-dodging troubles could multiply. That's especially when it comes to federal debts, like student loans, or tax debt, because the government has the ability to take further steps such as garnishing your wages.

"We had one client who was getting the statements in the mail, and she never opened them," McLay says. "Then, her employer had to call her in and tell her they had to garnish her wages because she wasn't paying her debt." Not a conversation any of us wants to have with a boss. And this client only had her own behaviors to blame: "She was getting her student loan bills in the mail," McLay explains. "She just wasn't looking at them."

"Being afraid of looking at bills is real," McLay adds. "Even if you're doing well, you can feel anxious around your finances."

Through her work, McLay has learned that most people stop avoiding their finances when they realize they aren't a lost cause. "It's really important to know that everything you do financially is fixable," says McLay. "You might be feeling anxious, but it's fixable. It's just a matter of how much fixing you have to do."

Rip off the Band-Aid

"Ironically, the cure for anxiety is exposure to what is stressing you out," says Klontz. The first step to overcoming your money stress? Logging into your bank account—and sitting down to open those bills.

"Create an environment that makes it comfortable for you to look at it," recommends McLay. "Maybe you need to have a glass of wine, meditate... What will get you in a calm place so you can address it? Is there a better day of the week? Create a safe space for yourself to look at your money on a regular basis." Sometimes, clients bring their mail to McLay so she can open it with them—or, they opt to open their bills with a partner or friend for support.

After you've opened your bills, give yourself a huge pat on the back for completing the hardest part. Then, get to work creating a game plan. "Take inventory of your financial picture," advises McLay. "Know what it looks like. Put it all in one place. Do an inventory of your credit score so you know your starting point."

Create small goals that are attainable; one of them could be simply to look at your finances each week. "Once you start having smaller successes, they build on each other," McLay says.

For Pariseau, who is now pursuing her accounting designation, it took years to find the light at the end of the tunnel—but she managed to work her way toward financial security.

"I got a better understanding of why I had the debt and how to handle it," she explains. "I learned how to live within my paycheck."

Pariseau now feels confident handling her family finances herself—with input from her new fiancé as they work together to budget for joint expenses. Even the unpredictability of employment during the pandemic hasn't caused Pariseau the same anxiety she used to experience back when she was avoiding her bills.

"I can take my paycheck, budget it properly, and still know I have something left," Pariseau says, noting that her brush with the stress of debt has given her the mindset necessary to overcome financial hurdles in the future.

"There's always a way out. Sometimes, it's not what you want it to be," Pariseau adds. "Sometimes you have to work harder to get out...you have to make some hard choices. But those choices will benefit you five years down the road."

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