For many Americans, money is a huge source of stress, and it can also generate feelings of guilt.
This might start by feeling bad about treating yourself to the occasional takeout meal or splurging on a new cell phone, but there are also more significant issues that can trigger money guilt.
For example, you may experience guilt at doing well financially, especially if you come from a low-income background. Erin Osterfeld, blogger at Miss Financially Free, says she felt guilty over becoming financially independent in her 30s because of perceived resentment toward her success among her blue-collar family members.
You may also struggle with guilt if you make a money decision that you come to regret. R.J. Weiss, a certified financial planner and founder of The Ways to Wealth, dealt with this after buying his first home, which turned out to be a mistake.
Regardless of the circumstances, financial guilt can be a roadblock in pursuing your financial goals. But knowing how to recognize and manage those feelings can help you overcome that guilt.
Financial guilt can develop in different ways.
It may stem from the money mindset you developed as a child, for instance. If you were no stranger to poverty growing up, then you may feel guilty over being successful as an adult, especially if you see your parents or family members continue to struggle with money.
Social media and friends can also influence feelings around money. Fear of missing out (FOMO) could lead you to spend money that you ordinarily wouldn't just to keep pace with your friends or people you follow on Instagram. Once the fun is over, however, you may feel guilty about blowing your budget.
The news can also trigger guilt. When a global crisis makes headlines, illuminating how people are losing jobs, struggling to pay bills, or simply feed their families, you may feel guilty if your financial situation insulates you from those kinds of situations. On the other hand, if you've always been financially independent, you might feel guilty about asking for financial help—such as unemployment benefits or food assistance—during a tough economic or financial situation.
Whether it's friends, social media, or childhood experiences that lead to feelings of money guilt, it's possible to overcome those feelings. Here are some actionable tips for dealing with financial guilt.
The first step in dealing with money guilt is figuring out what's causing it. Specifically, is your guilt based on the facts of the situation or the emotions you have around it?
For instance, a fact may be that you don't have enough money in your budget to spend $50 on takeout for dinner. An emotional response is feeling like you shouldn't spend that money on takeout, even when you've budgeted for it.
Sometimes, it can be a little of both. In Osterfeld's case, she chose to focus on facts first to deal with money guilt. That included realizing that she possessed a different skill set and educational background than her parents and other members of her family, which allowed her to pursue a higher-paying career.
The second step was separating emotions.
"I learned to stop discounting my own efforts," she says, which meant giving herself credit for the hard work she put in to make her financial success a reality. "There should be no reason to feel guilt for my accomplishments, even if I wished others could have had an easier path."
Applying this same type of two-prong test to your own financial situation can help you recognize whether money guilt is driven by facts or feelings. You can then look at those facts and feelings individually to see if the guilt associated with them is justified.
Keeping money guilt at bay also means knowing exactly where you stand financially.
This is where online and mobile banking can help.5 With digital banking, you can view your checking and savings accounts to see at a glance where you're spending money, how much you're spending and what you're saving. Knowing these amounts helps create a realistic budget, so you feel more in control of what's coming in and out of your accounts.
You should also gain clarity on other aspects of your financial situation, including exactly how much money you're making and how much debt you have, if any. It's important to consider the specifics of the money you make versus the money you owe, as it dictates anything extra your budget allows you to buy. Knowing you can actually afford something could help curb feelings of guilt when buying it.
The worst thing you can do when money guilt rears its head is to do nothing at all. If you're feeling guilty about overspending, for example, then wallowing in that guilt could lead to more overspending.
The better option is to focus on what you can control, even if you can't quite tamp down your money guilt. For example, you could:
- Track your spending using online and mobile banking.
- Review everything you're spending.
- Separate needs from wants and cut back on non-essentials.
Weiss says the most important step is living in the present, “understanding what needs to be done now to improve your financial situation going forward."
If you lost your job, for instance, you can take action by looking for new employment, starting a side hustle or simply reviewing your budget to reduce spending. If you're feeling guilty because you earn a higher income, take time to reflect on the steps you took that allowed you to be successful. If you made a poor decision with credit cards that lead to debt, consider what you can do to manage it, such as creating a debt payoff plan or consolidating your accounts. The more you can do to actively work toward positive change, the easier it can be to keep financial guilt at bay.
Need help determining the best ways to manage your money online or off? Connect with a PNC financial specialist today.