Photo: Robert Trachtenberg
I recently sat down for a consultation with Jane, a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old son, another baby due this month, and big fears about her family's financial security."It's really hard for us to save money," Jane said. She and her husband, Charlie, both in their early 30s, rent their house in rural Oregon and live off Charlie's $2,550 monthly teaching salary. When their family expanded, the couple found themselves unable to cover expenses on that income alone and began dipping into their savings for an extra $350 every month.
"I thought we would feel more stable at this point," Jane told me. Instead, she felt woefully unprepared: to start a college fund for her children, to save for retirement, to one day buy a house. She said the word can't so many times during our conversation, I lost count.
And yet, when I looked at her financial documents, the numbers were much more encouraging than Jane's tone. She and Charlie have no credit card debt, no car loans, and a manageable federal student loan that financed Charlie's master's degree. Sure, they're not contributing to their retirement right now, but they've already saved about $30,000 in investment and retirement accounts and another $12,000 in an emergency fund. Not bad at all for such a young couple. And their $350 monthly shortage can be easily fixed. So why was Jane so discouraged?
All this negativity was clearly coming from a deeper place. "What else is eating at you?" I asked her. That's when the floodgates opened. Jane broke down in tears telling me about her family's recent struggles. She and Charlie had moved back to Oregon last August to be close to her father, who is terminally ill at age 62, a result of his exposure to the toxic chemical Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. Jane obviously has a deep bond with her father, and I could hear the ache in her voice as she described what he's had to endure. Add the fact that she and Charlie, both smart and industrious college graduates, have weathered multiple layoffs and moved abroad twice to teach English because they couldn't find other jobs—not to mention the pressure of new motherhood—and Jane's anxieties were more than understandable. "There's just so much that seems out of my control," she said. And she was right: A lot in life is out of our control.
But here's where Jane was wrong. "If we had more money," she said, "I think I would feel safe." Well, if she and Charlie had $50,000 in credit card debt and were about to lose their home, I might accept that logic. But they rent for an affordable $500 a month and owe relatively little money overall. I know plenty of debt-addled millionaires who wish they had that kind of security.
Jane was in a much safer financial place than she realized. To gain a sense of control over her destiny, she didn't need more money—she needed a better outlook. She told me, "I want to feel at peace with the decisions Charlie and I have made in our lives." And she should! They've made terrific decisions. But my telling Jane that wasn't the solution. I needed Jane to tell Jane. There's a lot of power in the words we choose to describe our situations; using positive language can shift your whole perspective. So we worked out a mantra for her, to be repeated over and over throughout each day: I love our life. I love the decisions we've made. I feel at peace with what we have. I feel safe, secure, and powerful.
The more Jane says these words to herself, the more she'll believe them—and the less preoccupied she'll be by financial anxiety. I told her that the next time she has these worries or starts to complain to Charlie about them, she should recite her mantra. With her attitude in check, we could tackle her money questions easily.
Next: Tackling the tough questions