How to face money problems : Life Kit If you wince every time you open up your credit card app or feel stressed just thinking about personal finances, here's how to curb money avoidance and train your brain to face your money woes head-on.

Stressed about money? Scared to check your balance? These tips are for you

Stressed about money? Scared to check your balance? These tips are for you

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Cha Pornea for NPR
Illustration of a person shrunk to a small scale hiding under a tented wallet full of credit cards on a desk scattered with receipts, bills, a phone with money apps, a computer open to a bank statement, a beer bottle and an empty martini glass. The figure peeks out from under the wallet, avoiding all the money-related things he should take care of.
Cha Pornea for NPR

As a robust season of jolly holiday spending comes to a close, a lot of us are starting the new year with a debt hangover or a big case of bill-paying blues. Recent data reports show that nearly half of American consumers went into debt while shopping this season and that consumers spent close to a thousand dollars on average on themselves and their loved ones.

While no one finds the idea of paying a big monthly credit card bill fun, some people find dealing with personal finances to be more difficult than others.

Money avoidance, as Judson Brewer puts it, is the practice of ignoring our financial situations, often to our own detriment. Regardless of how much money you have in your bank account, it's easy to understand why so many of us do everything we can to circumvent dollars and sense.

Judson Brewer is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University. Photograph by Sharecare; collage by NPR hide caption

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Photograph by Sharecare; collage by NPR

"There can be all sorts of signs, including procrastination, turning away, not opening our bank account apps — all of those are good signs of money avoidance," says Brewer, who is a psychiatrist, a neuroscientist and the author of Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind.

Whether you're worried about keeping the lights on or you're feeling the pressure of student debt, financial woes are a heavy mental burden, and it's only natural to try to turn away from them.

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But "the avoidance doesn't magically make our bank account have more money in it," says Brewer. "It doesn't magically get the bills paid. It doesn't magically help us work toward having more financial security."

In other words: more money avoidance, more problems.

So if you wince at the thought of opening your credit card app or feel stressed at the mere mention of the subject, here are six tips to curb money avoidance and train your brain to face those money woes head-on.

Anyone can fall victim to money avoidance.

While the idea of money avoidance might suggest a certain amount of privilege — it's true, you have to have money in order to avoid it — every socioeconomic class can be subject to avoidant money behaviors, because everyone at one time or another has faced financial problems they'd rather sweep under the rug.

"We can turn away from them, or we can learn to turn toward them and work with them regardless of where we are on the privileged spectrum," says Brewer.

Recent studies have found, and many have felt firsthand, a rise in financial insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Brewer says such high-stress situations can further lead to problematic money interactions. "So it's really important that we are able to kind of notice our financial habits," in order to ensure our brains stay online and deal with money situations "in a way that is most productive."

Money avoidance stems from survival instincts.

Brewer says that today, the cave man part of our brains is still stuck in survival mode. So for self-preservation purposes, our brains are geared toward seeking rewards and geared away from anything that may be painful.

For our ancestors, that system was centered on both getting food and not becoming it. "When they ate some food, their bodies signaled to them, 'Hey, there's calories in this food that was rewarding,' " says Brewer. "So we'd remember to go back there. And if there was something scary, we would run away and we'd remember to run away from that."

The same rules apply when it comes to our interactions with money. If avoiding something that has caused you discomfort in the past offers you short-term relief, you're more likely to repeat that decision, even if it's not exactly in your best interest. We assign a positive or negative value to our money interactions; our brains make those associations permanent, and over time new habits form.

Identify and interrogate your habit loops.

A habit loop consists of three elements: a trigger, a behavior and a result. Brewer says improving your interactions with money starts with taking stock of your personal financial habit loops.

"It can be as simple as noticing, you know, 'Oh, when I think about money ... I go and clean my kitchen,' " he says. "And then what's the result of that? Well, I'm not actually getting at whatever the issue is — I need to pay my bills, or I need to check to see if my bank account is going to balance."

Try doing an audit of your recent transactions: What felt good or bad? When did you feel like running away? Did avoiding the money problem lead you to a solution?

Find your "bigger better offer."

When writing about solutions to financial stress, Brewer refers to the idea of a "bigger better offer," which means if our brains work off a reward system, we can break harmful money habit loops by giving our brains a bigger bounty than avoidance provides. This change in mindset can break us out of cave man mode and bring us into logic mode.

In terms of personal finances, it answers the question: What can I do that is more rewarding than avoiding money problems?

Brewer defines "reward" on broader terms. If money is a source of anxiety for you, then your brain's bigger better reward might look like simply pausing to upend that nervous energy.

"And here, mindfulness practices can be helpful as well to simply help us ground ourselves ... so that we can then move forward in a way that's more skillful than if we'd been caught up in an old habit," he says.

Brewer's go-to practice is the exercise of feeling your feet: Do you feel the ground beneath you? Can you wiggle your toes? Taking a moment to experience the physical sensations of feeling your feet can help you calm down.

Replace avoidance with self-awareness and creativity.

In moments of money trouble, simply being present can help you avoid future regrets. But of course, this is so much easier said than done. Sure, mindfulness is great in theory, but it's generally a lot harder to conjure when there's only 10 minutes left of a supersale or when that payday advance is offering super-low rates this week only!

Brewer says that's because our brains are trained to seek immediacy over long-term rewards. The easiest counter, he says, is to shift your focus from that needy deprivation mindset toward a more positive outlook on potential gains.

Say you're out with friends and someone suggests another round when you know your budget is tight. Brewer says to quickly weigh your options by asking yourself if you really need the second drink, or if you could still enjoy the company of your friends without it.

A positive replacement for negative money behavior could also look like finding free or low-cost activities that bring you joy. Love going out to dinner with friends? How about inviting them over and trying a new recipe? Love walking through the mall with your mom? Why not try a nature walk instead?

Being creative not only feels good but can also be good for your wallet.

Unlearning money avoidance is hard. Don't waste time on regrets.

When you stumble — and we all do — Brewer says it's important to lead with curiosity, not criticism, because the latter option isn't productive.

Instead of falling into a pattern of self-judgment with constant "review and regret" every time you impulse-shop or avoid the utility bill, Brewer suggests approaching mistakes with a growth mindset. What could you learn from your misstep? What is it telling you?

"It's like imagining what I'm going to get before doing the purchase or making sure that I'm grounded before going shopping — whatever helps us step out of those old habits," says Brewer.

At its core, practicing awareness and a relationship with yourself will put you on the right track to having a more positive relationship with money. It's not always that simple, but it's a good goal to aim for, financially and beyond.

"These two flavors of awareness — kindness and curiosity — can really help us in all things," says Brewer. "Whether it's stress that leads to more financial stress, or financial stress that leads to us beating ourselves up, or just anything in life — more kindness, more curiosity."

The podcast portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.

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