I Went To Therapy For Financial Anxiety, And Here’s How I Learned To Cope

It’s about navigating the ups and downs.

Shutterstock/Elite Daily

Embarking on a career as a freelance writer is challenging enough; however, doing it in the midst of a pandemic seemed like an almost impossible task. When I started freelancing full time in May 2020, not only did I face the usual worries of the job — like fluctuating income — but the constant feeling of impending doom tempted me to enjoy the present as much as possible. If the news kept telling me over and over that my generation won’t be able to buy a house or have a decent retirement pension, why shouldn’t I have a good time while it lasted? Turns out, that’s not the healthiest mindset.

As a freelancer, I don’t have a stable flow of income or any of the benefits that being a full-time employee provides. My income was (and is) irregular — I can’t count on a paycheck hitting my bank account every two weeks. Within six months of steady freelancing, I became accustomed to months where I would receive a big payment, followed by a month with two or three smaller payments or only a single check coming in. The good months allowed me to indulge in spending and enjoy the results of my work: maybe a nice dinner or a particularly expensive book I’d had my eye on. I’d take my parents out to a restaurant or buy something nice for my grandmother, feeling happy to spoil them while I could. When I knew I had payments on the horizon — freelance gigs usually pay between 30 to 90 days after completion — I wasn’t worried about my finances as long as I had more work coming.

But two months into regular freelance work, I was already disregarding the minimum balance I wanted to have in my account, thinking it would be a short while before I earned the money back. Instead of budgeting, I decided to wing it and not think about my worries too much. My loose mental math assured me: “It’s fine! I’m still waiting on payment from three different gigs, so whatever, it’s not like I’m not still working hard!” The tipping point came in November 2020 when my debit card was cloned, but the purchase the robber made bounced back due to insufficient funds. The dread I had been pushing to the back of my mind burst into an anxious fit. Even though I immediately called the bank and was able to cancel my card without losing the money I had left, I was in a state of shock: What was happening? The experience served as a wake-up call. It was time to finally face the reality of my financial situation and the toll it was taking on me.

I don’t have the luxury for YOLO spending every time a check comes in.

Right after the scare, I decided to bring up this issue in sessions with my therapist, who specializes in holistic approaches to mental and physical health and whom I’d been going to for more than a year. We talked about the underlying issues that fueled my anxious habits, as well as the life experiences that informed my relationship to money and spending habits. I realized that overall, the way I spent money was an expression of my uneasiness regarding the irregular nature of my work: I would anxiously hold on to money, and then spend it on something that would make me happy, like books, in order to distract myself from the uncomfortable feeling. In therapy, I began to understand that my career as a freelancer with an unstable financial situation (at least for now) means I don’t have the luxury for YOLO spending every time a check comes in.

Figuring out a better path was rocky: My knee-jerk reaction was to try to spend as little as possible, while trying to increase my workload. But since I was doing this from a place of anxiety and worry, the pitches I sent weren’t fully developed and thought out — and were ultimately rejected by editors. It felt like the more I worried, the harder I tried to get additional gigs that ended up falling flat.

Situations — and financial worries — like my own aren’t unusual. The pandemic accelerated growth of the gig economy, which Investopedia defines as “large numbers of people working in part-time or temporary positions or as independent contractors,” in the United States alone. Gig workers often don’t have access to the security enjoyed by conventional employees, such as health benefits, tax withdrawals, paid sick time, or even unemployment insurance when work is scarce. As of December 2020, 35% of U.S. workers were a part of the gig economy, and about 1.1 billion on-demand gig workers existed worldwide, according to Forbes. And yes, they’re more likely to be young: According to Pew Research, around 30% of gig workers are aged 18 to 29, the highest percentage of any age group.

Reyna Pelcastre

While older generations grew up with stronger social safety nets along with affordable housing, college, health care, and stable employment, the 1980s saw these structures largely dismantled, as well as huge tax cuts for the rich, the destruction of unions, deregulation, privatization, outsourcing, and competition in public services. Now, millennials and Gen Z face a very different financial reality: A report published in August 2020 from the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2019, CEOs on average earned 320 times as much as the average worker in the United States, and costs of housing, education, health care, and even food keep going up while wages stay stagnant. The financial uncertainty of our circumstances has a huge impact on young workers’ mental health — and for freelancers like me, who don’t even have the nominal safety net of benefits, things are even more precarious.

The main concern of freelancers in the United States, according to a 2020 Statista survey, was the potential of “an economic downturn in the next few years,” followed by “being able to put enough money into savings,” with “saving for retirement” as the third most common worry. I know these worries intimately. In therapy, I first had to recognize which facets of my financial situation were my personal responsibility and which were part of the system, meaning I can’t modify them in the short term. I can’t control the fact that the gig economy is my main source of work or the fact that the payment process can be long, but what I can control is the way I cope with the stress and anxious thoughts.

In therapy, I accepted that I am indeed in the initial stages of a career where I’m employed on a project-by-project basis, and I don’t receive benefits. If I ever want to take a break, I don’t have paid time off to fall back on — when I need a rest for any reason, I have to make sure there is enough money in savings to sustain that work-free time period.

Discussions with my therapist also helped me realize I can lean into my community of other freelancers for support and mutual aid: Most of my friends, as well as my partner, work as freelancers. Talking about my worries with others in my situation helped mitigate the anxiety. We share tips (like developing our own pomodoro-style techniques so we don’t burn out in a single day) and create support systems that allow us to pull through together. All together, these strategies helped me ease my anxiety and recognize concrete steps I can take to improve my mental health, like setting limits on the hours I dedicate to work every day, in order to create better working conditions.

Balance was key to my process in creating spending habits that allowed me to enjoy the money I earned.

And on the practical side, I realized that instead of spending from a place of anxiety, it’s much more realistic to maintain a hard minimum amount I want to have at all times as part of my savings — a conclusion I came to with guidance from my therapist. For me, that meant setting priorities and a monthly budget based on the money I could access at that moment, so that I wasn’t spending payments before I received them. It also meant learning to properly administer my time and energy. If I put all my effort into a single project in a short amount of time, I’d only end up with the same financial anxiety as well as the creative limitations that come with burnout.

I was able to adapt to my financial circumstances through therapy and by developing the tools necessary to thrive, not just survive. I learned to identify and understand how personal worries tied to fluctuating income can sabotage my career, and how working on these issues can ease my mind as well as provide a healthy work-life balance. For anyone in my situation, I suggest asking yourself, What are my limits? What does it mean to honor my well-being? How can I establish a rhythm that works best for me? Balance was key to my process in creating spending habits that allowed me to enjoy the money I earned, without creating stressful scenarios for myself in the near future.

And of course, there’s always therapy.