What to Do When You're Worried About Money: A Realistic Guide to Taking Control of Your Finances - ToughNickel - Money
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What to Do When You're Worried About Money: A Realistic Guide to Taking Control of Your Finances

Kierstin is a penny pinching mom/college student who treats money-saving like some kind of really nerdy, homeschooly video game.

Stressed about money?

Stressed about money?

Worried about money but don't know where to start without first hyperventilating into a paper bag? Go ahead, have that panic attack, and when you're done come on back because I've got 14 tips that I use to curb my own financial anxiety.

1. Don't Just Stop Worrying About Money

First things first—don't listen to the advice written by business insiders with grown kids and a 401k who say, "Don't stress about money, it's bad for your health!"


Those articles are written by people in a different stage of life who probably have a decent amount of money. They don't really have to worry about money in the same way you or I do.

The rest of us, the millennial generation especially who are no longer in kids-these-days territory (we're between the ages of 22 and 37 now) have kids of our own, rising housing costs, backed up bills, a lack of childcare, mounting college debt and expensive health insurance that covers almost nothing.

Having a healthy fear of your money can keep you from making big financial mistakes that will take years to unwind or at least prevent you from digging yourself a deeper hole.

Here's the thing though—a little anxiety is good for you, but too much keeps you from solving your problems, so be proactive when you start to feel worried over your finances. Don't just let it paralyze you into not changing your situation.

2. Come up With a List of Things You Don't Need to Spend Money on Right Now

Sometimes, just taking a small step back and looking at your finances from a distance can help you to take control of your money.

Whether you need to cut back just for the next few weeks or for the foreseeable future, knowing what you can and can't live without is the best place to start in reeling in your spending.

3. Stop Spending Time Doing Jobs That Aren't Worth the Pay

This is a lesson I've had to learn the hard way over the past few years, especially as a remote freelance worker. Outside of the passive and steady income stream I have from writing online, it feels like my project-based income is feast or famine. Sometimes I have so many project offers that I have to pick and choose what I have time for and other times my inbox might as well be full of crickets.

The lesson I've learned here is that some jobs are actually a profit loss for me. If the total amount of money I make from a project would equal less than $X per hour (I'm not including my personal dollar amount here because everyone's financial and income needs are different) then it's not something I can take on since I also have to factor self-employment taxes into that equation (around 25% of my total yearly income). At that point, I'm better off creating content for myself and reaping the financial benefits of that once they take off. Even if it takes a little time, the time invested in my own projects earns me more profit so that's where I want to spend my time.

The Gist on Earning

You need to do the same thing. Whether it's an hourly job, a job based on tips, or a salaried position, if the amount of money you are being paid to complete the task would impede your ability to make more money doing something else, it's not worth your time.

4. Reassess and Prioritize Your Subscriptions to Save Money

Figure out:

  1. How many subscriptions do I have? (You may have some you don't know about—check out the Trim app which will find all of your subscriptions for you and let you review them).
  2. Which subscriptions benefit me and give me more time? (For example, my annual Shipt subscription keeps me out of the grocery store and gives me more time to work which amounts to more money for me in the long run).
  3. Which subscriptions do I not use enough to make them worth the monthly or annual cost? (Is the makeup from your beauty box subscription getting tossed before you've used up the tube? Do you actually need Spotify Premium or can you jog to Drake on shuffle? Are you stockpiling magazines for "someday when I have the time" at $49.99 a year?)

Once you've figured out which subscriptions are key to your daily life and which one just end up bleeding money from your checking account, it's time to start canceling and then budgeting for the ones that are a must-have.

5. Log Out of Social Media

Something I've noticed with myself is that a lot of my financial anxiety comes from comparing my life, my clothes, my belongings to the perfectly curated ones of people I barely know on social media. So, take a break from Instagram, Facebook, and all of the rest (I'm getting old, those two are the only ones I really use anymore) by simply logging out.

Now you'll have more time to focus on your financial priorities and spend less time scrolling through your feeds and comparing your drab living room to your husband's best friend's sister's who lives in The Keys and is married to a day-trader. Plus, you'll probably spend less money. Those targeted ads can be dangerous!

Take a social media break. You'll have less time to compare your store bought ramen to your friend's $20 ramen and you'll have more time to work. Wow!

Take a social media break. You'll have less time to compare your store bought ramen to your friend's $20 ramen and you'll have more time to work. Wow!

6. Make a To-Do List Before Bed

Do you ever feel like you spend money because you're pretty sure there's something you're supposed to be doing but you can't remember what it is and so you just end up buying stuff you think you might need instead? DON'T LIE.

Here's how this might go for me:

  1. Wake up.
  2. Wow. The house is trashed.
  3. I feel 100% overwhelmed.
  4. I should clean the house so I can stop feeling overwhelmed.
  5. Omg, do I have cleaning spray? I'm too overwhelmed to check.
  6. Buys cleaning spray.
  7. Realizes an hour later I have a full bottle of cleaning spray on the counter.

To curb this compulsion I've learned to start writing a brief to-do list before bed. Something along the lines of:

  • Take inventory of my produce in the crisper
  • Meal plan for the weekend ($50 or less)
  • Wipe down counters with the rest of sanitizing wipes under the sink
  • Make list of cleaning supplies to buy on Monday

I'm making it a priority to take a second to inventory what I already have and to see what I realistically need, thus taking control of my tendency towards I'm-in-a-hurry impulse purchases.

7. Stop Marie Kondo-ing Everything

Stop getting rid of stuff that doesn't spark joy. If you do that you're going to have to buy a crap ton of stuff to replace those items in the next few months. I get it, I get the idea of not spending money on and not keeping things around that you don't really love but I think this method has the potential to really backfire, especially if followed to the letter.

Likewise, follow #mariekondo and you're going to end up spending an entire paycheck at The Container Store trying to achieve Instagram in real life.

Instead, create a Do Not Buy List. Take half an hour to go through your home and check out what you already have for the near future. Here's an example of what my Do Not Buy List would look like at the moment:

Do Not Buy List

Creating a "Do Not Buy" list for the near future means I avoid double-purchasing certain things or impulse buying an item we already have enough of, therefore saving money and space in our home.


Toilet paper (we have like 80 rolls)

Box mixes (we have a bunch that are going to expire in the fall)

TOYS (help, we're drowning)

Scotch tape (our junk drawer is exploding)

Toothpaste (already stocked up last month)

Freezer meals (we're well stocked - let's avoid freezer burn, shall we?)

Fall pants and tops (if I buy anymore they'll outgrow them before getting a chance to even wear them!)

Batteries (see above)

Wallflowers (dear God, I have a problem)

Baking pans (as much as I think I need 10 loaf pans to make my own bread, that's never going to happen for me...)

Bath soaps (we're stocked for at least the next 6 weeks)

Makeup (I...I have a problem...)

8. Create a Monthly Overview of Your Upcoming Payments Coming in and Bills Due

Each month I like to sit down and create an overview of how much money we have coming in that month and how much money must go out that month (to bills, etc).

This is a budget, of course. Here's the thing though with a budget - if you plan it too far ahead, it can be tricky to budget for unexpected costs. If you plan month-to-month it's easier to see what really needs to be spent that month and how much you can put away from a rainy-day.

9. Keep Track of Your Out-of-Budget Spending

No one stays in their budget and pretending you do can cost you in overdraft fees and interest. So, get a dry-erase board, chalk board, a sheet of paper - whatever is convenient and fits in your space and start tracking your family's out-of-budget spending. My husband and I do this when we're trying to be extra thoughtful during a pay period.

The way it works is that every time my husband or I make an unplanned purchase, we'll put it on the designated "I Spent" list. It goes something like this:

I Spent...

Keep track of out-of-budget purchases by recording them and keeping them posted in a common area so your family has a solid idea of how out of budget you are and where you can reel it in. Obviously I can stop perusing the Hearth & Hand Collection at

WhoWhere/WhenHow Much


Target/July 1



Target/July 7



McDonald's/July 16


10. Come up With One Side Hustle That Doesn't Cost Any Money to Start

This one can be tricky, and you need to be careful not to get yourself into something that's super time-consuming.

The key to finding a side hustle that fits your interests and lifestyle is to take into account what you already know and what you're already good at. I know how to write and I know how to navigate publishing platforms so that's been a good side hustle for me because it didn't take me very much mental energy to start doing it.

If you're great at design and you like to do it in your spare time, try selling PDFs of your designs on Etsy or make and sell pre-made e-book covers.

If you're a talented photographer, sort through the images you've already taken and uploaded them to websites like Shutterstock for a little passive income.

If you love creating Instagram stories and posting on Facebook, start a social media management business.

See where I'm going with this? Investing $400 to start selling makeup or kitchen gadgets isn't a side hustle—that makes you the customer (at first, anyway). If you're worried about money, you need to start offering your interests and talents for a price.

11. Make a Smart Plan for Your Tax Refund

As tempting as it is to plan a vacation with your tax refund, figure out roughly how much you'll get back and plan to use the refund to pay for big expenses. One year, my husband and I paid off our vehicle with our tax refund. It was such a relief to cut out that monthly payment and it was money well invested.

Another year, our tax refund was enough to pay off my husband's school loan debt in full, which kept us from paying the crazy high-interest rate that was about to go into effect.

You could also (wisely) use your tax refund to:

  • Start an emergency fund
  • Pay your biannual property taxes in full
  • Pay for urgent repairs to your home or vehicle
  • Pay for those subscriptions that have a positive impact on your everyday
  • Start your down-payment fund for your first or future home purchase

Here's where you shouldn't spend your tax refund:

  • On debt that can't be paid off in full. You'll just be dropping money into a well that keeps getting interested poured into it. Unless the amount you have in your refund can pay off a debt in full and save you from paying interest, there are better places to spend it.
  • On appliance upgrades. Tax season is a great time of year to get screwed by marketers on appliance upgrades. Hold on to that money and do some research before investing in a $1,500 dishwasher.
  • On an expensive, unnecessary item that will cost money to maintain (snowmobile, boat, motorcycle...)
Dreaming of a debt free life on your new boat? If you're reading this article, that's not in the cards for you at the moment.

Dreaming of a debt free life on your new boat? If you're reading this article, that's not in the cards for you at the moment.

12. Undo Your Autopay Payments

Autopay doesn't work if there isn't enough money to fulfill the autopay.

If you have auto pays that come out once a month you might remember those, but if you have an autopay that comes out just a few times a year it's harder to remember those and you may accidentally overdraft your checking. Instead, keep track of monthly, quarterly or annual expenses in your calendar (Google or old fashioned) and budget accordingly so you're never thrown off guard by that $500 car insurance premium.

13. Figure Out What Your Most Expensive Appliances Are and Use Them Wisely

For the first year that we lived in our first (fairly new, 1200 square foot, well insulated) home I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why our gosh dang electric bill is HUNDREDS of dollars a month while my friends and family with large homes were gasping at our energy costs.

Then I realized that every single appliance in our home, save for our heating, is electric and electricity costs in my town ain't cheap. That means that every time I cook on our stove, take a hot shower or dry a load of laundry, I'm using - and paying for - electricity.

With this revelation, I've been able to make adjustments to save money on our electric bill like:

  • Turning down our electric water heater
  • Air drying clothes when the weather is warm
  • Washing all of our clothing on cold and saving the hot water for towels and kitchen textiles
  • Cooking simple, quick meals on the stovetop instead of trying to make crazy, time-consuming ones that run up our electric bill
  • Opening the windows in the morning to cool off the house and save on A/C costs

14. Take a Deep Breath and Realize that Everyone Has Debt

While we've been conditioned to see debt as the end-all when it comes to financial security, I think a smarter way to think about debt is to realize that:

  1. Every adult has (or has had) it and,
  2. getting rid of debt shouldn't be the first goal; managing it wisely should be.

Check out sites like NerdWallet and MillennialMoney to start schooling yourself on how to pay off the debt in a way that won't send you into another panic.

5 things you can do to ease your financial anxiety.

5 things you can do to ease your financial anxiety.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 Kierstin Gunsberg


Dina AH from United States on May 26, 2019:

Kiersten, you wrote about a difficult subject with grace and nuance. When you wrote about Marie Kondo, I was nodding along. I do try to maintain awareness when purchasing items. However, the notion of joy in relation to objects rings superficial for me. You are correct. We end up repurchasing items we once had under this method. It's not always applicable. I am curious about how you keep your children interested in their toys if they notice other ones in stores. That must be a challenge.

Your advice regarding choosing worthwhile jobs was thought-provoking. I needed to read this advice.

PS: I enjoyed your nods to your own relationship with money. Target is an obstacle-course for me because my mom gets stuck in the home improvement sections. I longingly stare at books while there, too.