True Life: I Was A Personal Finance Addict

I founded The Holistic Wallet to spread my wealth of knowledge on good financial behaviors and beneficial money habits. That’s why you’re reading this, right? Because you’re seeking the same results I had when I was just like you back in the day, reading a personal finance blog post, too… except times a thousand.

My newsletters and blog posts are jam-packed with examples and lessons I picked up on my financial journey so you can streamline your research and integrate my experience into your life and recreate my success.

But one of the factors I often leave out that was pretty helpful in achieving the success I had in paying off $50,000 of debt and stashing just as much in savings over a 5 year period was that I inherited a large fortune from a wealthy relative.

I’m kidding.

Actually, I was a personal finance addict.

It started out innocently enough, as it goes. I graduated from college with over $50k worth of student loans, credit card balances, and a car loan and I was fortunate enough to land a job in the financial industry at the height of the Great Recession.

Still waiting for the economy to turn around and kind of traumatized by the crisis, I refused to take my paycheck for granted and researched the best strategies to improve the financial shape I was in. I devoured advice from savvy financial planners, frugal minimalists, extreme couponers, and debt hacking experts. (Financial fangirl much?)

In the beginning of my journey to financial empowerment, I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. I had access to a niche-y but dense community of people who wanted to take back our economic power from the socio-economic systems that failed us (or where we failed ourselves) and we were all in this together. It felt really, really good.

Getting your finances in shape involves lifestyle changes similar to changing any kind of “bad” habit whether it’s exercising more, cutting back on processed food, or not checking Facebook every 10 minutes. Trying to spend less, earn more, pay off debt, grow your savings, keep your grocery budget to $50 per week, etc. involves very conscious and deliberate lifestyle changes.

Track your spending. CHECK. Make a debt repayment plan and automate it. CHECK. Monitor your budget. CHECKITY CHECKITY CHECK.

I was doing really well. And when you’re able to sustain new and improved habits, it looks like you just have more willpower than everyone else. You’re able to will yourself to stick to a budget. You’re able to will yourself to turn down new clothes. You’re able to will yourself to leave your credit cards at home.

But no one sees that you’re actually satisfying a craving, not denying one. Until I read up on changing habits and mustering up willpower, I didn’t see it either.

See, I always loved my budget. I was proud of it. I loved plugging my debts into debt repayment calculators and tracking my figures on spreadsheets. I loved shopping for the best savings account rates and credit card bonuses. I loved finding ways to profit off of the big banks who used to profit off of my financial ignorance.

I devoured each page of Money magazine the way I did TeenVogue back in middle school. I put my savings in accounts with the highest interest rates. I shopped with the credit card with the best cash-back rewards and paid my balance in full each bill. I monitored my bills and due dates meticulously to avoid any overdrafts or late fees. I checked my credit score every week and I tracked my net worth in a spreadsheet every other week.

All of these things felt really, really good. And, clearly, I was just replacing one indulgence (not caring about my finances) with another (obsessively caring about my finances).

I craved the way it would feel to be debt-free. I craved the way it would feel to not worry about not affording something. I craved the way it would feel to be in total control of my finances.

By the time I had paid off my debt and stashed just as much in savings, I was so obsessed with personal finance that it started to make me anxious.

I often felt like I was forgetting something and I was constantly re-checking my numbers. I’d eventually reassure myself that my finances were in great shape only to repeat the exercise several days later.

It was like I was trying to find something wrong. I was trying to find something new upon which to improve.

Eventually I set up this money coaching business. (YAY!) It gave me another outlet to pursue a good number crunching and financial strategy session. But, again, it was just me satisfying another craving, indulging in something that I enjoyed.

I was constantly testing out new personal finance apps. I used my business as an excuse to run my personal budget in 3-4 apps simultaneously. I figured out what worked and what didn’t and what I would do differently to make the mightiest app of them all if I could ever get around to finding a developer. (I didn’t.)

You may think that you can’t possibly overdose on personal finance, but when you spend most of your waking minutes obsessing over it, you kind of forget to live your life.

I became that grumpy old lady, waving my cane in the air, muttering “I’m not giving the MTA my hard-earned $3 to cram myself into a filthy subway!” So I didn’t visit my friends in the city nearly enough because when I think “financial freedom” I think dying alone in a pile of money. (NOT.)

One morning, I woke up at 3am, panicked about my finances. “Do I have enough in savings? Maybe I should start using that other credit card instead if I’m going to need to buy airfare soon. What’s today’s date? What bills do I have coming up?”

I had complete control over my finances. I was consciously choosing where money was going and yet my finances felt totally out of control. I was obsessing over my finances like it was market research for my clients and students for what? So I could turn them into the same obsessive maniac I was?

I realized I needed to establish boundaries in the same way I did trying to control my finances, being conscious and present, but not obsessing.

My net worth was not my self-worth. And maybe having less money in the bank but living a life full of balance might be the healthier option.

Now I’m at a place where I still try to spend less than I earn, I save for a rainy day when I can, and I still don’t buy stuff as a pursuit of happiness.

I stopped using a budgeting app, I started doing my variable spending with cash so I wouldn’t obsess over the data on my credit card statements, and I only look at my bank accounts when I have it scheduled on my calendar to review.

I spend my savings when I need to and I don’t feel guilty about it. It doesn’t feel like sabotage; it feels like a healthy balance of money in and money out.

And debt isn’t actually the worst thing in the world if you’re smart and deliberate with it and it’s helping you pursue a life goal, paying interest on things that are worth paying interest on.

I finally became the person my clients and students strived to be: in control of my finances but not obsessively. Knowing enough, spending with intention, but not over-restricting when the budget gets a bit tight.

I guess this is now satisfying my cravings of ease and balance and enjoying this short time I have on this planet. And that’s something I can feel good about being addicted to!

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • FullTimeFinance July 13, 2017

    It’s definitely a thin line from attentive to obsessive. Sometimes I find myself leaning to far one way, in which case I go spend time with my family and let finances handle themselves. Automation helps.

    • Michelle July 14, 2017

      Yes, totally agree about automation!

  • Leejazz July 26, 2017

    Thank you for this. I spent the past 5 years or so trying to get a handle on a plan to pay off our mortgage and to become debt free prior to retirement to use the last 2 years to build a larger nest egg. To do this, I swear I at least tried every strategy I read about on as many PF blogs as I could cram into my day. Long story short – I did it, (YAY ME) but in continuing to try to tweak something already carefully conceived, I have made myself MISERABLE. I spend most of my free time trying to “beat the Man”, balancing and counterbalancing behaviours and strategies to win in the “game of life” but it seems that I really just can’t and don’t. Case in point: saving $45 on a $90 pair of shoes by waiting for a sale price, then making arrangements to procure an online coupon and celebrating my “victory” one day; then becoming distracted at work and losing my cell phone that doubled as our house phone and subsequently finding that it was stolen. Half a day’s pay lost in trying to re-trace my steps and track its exact location; $100 to buy out the contract, $100 for replacement phone, $25 reconnection fee, obsolete “old” plan replaced by one that costs $10 more per month, and $10 more for a new “minimum” amount of data, ending up to be less than what I had… and this is just one recent example. I become so upset when this sort of thing happens, and carry this feeling of failure and stupidity around that I swear I am bound for an ulcer… and I can’t seem to let it go Then there’s the issue of increasing fixed bills and variable costs, and a so-called reputable employer for my highly specialized profession that hasn’t offered a raise in a decade, with no vacation pay and a union that takes dues but doesn’t represent my small part of the equation. Don’t get me started on life insurance or health benefits. Should I decrease them, change them or cancel them? How do I know the best course of action when the future hasn’t happened yet? So I carry on the next day, and so on and so on, seeming to make one mistake and/or error in judgement after another. Sometimes I think that things were better when I was financially ignorant; I really do. I would like to just ‘take a step back’ but am not sure how to find that balance that is responsible but not obsessive while still maximizing resources. Kudos to you for finding that ‘sweet spot’ because apparently, I am failing miserably.

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      “How do I know the best course of action when the future hasn’t happened yet?” WELL SAID. My trick to finding that balance is getting clear on and pursuing your goals/ideals/values. The money is just a means to an end – it is not the final destination. If at the end of the day you are living a life you are proud of, the sticker price on a pair of shoes or a cell phone doesn’t matter. I’ve totally been where you are trying to “beat the man” but then I realized that it’s just not possible all the time. Sometimes you win (credit card perks, sales, the best interest rates) and sometimes you lose (hidden fees, money bloopers, rainy days). We expect that balance is all about being good all the time – it’s not. You’re closer than you think!

  • Danita July 26, 2017

    OMG…this is exactly what I’ve been doing! Great article…this is exactly what I needed to hear today!

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      Glad it resonated with you!

  • Amanda July 26, 2017

    Oh, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Just this morning I woke up and thought, “I need to find OTHER types of blogs to follow.” I mean, my whole life can’t be about money. I’m an essayist and a professor and an arts activist and dog momma and on and on. I dove into the personal finance community because I want my life to EXPAND, not to keep it inside this little money box. I didn’t really think of it as an addiction, but it something I go back to time and again. I will continue to go back to it, but I have to find some balance. I’m not great at moderation. Plus, I’m an immersionist, so balance is hard. I also don’t think it’s always necessary, but if I’m feeling stuck in the box, it might be time to take a peek outside of it.

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      Totally get the struggle of being an immersionist! What I’ve found by spending time in other areas is that they can totally be applied to personal finance as well. Somehow adventures in cooking and crafts have turned on more money “light bulbs” than just sticking within the PF zone. You can take the girl out of personal finance, but you can’t the personal finance out of the girl – apparently!

  • Amy July 26, 2017

    Wow! As I was reading a light bulb went off—-you just described me. Just this morning, I woke up anxious and began to calculate numbers I figured the night before. Setting boundaries with my finances is now at the top of my to do list. This feeling of anxiousness for no reason has got to go!! Thank you for sharing.

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      So glad it resonated with you! The best work I’ve done is finding the source of the craving for that anxiety. It was almost like I liked having a problem to solve, a goal to work towards, a money project! Now, I just feed that craving in other ways. It’s simple – but it’s NOT easy. :)

  • Melissa July 26, 2017

    I remember coming across a personal finance blog WAY back in 2005. I’ve been obsessed since. But, I find it to be a pretty “good” obsession that keeps me on my toes about making decisions!

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      If you can make it work for you in a way that makes you feel good, awesome!

  • I thankfully haven’t become that grumpy lady yet – but can see how it’d be easy to slip into that mode. :)

    I think for me, being married to somebody who’s responsible but not obsessed, and wants to enjoy some of our money now, helps keep me grounded and in the moment We’ve got goals of early retirement and we can do it, but we’re enjoying now as well and that’s what’s important to us.

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      That’s awesome! Usually, I see couples on opposite sides of the spectrum. Glad to hear you’ve found a way to enjoy both your now and your later!

  • Sarah. July 26, 2017

    I could have written this. Except for the ending.

    From as far back as I remember until 2009, I could tell you at any given moment how much cash I had… to the penny (never looked at investments). Then, I had a litter of kids (triplets), handed our money over to a financial adviser and couldn’t tell you how much we spent in a day, week, month or even year. I have no records (not a one) until 2015 when we took our money back (the right decision).

    Since that time, I have been reading everything I can about saving and investing our money. I’m still learning things all the time but feel like I have a good feel for where I want to be. The fact that we are heavily weighted in the Canadian market (we rely on dividend income) worries me a bit but I realized that I didn’t freak out about the crash (or whatever you want to call it) in 2008 mostly because I didn’t really know about it (I don’t follow current events or watch tv). Since nothing has changed there, I’m hoping it will be the same. Except that we will be officially FIRE in January 2018 so I’ll have to keep track somewhat as we won’t have tons of extra money.

    Long story short, I know that I don’t need to check, recheck and re-recheck our numbers so much in the sense that we will have enough. What I do need to do is find a happy medium between nothing and often. Thanks for making me think about it.

    • Michelle July 29, 2017

      Ahhh, the “happy medium between nothing and often” – LOVE it.

  • Lake Girl August 6, 2017

    Nice Post! I decided a while back that taking good care of my finances was not about willpower for me but never thought about it as satisfying a craving. I like it!
    Lake Girl where I blog about deliberately choosing health, wealth and happiness with every day decisions!

    • Michelle August 22, 2017

      Crave away, sister!

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