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“Credit card debt and hefty loan charges: why we need to talk about our money f**k-ups”

Think you’re the only one who is racking up debt and mismanaging your finances? Think again, says author Poorna Bell.

When I tell people I have been in heavy debt for most of my career, they tend to look surprised. Their eyebrows go even higher when I tell them that talking about money often kicks off a chain reaction of nausea, followed by a deep sense of dread. That despite finally being financially solvent, I still can’t look at my bank balance at an ATM machine.

The conclusion most people draw is that I have a good career, and I seem responsible, so I don’t seem like a likely candidate. Which in itself indicates how truly unhelpful some of the attitudes we have around money are.

While I’m open about my money issues now, I am marked for life by the shame I felt around not having money until the age of 34. Up until then, I mismanaged it and felt fearful, to the point where it almost paralysed me. Added to this is the additional debt I took on as a result of my late husband Rob getting into thousands of pounds of debt due to addiction. 

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But although mine and Rob’s debt increased the toxicity I feel around money, I know that my piss-poor relationship with it began the first day I was given an overdraft with my university bank account. Since then, I’ve spent so long operating at a subsistence level – ensuring I have enough money for food and rent – that I don’t know how to handle any extra money responsibly. Planning ahead gives me the sweats. 

Pound coins and bank notes.
“When I was in debt, I felt alone and ashamed”

Two months ago, I decided enough was enough and took steps to address my problem. I attended a financial workshop and hired a money coach, which was like having therapy but for money problems.

I learned a lot, but the first thing I realised was that people are rarely open about money – especially when they’re mismanaging it. When I was in debt, I felt alone and ashamed, as if everyone else had managed to figure it out except me.

I work a lot in the space of addiction, and there is a strange parallel between that and money, in terms of how we moralise it. We assign values such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with no acknowledgement that a person’s ‘bad’ relationship with money isn’t necessarily because they are selfish or irresponsible, but instead dependent on what they were exposed to as a child. And in the same way that we believe sobriety is the cure to addiction, we believe that simply having more money can fix our issues with it. 

Emma Maslin, money coach and bestselling author gives the example of footballers going bankrupt as evidence that people can have a lot of money and still lose it. But she says that a critical part of addressing our issues with money is to rewrite the narrative we’ve got for ourselves.

“A person’s ability to manage their finances is nothing to do with being a good or a bad person. Within the first five minutes of speaking with a lot of my clients, I’ll hear the words: ‘I’m terrible with money’. They give themselves this label; it’s what their inner critic is telling them.

“These are people from all walks of life with a variety of jobs, frequently with good salaries or who own their own businesses. Many, if not most, are successful people who, outwardly, you wouldn’t assume would need help.”

budget jar
“I’ve been using the ‘I’m bad with money’ narrative for some time…”

I’ve been using the ‘I’m bad with money’ narrative for some time. It may have started because I earned peanuts for the first five years of my career, but now it has become an excuse to avoid taking responsibility. Once you remove that crutch, you then have to re-learn and build a new relationship with it.

Alice Tapper, author of Go Fund Yourself: What Money Means in the 21st Century, How to be Good at it and Live Your Best Life is a brilliant voice in modern finance. Her Instagram account is funny and accessible.

She says: “The average UK household has £2,688 unpaid on credit cards, so you’re not alone. Traditional financial and money saving advice can be very unrealistic, particularly for the kind of lives we live today and the financial challenges of our time.

“For most, the standard advice of building a savings buffer of six months worth of living expenses is laughable, and nobody is motivated by being told that their spending on coffee is what’s standing between them and their dreams of homeownership. There’s a disconnect, and it’s no wonder that so many of us feel we’re bad with money and lost when it comes to getting our finances in order.”

While social media can supercharge consumerism – looking at what other people have got and then spending money you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses – Alice says it can also be a force for good.

She directs me towards the #debtfreecommunity on Instagram where people document their journey into the black. It celebrates the wins as well as the struggles, and also mitigates a lot of the worry that you’re alone in this.

It’s also worth unpicking where your attitudes to money may come from, especially since Maslin says these attitudes are formed by the time we are seven. I remember my parents sitting down every Sunday evening to do their finances and it always seemed stressful, whether they were dealing with lost receipts or unaccounted expenditures. I can’t imagine this had a positive effect on me. 

pound coins
“The only way to get better at managing money is by learning and doing”

Above all, we need to acknowledge that money is hugely emotional and can have an impact on our mental wellbeing. This isn’t just about earning more money (although that helps). Rather, it’s about being able to healthily manage money, whatever the amount.

The only way to get better at it, says Maslin, is by learning and doing. “This means speaking to your friends about how they manage their money, asking your partner to talk you through any shared financial decisions, reading the right books on finance, listening to podcasts and staying up to date with current affairs and how they impact your money.”

Knowledge is wealth, she says. Quite literally.

Images: Unsplash, Getty

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