Ready to reduce your money anxiety? Here is some unconventional advice.
Money-related insomnia is high these days. If you find yourself awake in the middle of the night worrying about your finances, you are not alone. A recent survey from CreditCards.com found that 65% of respondents lose sleep over money. Most of those who worry have reported having taken at least one step to alleviate their concerns, typically by cutting their expenses.
Managing expenses and following a budget can be an effective tool for taking charge of your money situation, but I have recently heard of a less conventional exercise that can help. It’s called “practicing poverty”. I wish I could take the credit, but I first encountered the idea on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast. In that particular episode, Tim was talking about Stoic philosophers, specifically a gentleman named Seneca who lived around 63 A.D.
What can someone who lived many centuries ago teach us about today’s money worries? I found Seneca’s advice to be quite relevant for the modern times.
“Start cultivating a relationship with poverty”
Here is a quote from Seneca that introduces the idea of practicing poverty.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
What does this mean?
The fear of not having enough money to afford our current lifestyle can paralyze us if we let it. We have all experienced that awful pit in the stomach and a sense of dread as we considered the possibility that we might lose our job, or that the stock market will take a dive and our investments won’t be there when we need them, or that our health insurance premium will climb to an astronomical high.
No matter what flavor of money fear gets you, in its grip we all tend to forget that comforts and small luxuries (like a hot shower and a cup of coffee) are lovely but truly optional. If you had to make it on a shoestring budget, you would find a way to make it to the next day – but the premise sounds terrifying until you try it for yourself. You can either continue to fret, or you can take the power away from the imaginary money-eating monster.
Practical applications of “practicing poverty”
What might that look like in practical terms?
To start, choose one week to live out a scenario that allows you to practice your fear of having very little to no money. One week is just enough to give you a full-immersion experience without majorly upsetting your normal life patterns. For that week, select 3-4 outfits from your closet, allow yourself a very small grocery budget ($50, for example), and spend no money on entertainment. Live as though all you have is the roof over your head and some meager food. That means no movies, no Internet, and no shopping. Some people who try this exercise will go as far as sleeping on the kitchen floor in a sleeping bag, not using their cell phones, or going without their cars. I leave those choices up to you, but be safe!
What is likely to happen if you try this?
- First of all, you may become present to your inner mental dialog about money and what it means to you. After all, with no TV to watch or Facebook feed to scroll, books and thoughts in your head will become your companions. This clarity about what’s important can be a tremendous booster if you have been looking for that extra bit of motivation to get your money house in order.
- You will likely discover that this self-imposed “worst-case scenario” does not kill you. Even though you are wearing the same clothes and eating the same boring food, you still wake up in the morning. After the initial adjustment of a day or two, you may even find that your overall happiness level is about the same with and without the extra money.
- You will have a new-found appreciation for the extras and luxuries that you have every day. At the end of your self-imposed austerity week, a cup of coffee with a fresh-baked pastry will taste amazing!
- You may find it easier to make decisions you were previously scared to make because of money fears.
- You will have saved some money, which you can put away into a designated account or use for something nice when you are done.
Practicing a fear can take away its power over you
A few things are worth highlighting as we wrap up the conversation about practicing poverty. It’s important to remember that money or possessions aren’t inherently evil or inherently good. They simply exist. We are the ones who give them power over our peace of mind. Here’s how Seneca put it.
“I am not, mind you, against your possessing them [riches], but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing”
By periodically practicing a life in which you have fewer luxuries (or things you have come to regard as “essential” when they are not), you take back your own power. You may also find a new zest and appreciation for the wonderful things that surround you on the daily basis. That alone may be a good argument in favor of giving this a try!
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