The snow was still falling and the roads had just re-opened that morning. I didn't know if we’d missed the bus or if it had never come, but either way my son and I weren't going to make it to the airport without spending several hundred pounds on a taxi and possibly hundreds more re-booking the flights. Our "cheap" weekend getaway had just turned into something much more extravagant.
However, an even greater crisis was happening back home. When I finally returned a growing number of missed calls from my wife, I found out she'd just been in a major car accident. Thankfully she was alright, but our car, an utterly unremarkable beast of burden that we never loved but absolutely relied upon, was not.
The cost of the bus debacle, at around £700, suddenly seemed pretty insignificant compared to the cost of buying a new car. And then the pandemic struck. Our job contracts started to get delayed or cancelled, and we didn't know when either of us would next get paid.
Financial stress affects all of us differently. Susan started reading books on self-sufficient living and began making her own moisturiser, whereas I started chasing her and my son around the house turning off the lights behind them. Initially they were understanding but eventually they got fed up. "I'm IN HERE!" my son would shout from the loo whose light switch is temptingly located in the corridor.
But eventually, something began to shift. As lockdown turned from weeks into months, we started feeling more optimistic about our finances. I dusted off my rarely used circular saw and built a loft bed for our son, saving myself some cash and a trip to a certain large, chain furniture store, also known as the ‘7th circle of hell'. We spent our weekends swimming in rivers and going for bicycle rides, and no longer had to listen to friends tell us about the incredible time they just had on a yoga retreat up a mountain in Thailand eating biodynamically-grown aubergines and drinking cruelty-free vegan cocktails. For the first time we could remember, we weren't worrying about money on a daily basis. We were definitely earning less, but we had what we needed to be happy. As summer turned into autumn we wondered, could we hold onto this new relationship to our finances after the lockdown ended?
Why Money is a Wellness Issue
The response to financial stress and anxiety is often just to think that you need to get a grip. Money is rational, right? Just earn more – or spend less.
But somehow these goals are harder than they sound. Real life gets in the way, our priorities keep shifting, and we just can't quite get into the healthy financial patterns we know would work. It's not because we're irrational; it’s because, like all wellness issues, there are internal and external barriers that prevent us from changing our behaviour.
First, money is deeply emotional. We may feel shame if we don't have enough, or shame if we have enough but aren't very clever at managing it. We may feel a constant low-level sense of anxiety that circumstances may suddenly change for the worse, possibly even catastrophically.
Second, we are herd animals and we compare our welfare to that of our tribe. More often than not, we compare upwards, with those who have more rather than those who have less. It’s a quirk of our biology that we tend to get more emotional charge from envy than we do from compassion; and, though we may not even notice it, envy can end up driving many of our financial decisions.
Finally, most of our financial decisions – like most of our decisions in general – are actually habits. It's rare that we engage in the difficult and painful process of rationality, weighing up the pros and cons and thinking through long-term consequences. Much more often we take the path of least resistance and just roll downhill, like those giant cheese wheels in Gloucester. It takes a brave person to stand in the path of a tumbling cheese wheel – and it takes quite a lot of determination to do the same with a well-established habit.
So our sense of financial wellbeing, like our sense of physical wellbeing, depends as much on our attitudes and our mindset as it does on our material circumstances. Clearly sometimes circumstances matter a lot; someone in the midst of a financial or health crisis is not going to get out of it just by having the right mental attitude. But in our normal day-to-day lives, what unhelpful attitudes could we re-examine? How do we start to lose our bad habits and replace them with good ones?