Game-Changer: The Mental Health Side of Personal Finance

Side note: I really like photographs, so while the topic of this post is more abstract, I litter it with photos I’ve taken over the years. Humor me :).

An illustrated quotation from my old school.

I LOVE this community.  I feel like a newborn, gobbling up material from a thousand different angles.  I feel like someone who’s been given a new lease on life, just after I almost gave up.  I wasn’t totally clueless, since I moved somewhere that allowed me to save most of my salary–but that idea came from a mentor, not myself.  Moving mid-contract–leaving Kuwai–for debt paydown wasn’t even on my radar until he pointed out that I wasn’t making progress. I had other gripes with Kuwait, but the biggest problem with life in the Middle East was that I wasn’t paying down debt. In fact, I was still barely treading water.

Sure, I had caught up on payments that I got behind on in Florida, but I realized then that I wouldn’t succeed in my original purpose for going abroad again without serious change.  For me, that meant moving for the eighth time in just a few years, saying bye to good friends, and exchanging a convenient life that included a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment for a far less easy lifestyle in China.

All that to say: I was ready, but still traveling, which ultimately added to my debt.  I needed another wakeup call, and that motorcycle accident was it.

The last time I went to pay down debt was in 2013, as a teacher in Las Vegas. My good friends were early retirees and medal-worthy FI-ers, and they introduced me to Mr. Money Mustache.  At the time, the early retirement community was called just that, and most of the material I read basically came from Pete, Get Rich Slowly, and Early Retirement Extreme

I’d also read the basics (Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman–yep, one and the same) the first time I paid down debt at 22, which had enabled me to save enough to ease the move to Vegas with Teach for America in 2008.

Back in 2013, I did great for about seven months and paid off more than $12,000 of debt that at the time only totaled $32,000 total. Then–because I valued travel over ridding myself of the rest of the debt, and because I had burned out on commitments in my personal and professional life–I went on a massive road trip, moved back into a nice apartment, and basically gave up… for the next five years!

While I didn’t add back on all of the debt I’d paid down, I added a lot.

These decisions didn’t come from just anywhere, however.  Neither did my decision to stay in debt and travel this past year, when I should have stayed put.  The bottom line is that those under-the-surface choices stemmed from emotions and choices and feelings, mental health-related parts of me that needed a lot of work.

I started counseling in Florida and continued it virtually from Kuwait–a cost in itself, but a worthy one. Let’s just say that prior to the counseling, there were days I didn’t know which way was up–and not just because of money.  That therapy was worth its weight in gold, and I feel so much better now than I did a couple years ago that I can barely put it into words.


As I move forward, though, I’m aware that I need to be cognizant of the forces that got me here. I was enjoying incredible resources like ChooseFI, Afford Anything, and the Mad Fientist, but there was something I didn’t even know I was missing until I stumbled onto it: a focus on the mental health aspects of money.

First, I found Beyond the Dollar. I found them through another source that I will absolutely credit once I remember what it was! An episode that immediately piqued my interest was called “How Our Mental Health Affects Our Finances.” 

That podcast led me to Melanie and the founding of her website, Dear Debt. Here, something clicked. When she spoke on the podcast about people who searched and found her site after looking up the words “I want to kill myself because of debt,” I connected–hard.

I’ve never contemplated killing myself because of debt, but I have felt condemned by it. I have felt heavy and disgusting and (in a more legalistic,  religious past) sinful because I wasn’t able to control my “appetites.”

I have felt like debt was THE defining feature of my life, because–for many years–it colored every single thing I thought about myself.

I stayed a teacher because I couldn’t “afford” to transition to a new career.  I stayed in a city I never wanted to retire in because of my debt.  And for the past five years–ever since that first failed attempt–a little part of me has felt guilty every time I have done anything fun.

Every time I have gone on a road trip, eaten out, grabbed a drink, or gone on any one of a million adventures that made others say “You live such an exciting life,” I have felt like a liar. I have felt like a failure. And when I left Florida with nearly three times as much debt as I had in 2013, I didn’t really ever think I’d get rid of it.

Part of believing you can change is seeing a different path forward than who you were in the past. And when you’ve been in debt your entire adult life, it’s hard to see who that person is.

For me, the counseling was invaluable, and that time spent healing after a motorcycle accident–which I described recently, towards the end of this blog post–finally quieted the negative voices enough for me to process and see a different way forward. But not everyone can afford counseling, and not everyone has the luxury of moving to a foreign country–twice–and spending hours and hours alone, reading, writing. If you’re a parent, or in the throes of addiction, or cannot leave your current job, you need a different way forward. A way to fix yourself, to heal and improve, where you are. (In addition, common mental health advice is not to make any drastic changes within a year of a major life change like a death in the family, divorce, bankruptcy, etc.)

As a result, finding and developing resources that help process the emotional components of debt and personal finance is integral. I truly feel like it is the missing link when it comes to succeeding where we have failed in the past. Finding Melanie and Sarah and Garrett, along with women like Amanda Clayman and the other ladies of the Lola Retreat, makes me feel giddy.  The interview on ChooseFI with Deanna of Ms. Fiology was also huge. Finally, the book The Year of Less by Cait Flanders made me face some of my own behaviors and really consider the why behind my choices.

So many are now blazing the way, sharing their own emotional struggles, doing the research, and caring for people. It makes me feel hope, not just that I can be successful on my own journey–but that others who are drowning in debt, or whose finances are being deeply impacted by their mental health, can also find a way forward.

That’s why my word for 2019 is Hope. For the first time in awhile, I have some. And I’ve found a community committed to others finding it, too.

5 thoughts on “Game-Changer: The Mental Health Side of Personal Finance

  1. “Part of believing you can change is seeing a different path forward than who you were in the past.” That line right there is truth. I think there are always root issue behind money problems. When we get to that, we have more chances of success in forging a new path.

    Thank you for your honesty in this space. It is nice to “meet” you here.

    I also love the word you choose for 2019, hope. That’s a good word. I’ve chosen truth as my word for 2019.

    Peace and cheers to you! Happy New Years!

    Liked by 1 person

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