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Senior Correspondent

Fear of Numbers: The Slippery Slope Towards Financial Chaos

Fear of numbers? Me? Of course I’m afraid of numbers. They have the power to expose all the stupid things I've done over the years. That fear is also why I got such a raw deal in my divorce.

So started a conversation with a client … once we got past some posturing, some hemming and hawing about where she really wanted to concentrate as we rebuilt her financial life.

I wanted her to dig deep, beyond her automatic explanations of what was going on with her finances, so I asked her to list the five ways her fear of numbers had put her at a financial disadvantage.

Here’s what she responded:

  1. I never wanted to discuss figures with my husband, although he suggested it often enough. I was afraid it would make me look really stupid since I had never learned much more than how to balance my checkbook. Because of that, when it came time to divide up what we had, I had no idea if he was being fair or not.
  2. When he designed spending plans for us during our marriage, so we could save money for the future, I was always going over budget because I’d forget what I had already spent. I figured I could stay in denial if I didn’t look at our credit card and bank statements … until they were thrown in my face during the monthly arguments they caused. But that meant we had less savings to divide up than we could have had.
  3. I never really knew what it cost to support our lifestyle, so I asked for far too little when it came to alimony and child support. Now I’m shocked at what it costs to live like we did, and so the kids and I don’t even come close anymore.
  4. If I had been willing to sit and listen when we met with our financial advisor, I might have learned a few things and would have a better idea of what to do with the settlement part of our divorce. Now I’m more afraid than ever that I’ll invest it poorly and end up with nothing.
  5. Because I shied away from talking about money for all those years, I’m no better off than when I left home in my late teens. Now I have no confidence whatsoever that I can take care of myself and the kids financially. So whether I go get a job or start some kind of little business, I know my weak spot will always be my inability to stay on top of the numbers.

Where the Fear of Numbers Comes From

Women were never socialized by their parents or their teachers to talk about money. In fact, if anything, most were discouraged from dealing with the “taboo” topic of money and told that “all that money stuff” would be taken care of for them. How long those beliefs have endured is a real testament to how ingrained they are in our society.

“I’m no good at math.” “I don’t understand that finance mumbo-jumbo.” “I’m not good at all with money.” All are statements we hear again and again from women who otherwise control all other aspects of their lives.

Another obstacle is that the world of investments is made to sound far more complex than it really is, with a language all its own. In reality, virtually all financial transactions can be explained and calculated by adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing … something we had all mastered by about the fourth grade. That barrier is a false one, but it feels all too real to women who aren’t in on the jargon.

But probably the most disempowering source of the fear of numbers is the belief that one’s net worth is somehow related to one’s self worth. The numbers in our financial picture somehow define who we are as a person. So it’s understandable that numbers, especially those related specifically to us, are radioactive!

How to Overcome the Fear of Numbers

Slaying the monster called “Fear of Numbers” is easier than one would think. Here are the elements my client will address as she takes greater and greater control of her financial future:

  1. The numbers that represent her financial picture today are simply a snapshot that is the result of a bunch of actions taken to date. She will come to understand that they are not a judgment of her as a person.
  2. Her money behaviors, the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones, came from beliefs built upon what she saw and heard in her surroundings as she was growing up. And, because talking about money was taboo, revisiting any problematic beliefs as she got older was unlikely. In fact, most would remain out of her awareness unless and until they created financial problems strong enough for her to finally ask “the reason why.” Yet, as soon as there is awareness, there is the openness to correct the behavior.
  3. Because the overall financial picture was a mystery to her, she had no way of knowing how the different pieces fit together and why each one might be important. Without that knowledge, it was virtually impossible to have the discipline needed to manage each piece … and chaos ensued. She will be given clarity of that financial picture.
  4. The cultural stereotypes of television, movies and other media made it almost acceptable to remain ignorant and in a state of chaos. Only when she realizes how disempowering those stereotypes are will she reject them and demand the knowledge she needs.
  5. One tiny step, something as simple as opening a savings account and watching it grow for a bit, is enough to start feeding another “monster” … the monster that is a woman who realizes she has everything she needs to control the money in her life. But first she must refuse to stay in that place of anxiety and chaos.

I have watched the process again and again. It is one of the most gratifying transitions you could ask to witness:  from victim to victor. A woman emerging from living in fear of numbers … to a woman in full control of her financial future because she’s in control of the pieces that comprise it.

So what fears do you have around money? What financial transparency would you like to have in your relationships? What parts of finance don’t you understand yet? What would build your self confidence so money is simply what “greases the wheels” of what’s important in your life?

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