Financial Literacy

COVID-19 is stirring up feelings of financial shame. Here’s how to overcome it

By: Zandile Chiwanza on May 11, 2020
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When Melanie Lockert graduated from New York University in 2011 with a master’s degree in performance studies, she thought she’d get a job straight away, pay back her student loans, and live happily ever after. But finding a job in New York City proved much harder than it seemed, and for six months after graduation, Lockert’s resumés went unanswered. 

So, she decided to move to Portland, Oregon, in search of greener pastures. Turns out, they weren’t much greener. Portland was home to a much smaller economy and she was making only $10 to $12 an hour. “At the suggestion of a friend, I applied for food stamps,” says Lockert. “I had a lot of shame around that and I didn't want people to know.” 

“Everything felt so permanent in that moment,” she recalls. “I felt like I was going to be on food stamps and poor forever and that nothing was ever going to go back to the way it was.” 

A lot of us can relate to that feeling right now: that nothing is ever going back to the way it was. On top of exposing our financial vulnerabilities, COVID-19 is taking its toll on Canadians' mental well-being. Whether you're dealing with having to ask for help, facing financial hardship for the first time, or wallowing in financial regret that you don’t have enough in emergency savings because you spent on frivolous things prior to the pandemic — it's no surprise financial shame has had the opportunity to creep in.

How, then, do we overcome it?

Recognize your feelings

People dealing with financial hardship often feel overwhelmed, judged and embarrassed. The shame happens when you feel personally responsible for financial errors or mishaps, even when it's not your fault. 

Shame can wear many costumes, Lockert says. You might think that it's depression or anxiety, or a feeling of unease. “I had to recognize that what I was feeling was shame.”

Chantel Chapman is the co-founder of Trauma of Money Method, an online financial literacy program that brings together the psychology of trauma and our relationship with money. Chapman says that once you’ve recognized what it is you’re feeling, you need to determine where the shame is coming from. 

“Is this shame that I don't have an emergency fund?” she says. “Is this shame coming from that experience where I was called [upon] on the spot in my class to do multiplication tables, and I couldn't get the answer and then I turned bright red and everyone laughed at me? Is that where I developed a narrative that I'm really bad with numbers?” 

Money is neutral. We as humans assign meaning to money. We make those connections and decide... that money is a reflection of our work ethic or self-worth

Our relationship with money starts young, between the ages of zero and eight. Understanding this as adults can help us start to untangle why we believe the things we do about money.

“I always encourage my clients and the people that I'm working with to think back to what type of messages or statements they were picking up when they were young,” explains Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, financial therapist and creator of Mind Money Balance.

A lot of adults start to feel bad that they have a poor relationship with money (which can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy). But it’s important to practise some compassion for our younger selves when it comes to some of those messages we internalized.

Separate feelings from facts

One way to do that, Bryan-Podvin says, is by separating money from feelings. That's where we can start to break down feelings of shame. 

“Money is neutral,” she says. “We as humans assign meaning to money. We make those connections and decide whether money is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Or that money is a reflection of our work ethic or self-worth.”

It’s much more helpful to look at things logically and objectively. For example, let’s say you feel embarrassed because you recently lost your job. You could first start by looking at the facts. For instance, since the pandemic began Canada has lost more than three million jobs. 

“Is there a reason to be ashamed because you lost your job due to a global pandemic?” Bryan-Podvin asks. “It makes it a little bit easier to say that isn't actually a personal failure. It really is circumstantial, and it's not a reflection of my worth as an individual.”

Ask for help

The next step is knowing when you need some outside assistance. Lockert wants people who are dealing with feelings of shame to know that relying on help is a-okay, especially from the government, which has introduced several financial relief measures for those who are going through difficult times as a result of the pandemic.

“We really want to believe that we can do everything on our own,” she says. “Having to ask for help is something that provides a lot of shame especially if you've never been in that situation.”

In North America we tend to tell ourselves a particular narrative: that we should be able to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and be self-sufficient. And when we don’t, we beat ourselves up.

“When it comes to money and shame,” says Bryan-Podvin, “so many of us fall victim to this belief that if we aren't doing well with our money, that it’s a personal failure.” 

Speaking the truth really helps you detach from shame

Accept and forgive yourself for past mistakes

Chapman will often see people do something that they consider “bad” with their money, and as a result, develop a sense of shame.

“I racked up credit card debt, therefore I'm bad with money,” Chapman says, as one example. “This is a blanket statement and not true.” 

But when we are in that state of shame, it almost becomes our identity. “Shame is a gateway drug,” says Chapman — one that will only lead you to act in the very ways you’re trying to avoid. The best solution is to be honest with yourself. 

“Speaking the truth really helps you detach from shame,” says Chapman. Try reframing the situation. Instead of saying you’re so bad with money, try saying something like “Now I'm a more savvy investor at this moment because of the experiences I went through in the past,” says Chapman. “See how the language is so much more empowering?”

Chapman believes the pandemic actually presents a unique opportunity for people to mend their relationship with their finances. “It's finally safe [for people] to admit the reality of their financial situation.”

For Lockert, that meant sharing her story with others. In 2013, she created a blog called Dear Debt, which later went on to become a book. She documented her journey to paying off $81,000 in student loan debt. She also co-founded Lola Retreat, an event that aims to help women be in control of their finances. And most recently, she’s the host of the Mental Health and Wealth Show, a website and podcast that discusses all things money and mental health.

Lockert’s financial shame trigger was deciding to go to school and ending up unemployed and unable to pay off her debt. But the coronavirus pandemic presents a new trigger for many.

“You have absolutely no control over this,” Lockert says. “None of us do. We've all just been completely upended and overwhelmed with the impact of coronavirus, and nobody saw it coming. There’s no reason for anybody to feel shame when you didn't do anything to make this happen.”