Go Offline: How to overcome financial anxiety when you have unpredictable income

Many of us have financial anxiety and we don’t even know it. Some of you may think you’re naturally frugal. Others may feel like it’s important to always be two steps ahead. There are a lot of factors that result in financial anxiety—from a recent major blow in your life that greatly affected your finances to what you’ve observed and even what you were taught during your childhood. Anxiety manifests differently in people, but there are signs you can watch out for.

As freelancers, we often have unpredictable income. So it’s important to know not only how to overcome financial anxiety but also to further understand our relationship with money and how we can better deal with the unsteady cash flow that comes with freelancing.

What is financial anxiety?

Financial anxiety is when the decisions we make about our work and personal lives are affected because of our worry about money. If you’ve wanted to go freelance for years but you’re always scared you won’t make enough money each month, that can be a sign of financial anxiety. If you keep saying yes to projects even when the pay is lower than your rate because you’re scared you’ll end up with no projects and no income, that can also be a sign of financial anxiety.

Other examples of financial anxiety:

  • Worrying too much about whether or not you’ll make enough money next month
  • Worrying that you’re spending too much
  • Constant fear that you won’t be able to pay monthly responsibilities like mortgage
  • Flatout avoiding the numbers

These are just a few more signs of financial anxiety. When your thoughts and worries around money affect the decisions you make and consequently, affect your relationship with work, life, yourself it’s time to know where these anxieties are coming from and how you can overcome them. Also, it’s time to gain a deeper understanding of your relationship with money. 

Why it’s important to understand your relationship with money

It’s easy to say, “I’m frugal because I grew up with no money,” or “I work hard because I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.” These may be true, but oftentimes there are underlying reasons why we are the way we are with money. It can be because you’re worried you don’t have the tools to figure things out when you go short on cash. It can be because you were told people like you would only make that amount therefore, you have to double your efforts to make more.

There may be some validity to your thoughts, which is why in order to make better financial decisions it’s important that we’re honest about our relationship with money. Perhaps you were taught as a child that you should save every penny. Maybe a teacher once said you won’t make good money as an artist.

Nicole Pajer’s “Is Your Relationship With Money Holding You Back?” is a really good read and it’s something I’ve been coming back to lately. As a freelancer, for a long time I used to think “well, since I’m not a native English speaker, this is the only rate I deserve.” This recurring thought is the reason why it took me 5 long years to get from $5 to $500 per article. I never considered how to overcome financial anxiety. Instead, I focused on settling for something way lower than what I know I’m worth because I never had someone teach me it’s OK to aim for more. That I am worth more. Nobody was holding me back by my relationship with money.

Stop wishing for the anxiety to simply go away

When I talk about anxiety, one thing I always say is for people to stop wishing it will go away. It won’t. That is a hill I’ll die on.

What I learned is that we’re all born with some sort of anxiety—that could be around money, family, relationships, social settings, etc. It’s OK to be anxious. However, instead of wishing and waiting for your anxiety to go away, a more effective approach is to learn how to work with it. Learn how to overcome financial anxiety instead of wishing you don’t have it in the first place. If you know where it’s coming from and, if you have the right tools, you’ll be fine.

One of the best tools freelancers can have to deal with financial anxiety is self-trust. Trust that you’ll always have clients. Trust that you have solid skills. Trust that your freelance work plan is both effective and flexible. You can worry and trust at the same time—it takes work but it’s possible. Just like how you can complain and whine right now, and then shake it off and do the work the next day. Feel your feelings, is what I’m saying. And trust that you can work with it, not against it.

How to overcome financial anxiety when you have unpredictable income

1. Approach finances as a minimalist

Spend less money than you make. This advice from Matt D’Avella sounds like a no-brainer but believe it or not, so many people spend way too much on things they don’t even like. They do this without thinking about their monthly income. As long as there is money that can be spent (hello credit cards) they’d go ahead and spend it.

If you’re a freelancer making $3,000 a month and you need exactly $3,000 a month to pay for all your financial responsibilities, maybe go easy on some things so you can save up. For instance, check if you have subscriptions you’re not really using; limit your trips to the coffee shop; or, refrain from buying work-related things, like a new monitor if you don’t really need it. This doesn’t mean you have to be a minimalist. To overcome financial anxiety, it’s important to be honest and assess where you’re putting your money then develop a minimalist approach. You don’t want to end up with zero or near-zero every month.

2. Educate yourself

There is a line between simple worry and financial anxiety. The latter affects your life a great deal. Maybe you’re obsessing over lowering your monthly electric bill or you feel like a failure when you can’t afford to have a vacation.

When you start educating yourself on which costs matter and which don’t, you can better prioritize things. You’ll know where you want your money to go and you can create a more solid monthly budget. You’ll know how much to put away for savings to make sure even in months when you don’t have lots of work, you’ll still get by.

This article by Kat Boogaard is a solid start, read about financial stability — chat with fellow freelancers about how they continue to educate themselves. There’s a big community of freelancers and unlike the typical 9-5, most freelancers are open to chatting about finances. 

3. Improve your self-awareness skills

I noticed that my anxiety around money goes on a high when I lose a client. Doesn’t matter if I decided not to keep working with them or they didn’t need my services anymore—whenever this happens, I freak out. I am still teaching myself to calm down during this time. To breathe and be okay with changes like parting ways with a client and to trust that a new project is just around the corner.

Improving your self-awareness skills is super helpful especially when you have unpredictable income. It’s amazing how much stability you can give to yourself when you know what triggers your anxiety. When you do, you can start working on that trigger. In my case, self-doubt and lack of confidence mainly cause my anxiety. “Client A is gone and I suck at this job so I probably won’t have another client for months. What the hell do I do now?!!” Sounds familiar? Thoughts like that run in my head over and over. It takes work to improve self-awareness but it’s a game-changer.

Mel Robbins says it’s important to check your ego when it comes to financial anxiety and I just love that. Too often, we think we’re the only ones worrying about money. Nope. In Robbins’ words, “this isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to the world. This isn’t your personal crisis. This is a global crisis.”

Emergencies will happen. Clients will ghost you. These are two things you cannot control. What you can control is your continuous effort in doing the work and learning how to overcome financial anxiety. What you can control is your knowledge of the business you’re in and your self-trust that you can handle whatever financial situation rises.

Tammy Danan

Tammy Danan is a storyteller who reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers productivity, creative pursuits, and the future of work. Her words have appeared in VICE, Audubon.org, ZEKE Magazine, Shutterstock, Toggl, among others. You may find her on Instagram @SlowFreelancing.