Financial Fear

I absolutely love being afraid. I love thrill rides, where your heart is racing in anticipation and your stomach clenches as you climb the top of the roller coaster. I love the feeling of panic as you realize that you’re pretty darn high up, and you begin to think that maybe you’ve made a mistake. More than that, I love how you’re held for a few seconds at the very top, just enough time to fully contemplate the fact that you’re more than 100 ft. in the air, in a tiny car, with just a bar and a seat belt to keep you away from your death, before you’re raced down to the bottom at deadly speeds.

I love a great scary movie, where the director leaves most of the “scare” to your imagination, using slow momentum before hitting you with the _______(insert whatever jumps out at you here) and then repeats the process over and over. Side note: if you enjoy thrillers, “It Follows” is an eerie Hitchcockian film you should see.

I absolutely love haunted houses. I haven’t been to one in several years, but during my twenties, my friends and I made a point of going to various haunted houses in our area. I always hoped that stunt people would scare me so badly that I felt the need to fight for my life, or…pee my pants while I run.

Is this all very strange? Yes, maybe to some. I’m not entirely sure why I enjoy being scared. Maybe it’s the feeling that lets me know I’m alive (though I know fully well there are plenty of other ways to get that feeling). I find it fun to experience the gut wrenching, “Why did I get myself into this situation that I can’t get out of?” experience, then walk away safe and sound from said roller coaster, scary movie or haunted house.

I’ve also experienced another type of fear. One that’s insidious and gut wrenching. It leaves you feeling queasy as your stomach ties in knots. It leaves you wondering why you did the things you did to get yourself in your current predicament. It leaves you asking how you’re going to get yourself out of this predicament. It’s on your mind during every free second of your day and keeps you awake at night. It makes you irritable; it makes you gain weight through binge eating and stress; it makes you bury your head in the sand to forget or it makes you panic at every transaction.

This is financial fear. Unlike the aforementioned “fun” fear activities, this is a fear that can literally leave the life as you know it in a precarious state. Never knowing if your card will be declined as you try to buy groceries, or wondering if you can get enough money into your checking account before that check bounces and more fees are tacked on. Trying to figure out if you should pay the rent, buy food or pay your utilities. Having your car break down, knowing you’ll have to put in on a credit card to repair it, not wanting to do that, but understanding that you have to get to work; all while watching yourself be buried deeper and deeper, interest rate by interest rate.

Some aren’t worried that their card will decline at checkout. They make ends meet every single payday. They are able to pay their mortgage, their car note, buy food, and continue to buy the things that enrich their lives.* A good portion of these people are ignorant to the fact that they’re balancing on a razor-sharp edge. One that will push them over with a job loss, one or two missed paychecks, a large car or home repair, or an unexpected medical bill. They may not realize that they are just managing; playing with fire really.

Many people do. Many are well aware that they are one emergency away from having to figure out how to keep a roof over their head. It’s these folks who are experiencing financial fear.

The thing with fear, all fear, is that it elicits two responses; fight or flight. What exactly is fight or flight? It’s how we respond to outside stimuli with the use of epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones do several things simultaneously to help keep us alive in the face of danger. When we face danger, we feel fear and the body reacts in such a way to give us time (think split second) to decide how best to handle the danger to increase our odds of survival. Circulation increases the blood supply to our brains, limbs and muscles. Our heart rate increases dramatically, our arteries dilate and our blood pressure rises. We breathe faster so our lungs can take in oxygen quickly. Our organs either speed up their processes or slow them down; our liver releases more glucose so we can use it for energy (to take flight) and our stomach stops its digestion process (wasted energy), so you may feel the need to vomit. Muscles tense getting ready to take flight, we sweat more to cool us down quickly and tons of adrenaline is released to help fuel our movements.

Now that you’ve received a mini-biology lesson, how does this relate to financial fear? One either fights or they take flight. I’ve done both. Throughout my early to mid-twenties, I took flight. I chose to ignore my finances even though I knew I was in dire straights. I didn’t see an easy way out (newsflash: there isn’t one), so I buried my head in the sand (which is a form of flight).

When the danger, or “fear,” didn’t leave after I attempted to take flight, I decided to fight. I sat down and tallied up all of my debts, decided to make a budget and create a plan to get out of debt. This was the only way I knew how to fight my fear, this financial fear.

The thing with fear, whether it’s the fun fear you feel at the amusement park, the life-threatening fear our ancestors felt as they tried to avoid getting eaten by a lion, or the financial fear many of us in the modern world feel day-to-day, is that it elicits a very strong chemical reaction in our body. Most fear is temporary, so the residual effects of the fight or flight response or negligible. Except financial fear, it lingers. It lingers as long as your finances are in poor shape, it lingers until you form a plan and execute that plan. It lingers and lingers, and this lingering leaves you in perpetual fight or flight mode. This mode can kill you if you are in it too long.

So yes, I love being afraid; but I only want the type of fear that I can easily walk away from. Who wants to join me in fighting their financial fear?

Do you enjoy the “fun” kind of fear? Have you ever had financial fear? Did you take flight or did you fight?

*Giving up “stuff” helps you realize that enrichment is gained through spending time with loved ones and physical/intellectual/artistic pursuits, rather than the “stuff” you buy.



  1. It’s funny — if you just came up to me and said, “Do you like feeling afraid?” I would say no. I don’t like horror movies (partially because of the scary stuff, but also because most are just *bad*), don’t like feeling scared in real life, and have no desire to have money anxiety. But, when Mr. ONL took me skydiving years ago, something I didn’t think I wanted to do, I loved staring out that door before jumping, and really letting my adrenaline surge. If anything, I wish I could have let the anticipation and fear build even more before jumping. And I do love a good rollercoaster. So it’s complicated, right? 😉

    Financial fear is a special breed of fear that feels all the more terrifying because it is truly existential. That’s different from the fake fear of a thrill ride or movie, which you know on some level is not real, even if you’re immersed in the experience.

  2. Great article! I also like some forms of fear, like the rollers coasters an horror movies, but cannot stand the financial fear. Great read! Keep up the good work!

  3. Financial fear is what got me organized and active on my debt. Then taking action on my debt got me thinking about how to increase my income and how which skills to learn and develop. While I dislike the feeling of fear I respond to it really, really well. I feel fear and then I figure out a way to get away from it ASAP, whether it’s a haunted house (hate those!) or financial fear.

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