You’ve done your best planning and your budget works great on paper. You rock along for several months, everything going according to plan and then BAM!, something big and unexpected happens. Even though you’ve planned for “the” unexpected, your planning won’t quite cover “this” unexpected. A money journal won’t keep this from happening, but it can help you navigate the challenge and build skills to navigate the next one, too.
If you’re like many people who struggle with money, you alternate between two extremes. At times you are able to block “this” out of your mind. You simply behave and spend as if it wasn’t looming over your head. Then it breaks through your denial and you can’t think of anything else even when you are supposed to be concentrating on something else important, like your job.
Of course, neither of these strategies works well. You’re not taking action to address the problem in either case and although you may not be aware of the stress and anxiety when you are in denial it is there under the surface. In the second scenario, when you can’t think of anything else, you still aren’t taking action and you are VERY aware of the stress and anxiety.
A specific tool and process can be helpful to move you out of denial or obsessing
Of all the self-help and therapeutic tools available, one of the most basic and the most useful is keeping a simple journal. Research supports the emotional, cognitive and social benefits of journaling for depression, anxiety, and behavior change because it helps clarify your thinking, increase your self-awareness, and improve your problem-solving skills.
First, writing your thoughts and feelings down helps you express them more clearly and accurately. Translating thoughts and feelings into words makes them easier to grasp and manipulate. While freewriting can be a great emotional release, using money journal prompts can provide a structure that helps you be precise in communicating your thoughts and emotions, even if you are “only” communicating them to yourself.
Using a structure can also provide a boundary by limiting the space and time you use to write. In my years of experience as a therapist, one of the most useful skills I teach clients is to make their answers succinct. “Think in Reader’s Digest headlines”, I tell them.
Because you repeat the same thinking and writing process each time you face a challenge you become very familiar with it. As a result, the process becomes second nature. You will naturally follow the process each time a challenge arises rather than allowing random thoughts and feelings to bounce around in your head like a crazy pinball with no exit slot.
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Second, keeping a journal gives you a safe place to express all your thoughts and feelings, even the “ugly” ones. Writing them provides a deeper connection to them, makes them more real in some ways. At the same time, writing them down gets them out of you and lets you examine them in a more objective light than when you are experiencing them. This provides the space for growth and change to begin.
As you continue to keep a journal consistently over time you may begin to recognize patterns in your thoughts and feelings and this also provides insight into what areas you might want to focus on for goals and inner work. You begin to recognize the difference between thoughts and feelings, facts and opinions, planning and obsessing.
Lastly, as you become more self-aware you will begin to accept yourself, your thoughts, and your feelings more completely. Accepting yourself is the springboard to accepting others as they are and your relationships with others will likely improve. Since fights about money are one of the main causes of breakups this can be a very useful change!
Finally, clear thinking and increased self-awareness will naturally support improved problem-solving. In addition, writing activates both sides of your brain, which also improves problem-solving. Approaching a challenge from two different perspectives increases your chances of finding a successful solution.
Writing about your challenge also signals your brain that “this is important”. It helps you focus and follow a logical and useful process from the challenge to your plan.
If you look back through your journal entries regularly you will also have a record of your successful plans and your “learning experiences”. These can be valuable in reinforcing your success and making sure you are more likely to repeat them than you are to repeat your learning experiences.
Imagine yourself six months from now. You’ve been planning and budgeting and everything has been working well. Every day you’ve been keeping a money journal, celebrating your wins and working through your challenges. You’ve had a few small challenges along the way and each time you’ve used the same money journal prompts. It is almost second nature now.
Then one day another unexpected, bigger challenge comes along. Because you’ve been practicing the skills, you know exactly what to do. You get out your journal and even though you know the process by heart you start writing. No more pinball brain with thoughts running amuck. After you work through the prompts you have a workable plan. You look back through all your previous journal entries where you cataloged your successes and feel confident that your plan will work.
Congratulations! You’ve just avoided a lot of stress and wasted time and you’re on your way to meeting the challenge successfully.
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