What is money anxiety?

What is money anxiety?

“Money anxiety disorder” is a term sometimes used to describe a condition of constant worry and unease about money.

25 May 2021 · 6 min read

“Money anxiety disorder” is a term sometimes used to describe a condition of constant worry and unease about money.

In Australia, it’s not strictly a clinical diagnosis but anxiety can blossom for a whole host of different reasons, not least anxiety about money.

Just about everyone has a complicated relationship with cash. Do we have enough of it? Are we using it for the right things? What are the right things?

But money anxiety disorder goes beyond the everyday worries about how much cash we’ve got.

Instead, it’s a persistent pattern of self-destructive and self-limiting financial behaviour.

In this post we discover how it may manifest, five different strands and some resources to help you if some of these apply to you.

Money anxiety can be really crippling.

The good news is, the basics of financial health aren't complicated, and we’re all capable of mastering them, no matter who we are, or our level of wealth.

Sometimes it’s a matter of getting over our own pride and asking for help!

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting organised.

Sometimes we use professional techniques to reframe the way we see things.

The good news is, all of these are achievable (no matter how bad things might be or how disorganised you think you are).

How does someone develop “money anxiety disorder”?

In our societies, money often equals food, shelter and status.

So it’s unsurprising we get so stressed about it.

But distorted beliefs about money stem from a variety of different places, meaning that any one person has a few different reasons for suffering.

People who find it difficult to confront their financial problems often had early life experiences in which they received mixed messages about money, were told money issues should not be talked about or saw parents frequently in conflict around money.

Others experience compulsive buying and hoarding behaviour as a byproduct of self-esteem issues or depression.

Others move through self-destructive habits, like drug addiction, to gambling, to overspending.

How does it manifest?

Perhaps the easiest way to tell if somebody (or yourself) is more than a little stressed about money is to have a look at their relationships.

Arguing with your friends, family and partner about money is a clear signal. Secretive behaviour often follows. As does, difficulty sleeping and irregular eating.

These are genuine stresses.

Note: Of course, we all feel and probably do the following things from time to time. But there’s a marked difference between avoiding looking at your bank balance after a big Saturday night and pointblank refusing to engage with one’s financial situation at all.

Let’s have a look at some of the types of money anxiety.

Financial denial

This is when you try and minimise money problems by refusing to think about them all together.

And ultimately, you have no sense of your big-picture financial situation: like how much debt you owe or how long or what it would take to pay it off.

The problem with financial denial is, of course, if you can’t accept there’s a problem there’s no chance you can fix it.

This form of denial might be familiar. It can be associated with substance abuse, alcoholism and drugs.

This is what it can look like:

  • Refusing to open credit card bills, bank statements or overdue notices;
  • Constantly getting new credit cards, moving money around and borrowing from friends;
  • Avoiding conversations about money with family and friends;
  • Insisting things are fine or using lack of failure as evidence of success. (Meaning without any major or visible money problems, you’re doing well).

Financial rejection

This is when you feel guilty whenever you actually do have money.

Lots of people with this disorder associate having money with being a bad person and believe accumulating wealth isn’t something to strive for, it’s something to be avoided.

Often times, those who suffer financial rejection grew up around people who constantly made negative comments about rich people or believe the wealthy got so by exploiting others or by sacrificing their integrity.

It can look like:

  • Earning considerably less money than your skills, education and experience call for;
  • Giving money away because you don’t feel entitled to it, or refuse to be associated with it. (Even if it could help you and your family)
  • You turn down promotions and other opportunities;
  • You work for free or undercharge;
  • You see yourself as morally superior to “rich people”.


This is when you stockpile money or objects and that provides a welcome sense of safety and security.

The difference between hoarding and collecting, is people who collect things are generally quite proud to show off their collection.

Hoarders on the other hand, generally acquire things to the point where their living spaces are so cluttered, they can barely use them and are desperate to hide it.

Hoarding is often associated with compulsive buying, like you never want to pass up a bargain or you compulsively acquire free things (like flyers or wrappings).

It can look like:

  • Deep attachment to worthless possessions;
  • Severe anxiety and panic at the thought of discarding items;
  • Difficulty organising or categorising possessions;
  • Inability to decide where things go;
  • Suspiciousness of others near or touching objects;
  • Loss of living space, social isolation and financial difficulties.

This Adelaide man who was hoarding in his home found $280,000 in uncashed cheques, when his house was finally cleaned and sorted.

Compulsive buying

This is where we pursue happiness and increased social status through the accumulation of things.

This can often spill over into “chronic overspending” and can have a catastrophic effect on one’s financial situation.

When you think about and anticipate the pleasure you will feel when you shop, dopamine, a "feel good" chemical, floods your brain-only to wear off quickly, leaving you craving another fix.

“I was buying anything and everything,” a woman named Lucy told The Sydney Morning Herald, in 2013.

“Toys for the kids, hundreds of lipsticks, books – it didn’t matter as long as parcels kept coming. I believed I needed and deserved all the stuff but as soon as I unwrapped it I felt guilty and empty - so I’d shop again.”

These are some of the symptoms:

  • Impulse purchasing, often resulting in having many unopened items like boxes of shoes and clothes;
  • Being more excited about making the purchases than owning the items; you might feel a letdown or a sense of shame after purchasing something.
  • When unhappy or in a bad mood, the urge to shop is strong. (Though the removal of those negative feelings are only temporary and are replaced by an increase in anxiety or guilt);
  • Intense feelings of guilt and remorse, often part of a vicious cycle where they shop to feel good again.

Sir Elton John is someone else who struggled with compulsive buying; he spent close to $50 million in under two years on his shopping addiction.

A famous drug addict, he replaced cocaine with consumption of a more material kind admitting to cupboards full of unworn clothes and boxes of shoes he didn’t recall buying.

Financial infidelity:

This is when you lie about your spending to your partner.

This can manifest in many different ways. Sometimes you go into a relationship with a financial secret (like uncomfortable debt) and it becomes harder to reveal as time goes on.

You might balloon several credit cards over time and are too ashamed to admit it.

You might have hidden investments or are trying to outperform your partner financially.

You might be helping out a friend or family member your partner mightn’t approve of.

These are some of the symptoms, if you’re trying to spot it:

  • Illogical spending patterns or consistent withdrawal of small amounts;
  • Excessive shopping or odd new purchases that might be otherwise unaffordable;
  • High brokerage statements (frequent trading rarely results in profits);
  • Moodiness, particularly in those who are gambling;
  • Sudden changes in compensation;
  • Newly opened accounts.

The cool thing? People can learn their way out of it.

Overcoming money anxiety disorder takes time and patience.

Firstly, financial therapists can help you recognise your past experiences may taint your current perception of money and wealth.

At its heart, the goal is to help people realise that money is simply a means of exchange - not a symbol of something - and can be used for both good and bad in the world.

When we challenge our distorted money beliefs, and practice healthy financial behaviours (e.g. maintain reasonable and low debt, have an active savings plan, as well as following a spending plan), we don't just become materially richer-we are more likely to become emotionally wealthier as well.

If you’re struggling financially, we’ve outlined some debt counselling resources in Australia. You can also click here for access to an up-to-date list of resources, courtesy of ASIC.

National Debt Helpline

Phone: 1800 007 007: The National Debt Helpline is available from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday through Friday. Calls from mobile phones may incur a fee from the mobile phone carrier.

You can also visit the National Debt Helpline website for information and resources.

If you’re facing legal action over your debts, you may be able to receive free legal advice from a community legal centre. Visit National Legal Aid for more information.

Lifeline Crisis Support

Phone: 13 11 14: If you need urgent crisis support, call Lifeline’s 24/7 hotline.

The information in this article is prepared by Spaceship Capital Limited (ABN 67 621 011 649, AFSL 501605). It is general in nature as it has been prepared without taking account of your objectives, financial situation or needs.

Jessica Sier is a financial journalist. Prior to that she led content at Spaceship and was a reporter at the AFR where she discovered that breaking down financial jargon was a public good.

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