Growing up, my relationship with money was largely a healthy one – primarily because I was privileged enough for it to not be a constant worry. As I got older though, money began to become a larger source of anxiety for me; the prospect of a seemingly insurmountable amount of student debt and the price of rent in London weighs over me like Damocles’ sword. Not to mention that as a generation, we are constantly told how impossible it will be to achieve the financial milestones that our parents did without significant changes in the market.
Mental health issues and financial difficulties can trap us in an endless cycle of anxiety, stress and uncertainty. For example, poor mental health may make it more difficult to regularly earn money, or to manage spending, or ask for help, leading to financial difficulties which in turn cause further stress and anxiety.
Beyond all the stresses of the 21st century prior to 2020, the onset of the pandemic has further heightened financial anxiety (which let’s be honest, we didn’t think possible). The economic instability of the UK recession, the nearing end of the furlough scheme, and the general effect on mental health, all form a perfect storm for a particularly worrisome relationship with money. In June, the Office for National Statistics published a study that identified an increase in anxiety as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For many during lockdown, spending more money than usual on things like clothes and takeaways have been a method of coping with isolation and stress, but this spending is eating away at money that would usually be saved or put to more necessary use. For others, lockdown has been a time of constant monetary stress, trying to cope with making ends meet on reduced or even no income, especially as freelance or short term gigs students usually pick up in the summer became increasingly oversubscribed.
I know that I, especially in the months following the easing of lockdown rules, spent far more than I otherwise would have to ‘make up for lost time’ in a way. Schemes like Eat Out to Help Out, while helpful for businesses to keep afloat, also meant that I went out to eat and socialise particularly as the weather turned – outdoor picnics are significantly less fun in the rain. I feel that this lockdown, I really bought into “treat yourself” culture, and the increasing commercialisation of self-care. Upon reflection, spending £££ on mostly unnecessary skincare brought me considerably less daily happiness than the endless games of Monopoly Deal (a fiver at ASDA) we played at mealtimes or trying out journaling for the first time.
Returning to University, especially for those needing to quarantine, dealing with the added expense of rent and overinflated ‘quarantine subsistence packages’ have placed additional financial pressure on students. Moreover, with casual meet-ups in people’s rooms or college communal spaces effectively banned, being able to spend quality time with friends outside of your household bubble has become an increasingly expensive endeavour.
In September, I noticed that my outgoings were higher than usual, and after several weeks the ‘We’re free again!’ excuse was beginning to wear thin. I decided that my return to Oxford would provide the perfect start point for a new set of budgeting rules, reinstating my old weekly spending cap and trying to have at least two ‘no-spend’ days a week.
I’m not going to lie – this hasn’t gone well. In the few days leading up to my return, I was watching the case rate go up, and all around me were little conversations about the possibility of a second lockdown. So once again, I fell back into my old ‘Fuck it, what if we can’t do this in a week’ and ‘But I haven’t seem them in 6 months’ mentality. While I enjoyed the experiences that spending bought me, it came with its own set of worries. I constantly checked my bank accounts and felt guilty every time I topped up my Revolut. Following the PM’s announcement on Monday and when writing this article, I’m faced with the reality that it’s quite unlikely we’ll be subjected to the same kind of lockdown that we were in Spring (at least not in the immediate future) and so I’d better reign my spending in before it becomes a bigger issue.
I’ve decided to attempt a variation on the 50/30/20 rule in which my money is divided into spending categories – the budget of each of which is decided both by pragmatic necessity, but also by the positive effect it may have on my life. Money can’t buy you happiness, but equally it can go towards things that do make you happy, like long conversations with friends over warm almond cake or a new houseplant friend for your unfamiliar college room.
It’s taken a long time, but I finally recognise that some of the spending decisions I made in the past six months were definitely the result of anxiety, emotional ups and downs, and loneliness whereas other spending decisions, while they may seem irresponsible to some, brought me a lot of joy. But I hope that by identifying those negative spending decisions, trying to build a system that works for me, and being kind to myself when parts of that system break or flex, I can work towards a more positive and healthy relationship with money.
If you are looking for further support and advice regarding money and mental health, Mind have a useful resources page here.