This past weekend my car dropped part of its exhaust system as I was driving to my parents’ house. Normally this would only be a minor inconvenience in my life, but against the backdrop of other recent expenses (paying for a major brake job a few weeks ago, and dealing with the serious health emergency of one of my cats) that have brought me close to my credit limit, the sound of my unmuffled car, and the tink, tink of the loose exhaust pipe hitting the road, filled me with abject panic.
I have not always made good choices with my money. While I’m pretty organized, and have never overextended myself so much that I’ve paid bills late or been otherwise negligent with my financial commitments, my habit is to spend unconsciously and to live hand-to-mouth, paycheque to paycheque, without much of a financial plan for my future. I don’t have an adequate emergency fund, and I have more consumer debt than I’m comfortable with. Thankfully, I have a full-time job that provides me with a modest income (in the low $40Ks – which in Canada, with its heavy taxation systems and high cost of living, doesn’t go as far as it might in the States), and I’m blessed with excellent health benefits and a pension plan. But still – I realize that, like many middle-class people in North America, I’m only a paycheque or two away from serious financial trouble.
So when my car broke down, my spirit did too. I spent the rest of the day caught up in a suffocating vortex of negative thinking: I didn’t have enough money to fix my car. Without my car, I would lose many of my freedoms. It would become difficult to take my sick cat to the vet. I wouldn’t be able to visit my parents as often, or as easily. It would affect some of my work responsibilities, that involve travelling to our many properties. I might have to give up services I love, like my Internet or my iPhone plan. If any other catastrophes happened – such as my six-year-old computer crashing, or my iPhone dying – I might not be able to replace those devices. How would I do my blogging? How would I do my writing and photography work?
Each thought was like a heavy rock, placed on top of yet another heavy rock, all of them threatening to smother me beneath their weight. I couldn’t focus on anything – preparing a meal, reading a book, even doing something as simple as some deep breathing exercises to relax my body. When I woke up the next morning, I had about 15 seconds of peace before the churning thoughts descended again. My situation felt hopeless. I couldn’t see a way out of my panic. I didn’t know what to do next.
Thankfully I’ve been practising Byron Katie's inquiry work since a friend first lent me one of her books a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t sure if Katie’s four questions could cut through my terror, but it was worth a try.
I identified a core thought: I will lose everything I have and become homeless. The first question: Is that true? Well no, probably not. The second question: Can you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s true? I certainly can’t know for a fact that I will now – or ever – become homeless. The third question: How do I feel when I believe that thought? Horrible. Sick inside. Wanting to throw up. Panic-stricken and bereft. Question three-and-a-half: Is there any stress-free reason to keep believing that thought? Um, no. Plenty of stressful reasons, maybe. But no stress-free ones. The fourth question: Who would I be without that thought? Oh man. I would be such a peaceful woman without the thought that I will lose everything. The difference is stunning. And then the turnarounds: I will not lose everything and become homeless. It’s my thinking that causes me to lose everything, and put me at risk of being homeless. I look forward to losing everything and becoming homeless.
And that process – combined with updating my monthly budget, and determining exactly how much I can currently afford to spend on my car without straining my finances past their limit – was enough to calm me down, and allow me to go through my day content and at peace with what is, and what may be.
Do you fear not having enough? Do you fear losing everything? How do you deal with those fears, when they arise?
If you’d like to do some more reading about useful strategies for dealing with debt and building wealth, you might enjoy the blog Get Rich Slowly, which is full of first-person advice and experiences of paying down debt, living within a budget, and making healthy financial choices.
p.s. I got my car fixed Monday, and in the end it wasn’t that expensive. So there you go – all that worry for nothing. (Although you can be sure that I’m going to be more conscious about my finances moving forward. I need to come up with a plan for paying down my debt, and saving for the things I value.)