Why are so many of us scared to check our bank balances?

15 January 2020 - 4 min read


Daisy Buchanan

Journalist, author and media commentator


In theory, our finances are the one part of our lives where we have some control. We know how much we earn. We can decide how we spend, and how much we spend. We all know enough maths to understand the basics of budgeting. The number going out should be smaller than the number going in. That way, we have room to manoeuvre with our money.

The more often we check the situation, the more control we have. However, a study by money saving app USE conducted in April this year found that one in ten people only check their bank balance once every six months. And an earlier study from 2016 found that a third of 18-24 year olds were simply too scared to look.

Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that financial phobia is a condition that could be affecting up to 20% of the population. Brendan Burchell, senior lecturer in social and political sciences explained “Financial phobes can be intelligent people who are high achievers in most areas of their lives. They are not irresponsible, feckless, or spendthrifts. They get into a psychological syndrome that makes it very difficult for them to deal efficiently with their personal finances”. Yet, when we talk about money management, we still focus on being practical and pragmatic. Most of the available financial advice and support does not acknowledge that for many of us, the subject of money is an emotional minefield.

It doesn’t make sense to separate money from the rest of our emotional lives when it doesn’t exist in isolation. The way we feel about cash has an impact on every aspect of the way we live. So if we’re afraid to check our bank balances, that fear is connected with our confidence, our sense of self worth and the way we feel about our jobs and homes. If you’re struggling, start by acknowledging the struggle is real. This isn’t simply a financial issue, but a mental health problem too. Your first goal isn’t to reduce spending, or to earn more money, but to do whatever it takes to feel calmer and less anxious. That means trying some managed exposure therapy, which is a recognised way of treating anxiety disorders. If you’re terrified of checking your balance, you need to establish some calming conditions, and do it in a place where you feel safe.

Enlist the help of a good, trusted friend. If you avoid dealing with your finances, you might not have access to online banking. If this is the case, arrange to go to your nearest branch with your friend. If you can look online, ask your friend to be in the room with you. If you’re both comfortable with this, you could ask your friend to tell you what they see on screen, before you look.

If you earn a regular salary, the best moment to check your balance is on payday. This means you’re starting from a position of relative strength. Note the way you feel when you see the number. Do you experience shock, relief, disappointment or happiness – or a combination of emotions? Focus on the way you feel, and the intensity of the feelings. Remember, none of these emotions are wrong, and they will become less intense over time.

Schedule a weekly check. Ask your friend to remind you, and to keep reminding you until you can confirm that you have looked.

Technology is your friend. If you can, download a banking app onto your phone – that way, checking your bank balance will start to feel as normal and natural as checking your social media accounts.

Consider a savings app. Plum and Moneybox are apps that can be linked to your current account, and they round up your spending to the nearest pound – so if you buy something that costs £7.59, they will save the 41 pence for you. This means that no matter what is happening in your current account, you will always have one account where the balance is in credit and growing, which is a great morale booster, and gives you an important sense of financial control.

What’s more, you could consider using a bank that notifies you with a balance update the second you spend. It’s very difficult to stay scared when you get a notification from your bank every time you buy a pint of milk, and it helps you stay on top of your outgoings.

Always think about money holistically. Your bank balance isn’t a number that only exists to make you feel guilty or anxious. It’s a number that has an impact on every aspect of your life. If you can work through your fear, you’ll notice that your general wellbeing will improve, and you’ll feel calm and confident enough to cope with every challenge that comes your way.

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