Fear of Numbers: the Slippery Slope Towards Financial Chaos

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“Fear of numbers?  Me?  Of course I’m afraid of numbers.  They have the power to expose all the stupid things I’ve done over the years.  That fear is also why I got such a raw deal in my divorce.”

So started a conversation with a client … once we got past some posturing, some hemming and hawing about where she really wanted to concentrate as we rebuilt her financial life.

I wanted her to dig deep, beyond her automatic explanations of what was going on with her finances, so I asked her to list the five ways her fear of numbers had put her at a financial disadvantage.

Here’s what she responded:

  1. I never wanted to discuss figures with my husband, although he suggested it often enough.  I was afraid it would make me look really stupid since I had never learned much more than how to balance my checkbook.  Because of that, when it came time to divide up what we had, I had no idea if he was being fair or not.
  2. When he designed spending plans for us during our marriage, so we could save money for the future, I was always going over budget because I’d forget what I had already spent.  I figured I could stay in denial if I didn’t look at our credit card and bank statements … until they were thrown in my face during the monthly arguments they caused.  But that meant we had less savings to divide up than we could have had.
  3. I never really knew what it cost to support our lifestyle, so I asked for far too little when it came to alimony and child support.  Now I’m shocked at what it costs to live like we did, and so the kids and I don’t even come close anymore.
  4. If I had been willing to sit and listen when we met with our financial advisor, I might have learned a few things and would have a better idea of what to do with the settlement part of our divorce.  Now I’m more afraid than ever that I’ll invest it poorly and end up with nothing.
  5. Because I shied away from talking about money for all those years, I’m no better off than when I left home in my late teens.  Now I have no confidence whatsoever that I can take care of myself and the kids financially.  So whether I go get a job or start some kind of little business, I know my weak spot will always be my inability to stay on top of the numbers.

Where the Fear of Numbers Comes From

Women were never socialized by their parents or their teachers to talk about money.  In fact, if anything, most were discouraged from dealing with the “taboo” topic of money and told that “all that money stuff” would be taken care of for them.  How long those beliefs have endured is a real testament to how ingrained they are in our society.

“I’m no good at math.”  “I don’t understand that finance mumbo-jumbo.”  “I’m not good at all with money.”  All are statements we hear again and again from women who otherwise control all other aspects of their lives.

Another obstacle is that the world of investments is made to sound far more complex than it really is, with a language all its own.  In reality, virtually all financial transactions can be explained and calculated by adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing … something we had all mastered by about the fourth grade.  That barrier is a false one, but it feels all too real to women who aren’t in on the jargon.

But probably the most disempowering source of the fear of numbers is the belief that one’s net worth is somehow related to one’s self worth.  The numbers in our financial picture somehow define who we are as a person.  So it’s understandable that numbers, especially those related specifically to us, are radioactive!

How to Overcome the Fear of Numbers

Slaying the monster called “Fear of Numbers” is easier than one would think.  Here are the elements my client will address as she takes greater and greater control of her financial future:

  1. The numbers that represent her financial picture today are simply a snapshot that is the result of a bunch of actions taken to date.  She will come to understand that they are not a judgment of her as a person.
  2. Her money behaviors, the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones, came from beliefs built upon what she saw and heard in her surroundings as she was growing up.  And, because talking about money was taboo, revisiting any problematic beliefs as she got older was unlikely.  In fact, most would remain out of her awareness unless and until they created financial problems strong enough for her to finally ask “the reason why.”  Yet, as soon as there is awareness, there is the openness to correct the behavior.
  3. Because the overall financial picture was a mystery to her, she had no way of knowing how the different pieces fit together and why each one might be important.  Without that knowledge, it was virtually impossible to have the discipline needed to manage each piece … and chaos ensued.  She will be given clarity of that financial picture.
  4. The cultural stereotypes of television, movies and other media made it almost acceptable to remain ignorant and in a state of chaos.  Only when she realizes how disempowering those stereotypes are will she reject them and demand the knowledge she needs.
  5. One tiny step, something as simple as opening a savings account and watching it grow for a bit, is enough to start feeding another “monster” … the monster that is a woman who realizes she has everything she needs to control the money in her life.  But first she must refuse to stay in that place of anxiety and chaos.

I have watched the process again and again.  It is one of the most gratifying transitions you could ask to witness:  from victim to victor.  A woman emerging from living in fear of numbers … to a woman in full control of her financial future because she’s in control of the pieces that comprise it.

So what fears do you have around money?  What financial transparency would you like to have in your relationships?  What parts of finance don’t you understand yet?  What would build your self confidence so money is simply what “greases the wheels” of what’s important in your life?

Let us know in the Comments section below what you now realize you can do to conquer those fears.

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Bio: Sharon O’Day fixes financial lives. She is a tell-it-like-it-is money expert with a successful career in global finance, plus an MBA from the Wharton School. Today she specializes in getting entrepreneurial women over 50 back on their game so they can have more money, less stress and more joy. With her “Over Fifty and Financially Free” strategies, they take actions that lead to their ultimate goal: financial peace of mind.

  • Alexandra McAlllister

    Oh, Sharon I can totally relate to your post. I didn’t pay attention the the numbers until it was too late and I lost everything. A lesson learned. Love what you wrote: ” A woman emerging from living in fear of numbers … to a woman in full
    control of her financial future because she’s in control of the pieces
    that comprise it.” That is my goal! Thanks for sharing.

    • And I’m sure you’re well on your way to having all the elements in place to reach that goal, Alexandra. As you so well know, the greatest step is simple awareness!

  • A good read. Thanks for sharing. 🙂
    -Seun

  • Angela Jordan

    oh gosh you are speaking directly to me Sharon! but I imagine many women have this fear. I am working on being more aware now, because without awareness, you cannot correct anything! Great article. Thank you.

    • It is ALL too common, Angela. But the first step is the one you mention: awareness. I’m always so excited to see how quickly women turn things around once they “internalize” what’s really going on around their money. Can’t imagine you would do any differently!

  • Barbara Becker

    Thank you Sharon. The stereotypes we grew up with were such a negative influence to us women. Now, with our experience and wisdom gained through trials, we are transcending the old programs. Thank you for what you do for women!

    • Can you imagine, Barbara, if we could raise generations of women without those stereotypes? They have diminished slightly, but unfortunately still drive too many fortunes to be put to rest. So we reverse their impact one woman at a time, using whatever resources we have to leverage the impact!

  • If anyone can help her overcome her fear, it’s you, Sharon. This sentence especially jumped out for me, “The numbers in our financial picture somehow define who we are as a person.” Your five suggestions for how to overcome her fear of numbers are terrific and will surely help her and others realize one’s “net worth does not define one’s self worth.”

    • Amazing, isn’t it, Lisa? How did we reach the point that those numbers reflect “who we are as a person?” So misdirected and so debilitating … but so freeing as soon as that message can be discredited and put to rest!

  • Gertraud Walters

    It looks like I grew up in a different era. The love of numbers runs in my family and most definitely comes from my late Father. He started his own Business shortly after World War 2. I remember when Mum used to teach us how to balance the Housekeeping money and Boy we had to account for every Pfennig. To this day I don’t know how she fed all of us (9 children) with the little she had, as every surplus would go back into the Business. It did pay off for them in the end and they did quite well. I instilled the same discipline into my children and can now also see it in my children’s children. They are some cute Entrepreneurs at 8 years of age. (Twins). I enjoyed your article immensely Sharon, very good and sound advice.

    • Gertrude, if you grew up in an environment where numbers were not emotionalized, but just kept tabs of results of actions … you have a huge head start on those who were taught there was judgment in those numbers. My goal now is to help those people strip away the emotion and judgment so they too can thrive!

      • Sorry the spell-check on my iPad auto corrected the spelling of your name, Gertraud!

  • I have learned so many lessons about money from both good and bad examples of management–and from my own successes and challenges. And now I am learning to let go of many of the incorrect lessons through your examples, stories and lessons. Thank you for providing such a valuable service, Sharon.

    • Awareness is your most powerful tool, Marie. Now that you know there ARE incorrect lessons, I know you spot them easily and look for the origin so you CAN let them go. Brava!

  • Yvonne Heimann

    Luckily I never had that fear, which doesn’t make paying bills easier 😉

    • Yvonne, if none of the barriers resonated with you, have you been able to identify what makes it “hard” to pay bills? That’s where you want to look next …

      • Yvonne Heimann

        The continuous stream of money…
        being self employed, trying to find the balance between marketing yourself, networking and working to bring the money in.

  • Leslie Ferris

    I love how you call out some of the social messages that keep this whole fear of numbers thing going. It is great to realize they are just message, that we don’t have to internalize if we see it for what it is. Thanks!

    • Leslie, the research I’ve read says the difference in actual math capabilities between boys and girls in around 6th-7th grade is infinitesimal. But from there on, the gap widens … for purely societal reasons. That’s the part I bridle at … and am so happy to debunk. 😉

  • MamaRed

    Man, did this one grab me where the sun don’t shine…I’ve had a love/hate relationship with numbers forever (either I overspend…like my dad…or I scrimp…like my mom). As a result, I’m in terrible financial shape because I acted like an ostrich with her head stuck in the sand. Then, out of nowhere, my husband demands a divorce. Since he has been the almost-sole-bread winner due to health challenges, it hit me really hard. I’ve always seen the numbers (money, goals, or otherwise) as an indictment of me being unable to be responsible or make goals (gee, why say I’m going to do “x’, then feel bad when I don’t!). Not the healthiest response and life sure is changing for me right now.

    • I hope you find the stability of being midway between those two behaviors soon, MamaRed! As you probably know, there is no mystery about money … other than the one we create for ourselves!

  • Oh Sharon! I love your take on how to get over the fear of numbers! And what a timely post for me this week!

  • This is a great (and timely) post Sharon… fear of numbers is so prevalent these days – your tips for helping people go from victim to victor are brilliant. Awareness is the key and releasing all of the past “-isms” about worth is a powerful way forward.

    • You know, Moira, how many of these issues can be wiped out through simple awareness, release and action … right? 😉

  • Pat Moon

    I saw a similar thing happen to my mother .. only it was when my Dad passed away. He had always taken total care of the finances. Several years prior to his death, my mother received a small inheritance from an aunt so she went to the bank and opened a checking account with the money. Of course, my Dad was a signer on the account but my mother wanted to have that account so she could learn how to write checks and balance the statements. Well, my Dad just closed their other joint account and took over management of my mother’s account .. totally defeating the whole motive behind my mother’s motive. Needless to say, since my father passed away in 2001, my mother has had to have assistance with balancing her accounts. But one thing is very interesting, up until very recently, she is now 92 1/2, she might not be able to balance her checkbooks but she has always known how much money she has at any given moment.

    • Some people seem to “intuit” how much money they have, whether they are balancing their accounts or not. Your mother is likely one of them! I know I run a mental tally and am very close whenever I go in and check.

  • It amazes me how many of my friends don’t know the financial situation of their spouse or hide their own finances out of a fear of facing the numbers. One of the strengths of my relationship with my husband is that we are both on the same page when it comes to money. Like many we live on a tight budget, but we are grateful that our needs are always met. We have a joint account and sit down every week to go over the finances. We are open and honest. It doesn’t mean to say we don’t go a bit silly sometimes and buy what we shouldn’t but at least then we both know where we stand and are realistic. I know it sounds a bit old-fashioned but it works for us!

    • We ALL go a bit silly every so often, Carolyn, but what’s beautiful is that you’ve opened finances to the same transparency it seems you have in all other aspects of your relationship with your husband. That can only magnify the success you’ve built together. Brava!

  • Christy Garrett

    This is a great post. I agree it costs alot of money to raise kids.

  • daniele holmberg

    This was a very interesting article to me. I found it fascinating because I have always been in charge of my husband and I’s finances and I enjoy balancing the numbers and making them work. Maybe i like numbers because I also teach Algebra and other forms of math in my high school:)

    • Some of us just like numbers, Dani! And in your case, it’s borne out by the fact that you’ve made them the basis of your career as well. That’s great!

  • Susan Schiller

    I’m so glad you’re feeling well enough after knee surgery to write a new article, Sharon! Your client’s story could fit most of the women who find themselves starting over after divorce, including my own.

    Although I am now newly remarried, we keep our finances separate, with a very reasonable and just way for each of us to stay abreast of both income and outflow. It’s still completely on me to develop my own income, make my own investments and savings. It feels empowering this way, but also incredibly challenging. I still feel so very far behind!

    • So glad to hear you’re holding your power when it comes to money in your new couple, Susan! By having that stability, you should find it much easier to get your business humming so you can “catch up.” Don’t forget how far behind I was … back at square one at age 53. it’s so doable!

  • Diana Grant

    This message does hit home for me. I have decided to learn more of the financial world and was just wondering what books I should start with to learn the basics of finance. Sharon, do you have any recommendations? Thanks!

    • Diana, drop me a note through the contact email on my site and give me a better idea of where you are in terms of understanding the financial world. I’ll gladly help, but do need a bit more orientation so I can recommend something that’s truly valuable to you!

  • I’m glad you are back after your knee surgery and helping to make me feel just a little besster about all my number games. I hate to look at the numbers and see what O’ve spent! yuck! Thanks for the push!

    • Liz, take a look at why the numbers bother you so. It’s so important to get all the emotion out of them so you control them and they don’t control you. And let me know if I can help in the process!

  • This is such a great article packed with financial gems. I caught a glimpse of myself within the lines…both sides of the spectrum. Keep sharing Sharon, this is really needed when women begin to redefine success after 50!

    • Ah, so good to see you here, Carla … my special “I finally understand this debt-stuff” buddy! I know what fabulous strides you’ve taken in getting so many facets of your finances and business direction headed where you want them!

  • Love this. You remind me of a recruiter who spoke about owning the number as in whatever you want to earn – own it without excuse. I love that idea to ease the fear of money. Thank you for this empowering post 😉

    • You’re so welcome, Marvia. Owning our numbers, no matter what they represent, is the only way we can make them real in our lives, without any complicating emotional charge!

  • Robin Strohmaier

    I’m glad to hear that you are doing better, Sharon, and that you are back from your knee surgery! Great article, as always. I have heard some very said stories about women who were in similar situations. Thank you for sharing your expertise and for empowering others.

    • Thanks, Robin! Fortunately, after the first week or so, knee surgery boils down to being willing to do the pretty painful therapy … and that lasts far longer than anyone ever wants. But that’s no excuse to not keep those fingers busy on the keyboard! Besides, I get such joy out of the progress I see women making with their finances … 😉

  • Ooooh this is good Sharon! For me, this is the statement that got me, “But first she must refuse to stay in that place of anxiety and chaos.” As long as we allow fear, anxiety and chaos to have their way with us, it’s impossible to move forward.

    • It’s the first signal that we’re ready for change, Lena. Otherwise it’s just a distant wish waiting to mature … 😉

  • Yetunde Daramola

    I see me being spoken to. I am learning to get better at finances though. Thanks for this.