I wish.

When I graduated from college, I had this starry-eyed dream of owning my own freelancing business. And while I made that dream come true, I didn’t realize that along the way, there would be moments of complete and utter financial panic. Seriously. Since then, I’ve learned that this happens to almost everybody. Most people are just too proud to talk about it.

For some, financial panic comes after a series of bad decisions, even though they might have good jobs or even strong support systems. On Redhead Writing this week, Ash Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project talked about her experiences with this. For others, it might be not finding a job after graduation. My friend Brook had a major problem with that after college, not because she wasn’t a good candidate, but because she works in a highly specialized field. Sometimes financial panic happens after a series of events that are out of our control, like a family member in the hospital racking up huge bills that you have to help cover. Sometimes, it happens when building a business that takes time to become profitable (check out Erica Douglass’ story on that one).

Regardless, there’s a moment for everyone, a moment when you look at your bank account, look at your future prospect, and just want to simultaneously laugh and cry because it seems like life’s idea of a bad joke. This wasn’t supposed to happen to you.

Your friends that seem so financially secure? They aren’t. They have mountains of credit card debt that they aren’t talking about - or they used to, at least. Your co-workers who can afford happy hour every week? They can’t - they just go to keep up appearances, struggling to find money for that $5 margarita and refusing to buy an appetizer because “they’re watching what they eat” or “they aren’t hungry” (aka, they can’t afford it).

You’ll be there too. Perhaps you’re already there. Financial panic sets in and you feel like you’re the only one in the world with this problem…but you aren’t. It’s just too shameful for most people to mention unless it gets really bad. Even then, some people try to hide their foreclosures and bankruptcies and whatnot. And some do it successfully.

You don’t have to get to that point. Today, I’d like to give you a few tips that helped me cope with financial panic in the past and build a what is today a bit more stable lifestyle (and hopefully becoming even more stable in the future).

Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to talk about it.When you’re in a panic, you need a support system. Your friends and family aren’t going to pity you, consider you a charity case, or think badly with you. Being honest about your financial situation is going to leave the door open for them to talk about their own financial panic, either happening now or in the past. Your friends will all stop suggesting $50 dinners at fancy restaurants if even one person in the group is having trouble affording it. A cheaper chain can be just as fun, and everyone will feel more comfortable.

Tip #2: Realize that you are not without options. It seems hopeless, but even if you spend every last dime in your bank account today, you’re not going to die. You have options. For you, that option might suck, but it is an option nonetheless. Maybe it makes sense to move back in with your parents for a year or two. Maybe your best option is going back to school and living on financial aid again, at least until you get a better degree. Maybe you know a friend that would offer up a guest bedroom until your next paycheck. Maybe you sleep in your car for a few weeks. Heck, the local soup kitchen is even an option. All of these options might be uncomfortable to say the least, but if you’re in a financial panic, calm down and list off the choices that you do have.

Tip #3: Stop spending. Now. But you need groceries! And you need to pay off your student loans! And you need to buy your sister a birthday gift. See, here’s the thing…you don’t. There are very few things you actually need to spend money on, when it comes down to your last few bucks. Yes, you need food, but for just $20, you can get enough to last you for a few weeks. Don’t believe me? Clip some coupons, check out sales, and realize that the next month or so of your life will not be the healthiest or most pleasing when it comes to meals…but it can happen. You can get most student loans deferred, as long as you call to ask for it, and sometimes credit card companies, banks, and other lenders will even work with you to come up with a deferred payment plan. Social responsibilities, like gifts? Give a card with an IOU. For example, one year, I gave a friend with a winter birthday and IOU for one trip to an amusement park together when the weather was nice again. She loved the gift and I had several months to before I had to buy the tickets. Stop spending now, even if you think you have to so that the little money you do have can be put toward things you can’t avoid paying.

I think the most important thing to realize about financial panic is that you are not alone. You’ll make it through, if you’re will to fight, and on the other side, you’ll be wiser, stronger, and happier. Don’t despair now - it gets better. I promise.

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  1. Judy Helfand (Reply) on Friday 10, 2011

    This is one of your best posts. All of your advice is terrific and you are right…no one wants to talk about it.

    People don’t realize that if you are just honest about the situation: call your bank if you need to skip a car payment (add it to the end), call your credit card companies and ask them to reduce your APR. Saving face does nothing for you when it comes to all the little items in one’s budget. Happy hours are expensive…and did you ever look around and see that you are the only one with cash or credit card and you somehow end up with the whole bill?

    Life isn’t easy these days. But honesty will help you deal with a lot of these issues. It is amazing when you are honest how often the listener will say: “Oh, my god, I have the same problem.!”

    Thanks for this post.

    • Allison (Reply) on Friday 10, 2011

      Thanks, Judy! You’re definitely right - 9 times out of 10, when you’re trying to save face, the people around you are too.

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