Financial stress in times of transition

Stress is what happens when something you care about is at stake. This definition comes from Susan Bradley, CFP, author of Sudden Money and a specialist in the financial aspect of life transitions.

The stress around these transitions is a common reason that people seek out financial advice. We tend to be driven to consult advisors as a result of stressful changes in our lives, such as a divorce, a sudden money event like an inheritance or insurance settlement, an investment or job loss, retirement, or the death of a loved one. 

While all these life events certainly have financial components, it’s almost always the emotional components of the change — how we respond to them — that are the cause of the stress. 

Any change includes three stages: an ending, a period of passage while we relate and adapt to the change, and a new beginning. This period of transition can be fraught with emotion and behaviors that can trip us up in many ways, including financially. 

Susan identifies nine such emotions and behaviors that she sees commonly in people in transition.

1. Lack of identity. If the transition results in the loss of a familiar role — spouse or employee, for example — you may struggle with “Who am I now? “There is often confusion and ambivalence about the future, and an inability to make decisions. 

2. Confusion/Overwhelm/Fog. There is a sense of defeat by everything. You may physically slump, have a glazed-over look, and ask others to repeat a lot. It’s hard to understand, be present, respond, focus, or move forward.

3. Hopelessness. You may have a sense of having given up, not being in control of your fate, or being a victim. It may seem that there is nothing you can do to change yourself or the outcome. Financial decision-making is very difficult.

4. Invincibility. This can happen with a big positive change in your finances. You may think everything is going to turn out fine. You may feel euphoric,  confident, and smarter than your advisors. You may spend more and take greater investment risks.

5. Mental and Physical Fatigue. Change can be exhausting, and the exhaustion can go undetected by others and even yourself. You may have difficulty following an agenda and tasks. 

6. Numb/Withdrawn. You may feel ambivalent about and indifferent to exploring the changes in your life, what you want, and what the future may hold. You don’t give much feedback and are withdrawn and non-expressive. You may miss or not return phone calls or emails. The planning process often comes to a standstill.

7. Narrow or Fractured Focus. You may either be preoccupied with one area that excludes everything else or have an inability to focus on anything. In either case, focusing on what’s important becomes difficult or impossible.

8. Inconsistent Behavior. This is the inability to hold to one position. Instead, you may change your mind repeatedly or switch between opposite positions. You are uncertain and often embrace opposites in your wants and desires in the same breath. Making decisions become impossible.

9. Combative. You may hold on to feelings of anger, resentment, victimization, and rage regardless of the facts. You are outwardly emotionally expressive and challenging. You don’t respond well to logic and practicality. A combative person doesn’t have problems making decisions, but does have difficulty making good decisions that are in their best interests. Emotions and behaviors like these are generally temporary. Financial decisions made in the midst of transition-based stress, though, can have lasting negative consequences. The support of trustworthy advisors can be invaluable in navigating through both painful and joyful life changes. 

Rick Kahler, CFP, is a fee-only financial planner and president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City. He can be reached at Rick@kahlerfinancial.com.

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