For Mental Health Awareness Week I wanted to share some of my story with you. In part because I believe it’s important to talk about our mental health; it’s something that just still isn’t talked about openly enough, or enough at all. But I also want to share my story as a reminder that no matter how tough things are, or how impossible it may seem, you can take back control of your finances and thrive financially.
From a young age my relationship with money was a fractured one. My parents divorced when I was small, and the contrast between the financial positions of my mother whom I lived with full time, and my father when we went to visit, was vast. My Dad was an ambitious entrepreneur, while my Mum held a part-time job and devoted her time to raising myself and my three siblings. I recall feeling very acutely that money was something I wanted to be in control of for myself. I did not want to be dependent upon anyone else for money, and I also had a strong sense of what was mine; if I had money it was going to be me who spent it.
Aged 15, that feeling of needing to be in control became something that would drastically shape my life, at least for the foreseeable future. Both my father and twin brother emigrated to Australia, leaving me with an utter feeling of emptiness. Two very important people had been uncontrollably torn from my life, and I began to control the only thing I felt I had any power left over; food. It consumed me, quite literally. And alongside came a new feeling of being out of control, one which was related to the way that I looked and appeared on the outside. No matter how much I meticulously controlled the food that I put into my body, I never quite felt good enough. I wasn’t slim enough or pretty enough, my clothes weren’t good enough or at least not on me.
With my emotional control over food came an equally emotional over-spending on clothes. I would splurge on the latest fashion items, desperately willing them to make me feel better in my own skin. I was chasing a perfect version of myself, and a perfect version of my life, that just cannot ever exist in reality. I was suffering with an illness that neither I nor anyone else around me really understood.
I was completely and utterly trapped. I started to keep a diary of everything I ate and how many calories I was consuming. It would normally consist of 100-500 a day. As often as I could, I would smuggle my dinner into my bedroom pretending I was studying and then I would flush it down the toilet or store it in a carrier bag and then take it to the bin outside late at night. I started to do sit ups in bed until my body was crying with pain. I would hide my lunch in my school bags at lunchtime and ask my best friend Sophie to lie for me when the teachers asked where my food was. Secretly, I was screaming for someone to notice. Notice that I wasn’t eating. So that perhaps they may ask if I was “ok”.
It consumed my life. I wouldn’t wear a pair of jeans for longer than a few hours as I felt that every time I sat down in them, they would get creased and make me look fat. I was obsessed with reading anything to do with anorexia and bulimia and even kept a book of magazine clippings as inspiration. It would take me 2 hours everyday to go through 10 outfit changes, feeling angry and anxious about how I looked. I learnt quite early on that if I ate something that I then felt guilty about, if I ate ice-cream it was easier to throw up. Some days I would be so starved of food, my body would scream at me for carbs. So I would raid the cupboards and then throw it all back up again. Luckily I had my own bathroom so I was able to hide it well.
One of the most significant lives of my life came after my partner treated me to a visit from an image consultant styling session for my birthday. The turning point for me came when she left me one evening sitting on my red couch, surrounded by bin bags. I cried my eyes out as it was as she has given me permission to get rid of the crap and ‘stuff’ in my life that I had been hoarding. My wardrobe had been crippling me, in more ways than one. It was then that I decided I wanted to take control and create change. I also wanted to help other women feel more confident in their bodies.
Sometimes what feels like a really insignificant or small moment in our lives can actually be just the catalyst that wakes us up and helps us to realise that we need help. I not only realised that I needed help, but also that I needed to help myself. And more than anything, I wanted to help others as much as I could along my journey.
Having deferred my university place at 18 and taken a job in a bank, I started my very first business as a side-hustle called ‘Before Meets After Image Consultancy’ just before I fell pregnant with my first son. It gave me the push that I needed to start saving.
The anxiety returned when we almost lost our newborn son
It wasn’t until my second son was born 3 years later that and was critically poorly that my emotional response to money returned as my mental health began to suffer again. We were told when he was just 4 days old that there was a 50/50 chance he would survive. Four short weeks later and he was back in hospital but this time with Bacterial Meningitis. As a result of nearly losing my 5 week old baby, I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and my spending had become out of control again. The diagnosis helped me to address things, and I was finally able to understand why, and how, my spending habits were so closely linked with my emotions. I spent because I was unhappy, anxious and ironically out of control.
I’d spent years chasing that Instagram life, trying to fill perceived holes in my life, myself, and my own happiness. Once I was able to see just how very emotional rather than rational my spending actually was, I vowed again to use that experience to help other women. So I decided to become a financial coach, and set up ‘The Money Panel’. I knew that money was emotional and that the financial services profession needed a greater focus on reducing jargon and increasing focus on our behaviours and emotions around money. I wanted to explore how I could use coaching principles to help women improve their relationship with money as I had done. I knew that if other women were emotional spenders, I could help them to become better savers. I had the technical, practical experience, the knowledge and more importantly the personal experience.
I feel more in control now than I ever have, and it fills me with joy knowing that I’m able to help my clients, customers, podcast listeners, and the community that I have built to take back control and feel just as confident.
Real Life Stories - The Money Advice Service
Catherine’s top 4 financial well-being tips:
Challenge the emotion
What is driving you to make the purchase? Challenge the action; is what you are doing going to make you feel any different in 20 minutes?
Your emotional driver could be something really serious. If you are not ready to challenge it then you need to put something in place to stop you behaving in that emotional way.
Enforce a cooling-off period
Give yourself 48 hours before purchasing anything. That might mean leaving an item in your Amazon basket so that you can allow your brain to think more rationally.
You can also choose not to store credit card details online so you have to get up and find your purse every time you want to buy something!
Affirm the positive
Make a conscious decision not to use negative language with money. Rather than saying ‘I don’t have enough money’. Instead say something positive like ‘I can be in control of my finances.’ Look for evidence of the things you are good at.
Reframe what you are thinking; “I can be wealthy and increase my income”, or “I can control my spending.” Being conscious about your own money mindset will help you to change your belief systems which will lead you to make better financial decisions.
Seek Help and don’t rely on google
One of the decisions that will make the most significant impact is asking for help. Often it can be difficult to do this for fear of being ‘labelled’. My good friend Mrs Mummy Penny openly expresses her thoughts in her recent blog about bi-polar. If you are unsure what is causing you to feel sad, seek help. Mental health is no longer as taboo as it used to be and there are plenty of professionals there to help. Don’t rely on google to confirm your diagnosis.