I Have $700K, but Spending Gives Me Panic Attacks

Dear Penny,

I’m a 61-year-old woman with $700,000 saved for retirement. I own my own home (with a mortgage), and I have more than five months of daily expenses in a cash account. I have a few investment accounts in addition to the cash and I basically follow a 60/20/20 budget for my after-tax and after-retirement dollars.  

Why can’t I stop freaking out about money? I save for home repairs, and then freak out when I write the check. I save for a new car and then freak out when it’s time to buy it. I HAVE THE MONEY.

I’m not poor, but I have been cash poor in the past. I have always saved for retirement, but I can’t stop freaking out. And by freaking out, I mean literally days of heart-pounding panic attacks where Xanax is my only friend.  

How do other people handle this? 

-L.

Dear L.,

Fear is healthy to a degree. It’s what makes us wear our seatbelts and avoid dark alleys at night. Some level of money-related fear is also a good thing. If you didn’t worry there was a chance you’d run out of it, why wouldn’t you spend every dollar?

But there’s a big difference between healthy fear and the serious anxiety that you’re experiencing. An advice columnist is no substitute for mental health treatment. Whatever you do, it’s essential that you discuss your anxiety with a professional.

I wish I could tell you that $700,000 is more than enough for you. But that wouldn’t be an honest answer. There’s no way I can tell you with certainty that any level of savings is a guarantee you’ll never run out of money. Even billionaires wind up in bankruptcy court. But there’s plenty you can do to reduce the risk of whatever outcome you fear.

Financial health isn’t just about any one number. That $700,000 could be more than enough if you live in a low-cost area and plan to work for several more years. But if you live in Manhattan, you want to retire next year and people in your family frequently live past 100, it could leave you woefully short. Context is what matters here. The amount you have saved is meaningless without knowing your lifestyle, goals and concerns.

What I’m wondering is how much actual planning you’ve done beyond just saving. Do you have an age in mind for when you want to retire? Have you thought about when you’ll take Social Security? Do you plan to stay in your home and, if so, will you be mortgage-free by the time you retire?

All of this may seem overwhelming to think about when money already causes you so much stress. But worrying constantly plays a mind trick on you. You spend so much brain space and energy on worrying that it can feel like you’re actually taking action.

I want you to do what seems counterintuitive and think about the absolute worst-case scenarios. But I don’t want you doing this alone. I’d urge you to meet with a financial adviser, since you have the means to do so.

Write down your biggest fears so that you can discuss them together. Are you afraid of outliving your savings? Are you worried the market will crash right as you’re about to retire? Or that health care costs will eat up your retirement budget?

A financial adviser doesn’t have any special sourcery that can guarantee none of these things will happen. What they can do, though, is help you reduce the risk of those worst-case scenarios. If you’re worried about running out of money, they can help you plan how much you’ll safely be able to withdraw from retirement accounts and when you should take Social Security. Of course they can’t stop a stock market crash from happening, but they can make sure your investments are safely allocated based on your goals.

It sounds like you’re someone with a low risk tolerance, which means you probably want to invest conservatively. Perhaps a good investment for you would be to pay off that mortgage using a chunk of that savings. Will it be scary to fork over that much money at once? Of course, especially since the interest savings will probably pale compared to your investment returns. But if you can sleep more soundly knowing that what’s probably your biggest expense is taken care of, it could be worth it. I’m not saying that’s something you should absolutely do, but it’s worth discussing with your financial pro.

I suspect that when you think realistically about your worst-case scenarios, you’ll realize things aren’t as dire as you imagined. Suppose for some reason you had to quit working tomorrow. Your plans for retirement would probably change significantly. But at the same time, you wouldn’t be left without food or a home.

You say you’ve been cash poor in the past. Yet you overcame that and even managed to save for retirement when you didn’t have much money. You aren’t doomed to repeat your past.

I think if you do what’s scary and face your fears head-on — with the help of both a financial and a mental health professional — you can reduce the anxiety you feel about money. That’s not to say you’ll never worry about money again. But you can get to a place where fears about money aren’t dominating your life.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The allstocksnews.com. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].

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