Overcoming the Guilt Associated with Mismanaged Finances


I’m no stranger to financial slip-ups. When I was in college I had my wrist slapped by the bank for overdrafts… 17 times to be precise.

17 times – a bit excessive? Well, yes. But it wasn’t a typical situation. Here’s what happened:

I had a fairly low account to begin with but then an unexpected automatic fee took out close to the remainder of my funds overnight. The result? My total account balance fell to $3.12. What came next was an unfortunate series of 99 cent iTunes purchases, 14 of which garnered a 35 dollar overdraft fee. Let’s do the math real quick to see just how much I racked up.

Oh yes, that’s right: $490.00

This, for a sophomore in college, was pretty much akin to having my entire life savings ripped from me in exchange for a set of Justin Timberlake songs. I may have had a soundtrack to console me as I wept but it didn’t help much with the intense guilt I experienced.

My gut reaction was to freak out. So I did a little bit. A lot, actually. Nobody wants to realize that they’ve made a mistake, much less one that seemed so preventable.  But here’s what happened next: I jumped into action! That’s the part of the scenario that I prefer to remember and in all honesty, the most important part of the story – the action part. Because it was the actions I took next that allowed me to improve the situation (more on this in a moment).

There’s a lot of emotion involved with finances. There’s also an expectation to do everything correctly and to avoid making costly mistakes. But nobody’s perfect! It’s guaranteed that you’ll run into more than one financial challenge that’ll leave you feeling less than comfortable with your decisions (or lack of decisions). But if guilt over the result is preventing you from taking the actions necessary to move forward it’s time to jumpstart the solution!

If you’re feeling stunted by feelings of guilt or regret in regards to a financial choice, here’s how to work through your emotions and move on and forward:

Own up to the results of your decisions

As the wise Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes once said “There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” Guilt is a heavy emotion and carrying it around can easily weigh down other areas of your life. The best way to offload that extra weight is to first acknowledge that it exists. That could be as simple as admitting to yourself that you’ve made a financial mistake or having the first look at the numbers involved. Keep in mind that this can be the most painful part of the process so it’s not the time to be too hard on yourself. Focus on gaining control over the problem not on making harsh judgements or punishing yourself for a transgression. When you admit that there’s a problem to be solved you’re allowing yourself to set the parameters for the eventual solution. And the sooner you face your feelings of guilt and begin shedding them from the issue, the lighter the load becomes.

Quick tip: It’s important to acknowledge the emotions at hand – avoiding guilt will only amplify the issue later.

Focus on how to proceed forward instead of justifying what’s already happened

Guilt, while extremely uncomfortable, is also a neon sign to the root problem. Instead of trying to justify our actions it’s more helpful to use our guilt as a way to define the problems that we have to overcome. From there, we have a base that can guide us towards a solution. Lean towards the guilt as a way to figure out exactly what issue it is that you’d like to correct or solve. If you spend your time trying to defer responsibility by “explaining” your actions you’re using energy that could be used to move forward!

Quick tip: Resisting your feelings will make them worse. Push towards the uncomfortable feelings to reveal where you should focus on regrouping and brainstorming solutions

Give yourself the full authority to take charge

Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed by the task at hand that we psych ourselves out. The result is that we miss the opportunity to take actions that will better our circumstances. Give yourself authority to make decisions by asking questions like,

“What are the steps that will take me forward?”
“How can I use my existing skills to help guide me?”

Importantly, recognize that you’re the one with the power to answer those questions and/or gather the information needed to answer them. It might sound funny, but give yourself permission to succeed! Take ownership of your success by acknowledging you’re responsible for your future actions.

Quick tip: You’re the one in charge of your brain – take advantage of that power.

Use any mistakes as a jumping point for positive growth

Don’t believe for a second that anyone is immune to making making financial mistakes in their life. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. But as mentioned before, it’s how we move forward that will define our situation. So treat any flubs as an opportunity to grow, to learn, and to strengthen your foundation! That means doing everything you can to confront the challenge rather than avoiding it.

For instance:

  • Time matters! Though not all financial flubs are time sensitive there’s benefit to setting a timeline. If things will only get worse with time – take action sooner rather than later. Beyond that, take a small action right now to go about correcting the error.

  • Don’t be afraid to contact the parties impacted Guilt is an isolating emotion and one that’s strongly related to shame and embarrassment. It’s not fun to share mistakes with others but you can’t try and hide behind a false premise or ignore other parties that may be involved. Choose honesty and open communication as a way to rebalance and regroup.

  • Make life easier: set-up alerts and protections We’re all only capable of so much. If some of your mismanaged finances can be attributed to simply forgetting due dates or unknowingly incurring fees take precautions to streamline the process. Utilize automation and alerts where possible in order to make like just a little bit easier!

Finally, focus on the change you’ve created rather than the things you’ve had to change

Once you rock the financial challenge (and you will), congratulate yourself and use any lessons learned for future challenges! Highlighting your successes rather than focusing on any failures will help inspire you in your future goals and endeavors. And if all else fails, remember that I once paid $100 dollars for 12 N’sync songs. As I said before, nobody’s immune to financial oops! Though you might have noticed that $100 is $390 less than the initial sum I mentioned.  I was able to negotiate the fees down (though not to zero) and the lesson was definitely learned. Just proof that taking action has an impact!

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  • Billiam


    Thanks for this great post! I can so relate to this scenario. My wife and I went through a similar domino-effect overdraft situation with our joint checking account several years ago.

    The worst feeling was going to work the Monday after payday, knowing most of our money had instantly gotten sucked into the negative balance abyss. Just like you mentioned, I went into the bank to negotiate the fees to about half. Then we immediately set up a linked overdraft protection account and an automated monthly microtransfer of $25 to make sure that protection was being funded little by little.

    Now in addition to that, we started using a budget, which by its very nature helps to keep us farther from the edge of the cliff.

    Thanks again for the very relatable article topic. BTW, I recently listened to your RFZ interview on the Listen Money Matters podcast. Keep up the good work.


    • Claire Murdough

      “…negative balance abyss” is right… it’s gut wrenching to see that red number pop up! But I’m so happy to read about your awesome response to the situation… damage control and setting up future protections is a great way to take charge of the circumstances!

      Also, thanks so much for the shoutout!! The guys over at Listen Money Matters are great and I felt lucky to be a part of their podcast 🙂

      Let us know if there’re any other topics you’d like to see up on our blog!