You Can’t Really Manage Money (or Anything Else) Until You Can Manage Yourself

“I need to cut back on everything,” I repeated under my breath.

It was mid-2017, and this phrase was becoming something of a litany for me.  I felt intensely overwhelmed and behind in every area of life — work, parenting, friends, marriage, household management. 

Almost daily I muttered those words to myself, or declared them loudly to my husband. I did so with the conviction that I’d identified the core of my problem: I was doing and buying too much. 

 “I’ll cut back on everything, I just need things to work.” It became almost a prayer to the productivity gods. It was my bargaining chip, my willingness to sacrifice many things to get what I was desperate for: a functional life.

Does hard work really solve all problems?

If I cut back, I reasoned, I could free up time, money and mental space to tackle the ever-towering pile of tasks that always lay ahead.

In the crosshairs of my slash-and-burn approach was anything I didn’t view as a core responsibility, a necessity of life — whether it was how I spent time or money. I:

  • Canceled all of our entertainment subscriptions, determined not to waste any more time or money on mindless TV. 
  • Stopped accepting invitations to hang out with friends, arrange a playdate, or see family on the weekend. I couldn’t afford to socialize when I was so far behind. 
  • Didn’t make time to workout, to journal, to really even get enough sleep. There was simply too much to do.

One by one, I disallowed myself any form of idleness or self-indulgence — and then I waited. Waited for the clouds to part, the stress to lift, the ever-moving finish line of being caught up to arrive.

Facing the deep costs of cutting back and overwork

Instead, stress continued to pile up until I collapsed under its weight. It was like I had been running a marathon — while refusing to pace myself, to grab a drink of water, to adjust my approach if I hit a hill. 

Of course I wore myself out. Of course I hit a wall of “No” from my body and my mind. It was a self-preservation measure I couldn’t push past (though I tried my damnedest).

The well of motivation, the panic that had fueled my frantic efforts to catch up, had run dry. I couldn’t seem to make myself care enough to work on, well, anything in a meaningful way.

I’d been too convinced of my approach to be flexible. Too rushed to feel I could afford to slow down and get my bearings.  Yet that’s exactly what I needed to do, and what the wall of “No” forced me to do. 

As I ground to a halt, all the things that had been blurred by my hurried pace came into focus. I saw this overwork for what it was: my last-ditch effort at covering up my messiness and toxic shame

Figure out self-management, and you can figure out the rest

I was fixated on outward issues, like a budget, a schedule, a search for the perfect productivity hack. And I know I’m not alone in this. It’s easy to get stuck searching for an answer outside of yourself. To become convinced that “Everything will get better if I can just….” Just follow the plan. Stick to a schedule. Just spend every second and dollar efficiently.

The truth is we’re not always equipped with the right skills, mental space, or will power for our financial efforts to be effective. 

Sometimes the problem isn’t your money — it’s us. And we need to work on managing our ourselves, our behaviors, and our mental health before our finances can improve.

How to develop self-management skills

I had mismanaged myself into a deep, dark mental hole and it was time to dig my way out. But I couldn’t do it with the semi-broken self-management tools I had.

I needed new ones, better ones. And I needed to recover so I had the energy to effectively use these tools and manage myself.

I didn’t know this term at the time, but what I was working toward was healthier and more effective self-management:

“Self-management is the personal application of behavior change tactics that produces a desired change in behavior.”

Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007

I, for example, needed to work on my time awareness to be able to stick to a schedule. To set goals, I needed to figure out a planning process that worked for me. And I needed a realistic view of your limitations to avoid overextending yourself, and to know when to rest.

Self management is, in essence, building up these types of core skills and behaviors that allow you to manage other, secondary behaviors. It’s the combined development and application of many complex skills that are key to managing yourself and your behavior.

Here are some of the crucial skills and abilities that I’ve had to build up in order to become more effective at managing myself.

Self-knowledge and self-awareness

It’s crucial to start first with yourself when figuring out how to manage yourself. No two people are the same, so of course, we’ll have varying levels of success or frustration with different self-management tools. 

So developing self-awareness and knowledge allows us to quickly and easily identify what we need and the best way to go about achieving that. We each have our own mental processes, emotional reactions, and established behaviors. Getting to know yours and how it shapes your finance behaviors is key to managing them.

Self-monitoring and observation

The skill of self-monitoring is related to self-awareness, but it speaks more to one’s ability to be aware of and monitor one’s actions and experiences in the present moment.

Meditation and mindfulness practices have been extremely helpful for developing the skills to self-observe. So have strategies like setting timers that remind me to sit down and pay a bill, or using the pomodoro method to stay focused on a busy day.

As I apply these skills to each moment, it gives me chances to course correct and refocus. Taking a moment to really review my cart before checking out at a store, for example, to see if there’s anything I could take out without missing.

Focusing on the right goals

Choose the right things to work toward, and the right way to work towards them. Be judicious and set goals in line with your bigger dreams and personal values. Set goals that will make you a better, happier person overall — and that are based in your financial reality and not a fantasy

Self-awareness is crucial here, too. Set goals in a way that’s motivating to you, so you won’t get discouraged at the first sign of falling short.

I was talking to a friend this week, for example, about some goals we’re each working on. For her, it’s helpful to set “stretch goals,” as she finds this challenge motivating. For me, I need to set realistic goals that represent what I know I can accomplish — trying to do more than that gets me overwhelmed. 

Support system for goals

Find the small, daily building blocks for achieving what you’re aiming to do. Then, string those together to build out a system that supports positive behaviors and encourages improvements, while discouraging backslides and undesired behaviors. 

Some key questions I ask when trying to find ways to support my goals:

  • What would need to be in place to make the desired behaviors easier? 
  • How can I remove friction to these choices? 
  • How can I add friction to unwanted behaviors or poor choices?
  • What has been supportive or successful when I’ve set goals in other areas of my life?
  • Can I “anchor” this new behavior to an existing habit?

It’s helpful for me to view self-improvement as a never-ending experiment with experience as the ultimate goal.


This is a big one, my friends. I need you to hear what I wish I had been able to hear and believe back then: you need to take care of yourself if you expect to improve at all. You cannot do better if you’re already unwell. You cannot build healthy finances or a healthy career from a place of ill health and deficit.

I know self-care elicits eyerolls, but I don’t mean it in the “treat yo’self and take a bubble bath” way. I mean it in the, “treat yo’self like an irrational toddler who needs to take a nap and some gummy vitamins,” kind of way. 

It’s simply about having your own back, first and foremost. And making sure that amongst all of the expectations the world places on you, you don’t forget the responsibilities you have to yourself.

For me, good self care looks like:

  • Listening to my own limits and respecting them more. 
  • Giving myself permission to stop and take a break if I’m feeling maxed out.
  • Checking in with myself to see what’s needed and I respond to those needs.
  • Getting enough sleep, rather than staying up late or getting up earlier to squeeze in more work.
  • Adding in a lot of things that I’d cut out: I journal, I cook, I squeeze my kids, I cuddle with my husband, and life feels a lot better for it.

Putting it all together

Building and strengthening these core mental and emotional muscles can feel ridiculously hard, believe me. 

But it’s made things make sense in a way they never had before. I better understand myself, and because of that, I’ve found strategies that actually help me to be more effective, more productive, and wiser with my money. 

Perhaps most importantly, I know what I can realistically get done and set achievable goals — and then go after them.

Photo credits: Andrew Neel, Jordan Whitfield, and Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

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  • Reply
    Savvy History
    October 11, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read this week! I really resonate with every part of it. I can especially identify with this quote…

    “One by one, I disallowed myself any form of idleness or self-indulgence — and then I waited. Waited for the clouds to part, the stress to lift, the ever-moving finish line of being caught up to arrive.”

    I’ve become really strict. It’s crazy when I hear you put it so well. Denying myself is what I have done my whole life. I”m not a miserable person, but I’m probably harder on myself than I need to be. Caring for myself looks different at different points in life. At one point it meant working hard so I could get my life in order. My life did improve – alot. But now taking care of myself means relaxing.

    “This is a big one, my friends. I need you to hear what I wish I had been able to hear and believe back then: you need to take care of yourself if you expect to improve at all.”

    It’s such a head game. “Improvement” means different things for different people and at different phases in those people’s lives.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      October 11, 2019 at 4:17 pm

      Thank you for your comment! I totally agree re: Improvement means different things at different times. And it can mean different things at different times. I think that’s kind of what happened here… I outgrew my coping mechanisms/ability to self-manage and was left wondering wtf to do from here. It didn’t mean that I never had those skilled and that they never worked, simply that they were no longer well-suited to the tasks at hand. It can be hard to know when to keep pushing vs. when pushing is going to make something break.

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