"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to email@example.com.
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Q: I feel overwhelmed by my student loan and credit card debt, and I have nothing saved. I don't want to even look at my accounts. How can I get past my fear and tackle my finances?
A: Repeat after me: It's not too late.
You are not a bad person. You don't have to fix everything at once. Asking this question means you've already taken a huge step. Plus, nearly everyone has felt anxious about money — they probably just didn't tell you.
"It's something that everyone has to deal with, but nobody really talks about," says Kristy Archuleta, a program director and associate professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University.
Money is so tied to emotion that Archuleta, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is part of a movement to develop the new field of financial therapy. She says financial therapists "help people think, feel and behave differently with money as a way to improve overall well-being."
If you're totally overwhelmed by your financial situation, taking the first step to look at your finances can be the hardest part. Start small and ask for help. When you set goals and use them to guide you, you'll start a positive cycle of progress.
PICTURE FINANCIAL FREEDOM
To start, focus on what you want your life to look like, Archuleta says — the big, nebulous, existential stuff, not what's possible with the money you have in the bank right now. How do you want to feel when you wake up in the morning? What activities and interests do you want to pursue? What kind of environment do you want to live in?
You may find it hard to imagine yourself sitting on the porch of your dream house in the country without the credit card debt that's keeping you up at night now. But let the future motivate you to address your money concerns, instead of focusing on mistakes you made in the past.
BREAK BIG GOALS INTO SMALL STEPS
When you consider your credit card debt, student loans and lack of emergency or retirement savings all at once, they seem like big, scary, insurmountable problems.
Break them down into separate, small tasks, says Sophia Bera, a financial planner and founder of Gen Y Planning in Austin, Texas. She asks her clients to list all of their money worries alongside the steps that would address them, then to check off one task a week.
First, stop or reduce your credit card use and set up a monthly automatic transfer to a savings account so you can build an emergency fund for unexpected costs. The classic advice, to save six months' worth of expenses for emergencies, isn't realistic right away. But you can transfer just $5 to your savings account each month, says Erik Kroll, a financial planner at Hilltop Financial Advisors in Milwaukee. (Beware of minimum balance requirements, though.) When you realize you don't miss that $5, you're likely to bump up those savings deposits.
ASK A PRO FOR ADVICE
Experts can step in when you're not sure how to take the next steps to pay off your credit card debt, lower your student loan payments or save for retirement.
Set up a consultation with a certified credit counselor to get an overview of your financial situation. All agencies affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling offer free, general budgeting and debt payoff advice. They can also tell you if a debt management plan is right for you. On a debt management plan, you'll pay the agency a monthly fee, and in exchange it will work with your creditors to lower your interest rates and monthly payments.
Fee-only financial planners can be another source of insight and support. They typically charge an hourly or monthly fee and don't earn commissions on financial products they sell. Some do pro bono work through their local chapters of the Financial Planning Association. You can find your local chapter on the association's website.
"Many people feel like they should be able to 'do all this money stuff themselves,' but it can be really intimidating to get started on your own," Bera says. "Even financial planners have financial planners."
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
NerdWallet: A guide to getting out of student loan debt https://nerd.me/5-nerdwallet-studentloans
National Foundation for Credit Counseling: Find a credit counselor https://www.nfcc.org/locator/