According to a recent financial industry survey, the leading source of stress for Americans is money. Fears about personal finances, stemming from the rising cost of healthcare, mounting debt, and other critical financial concerns are causing widespread chronic stress and it’s a growing problem. According to the American Psychological Association, 72% of Americans reported feeling stressed about money at least once in the past month.
The problem with this is that stressing about money affects our health and our relationships. Biologically, stress serves to give us the edge we need to protect ourselves from immediate danger. But while our distant ancestors used this handy adrenaline rush to fend off predators, today we use it primarily to meet deadlines, close sales, and manage our investments -- all in pursuit of financial security. However, because financial security often feels out of reach, many people worry about finances constantly and the resulting stress becomes chronic.
Chronic stress can contribute to a wide range of health problems due to elevated cortisol, adrenal burnout, and strain on the cardiovascular system. From sleep issues, weight gain, and increased blood pressure, to bouts of depression and anxiety, long-term stress can wreak havoc on our bodies
Financial stress can also cause turmoil in relationships. Whether spatting about your spouse’s overspending habits, disagreeing over the household budget, or discovering one partner is not being fully honest about finances, money trouble can lead to lack of trust, resentment, and a great deal of friction. There’s no question that financial stress is a leading cause of divorce, but it can also affect extended family dynamics and friendships as well.
How to Reduce Financial Stress
Although occasional financial challenges may occur from time to time, we don’t have to let money concerns ruin our health or relationships. Instead, we can work to develop a healthier relationship with money and reduce financial anxiety. Here’s how:
1. Start Talking About Finances
In our society, we’ve been conditioned not to talk about money because it’s not considered polite or appropriate. For most people, discussing how much you make, how much you have, or the ups and downs of your household finances would be breaking a deeply ingrained social taboo. Money isn’t a topic we discuss among friends and most of us didn’t hear much about it from our parents growing up, either. So, it’s not surprising that we often struggle to have open and honest conversations about this off-limits subject.
Talking about your household finances might be uncomfortable at first but it can be a powerful way to uncover hidden problems and address pressing concerns. Sweeping money issues under the rug will never help and avoiding difficult conversations will not make the problems go away. You can only make progress by getting honest about your financial situation and getting help if you need it.
Seek advice from a trusted source and work with a financial advisor to discuss how proper planning can help you reduce financial stress.
2. Get Real About Your Personal Finances
The good news is, if you’re feeling weighed down by financial pressure, you have more control over your personal finances than you might believe. When you’re under stress, it might be difficult to recognize that emotions are interfering with your ability to think clearly about your financial situation. For this reason, it’s important to get crystal clear about the actual state of your finances beyond how you personally feel about them.
Start by knowing where your money comes from and where it goes. Create a simple list or spreadsheet that details your income and expenses. Look at all the money coming in versus all the money going out. Then look for ways to reduce your monthly bills and cut back on spending.
Once you know how much money is coming in and how much is going out, create a budget based on getting to zero. Don’t spend to $0, but save to $0. This means if you have $200 left at the end of the month’s budget, that amount should be assigned to savings, not left over for frivolous spending. Creating this kind of structure in your budget can ease the stress caused by not knowing where your money is going or how much you have at any given time.
3. Stuff Happens (and it WILL happen to you)
If you spend a lot of time and energy worrying that something might happen to throw a monkey wrench in your finances, you can ease your mind now -- not because nothing will happen, but because something will. The so-called “unexpected” expenses and financial challenges are actually to be expected; in fact, they’re an inevitable fact of life. You’ll get a flat tire. Your fridge will go on the fritz. Your cat will need a trip to the emergency vet. You’ll get laid off.
A rainy day will come someday. If you have an emergency fund set aside, each time it happens, it will feel more like a minor inconvenience, or sprinkle, than getting caught in a storm without an umbrella.
To feel more financially secure, a good rule of thumb is to set aside 3-6 months of living expenses. Be sure to replenish the account as soon as possible each time you have to dip into it. Knowing the money is there if you need it is a big step toward reducing financial stress.
4. Set Goals
If you’re feeling financial stress now, you not only need to create some immediate relief but you also want to set yourself up for a more secure future. This is why it’s important to set both short-term and long-term financial goals.
When setting financial goals, be as specific as possible, because uncertainty is what’s causing much of your financial stress. Your goals might be related to increasing your income, cutting expenses, or achieving certain balances in your accounts. Keep in mind that competing demands will come up, so this is your chance to prioritize what’s most important to you. Once you’re able to focus on what you want your money to do for you, you will begin to feel more in control of your financial future.
5. Keep it Simple
If you’ve shied away from taking control of your finances because the mere thought of it is intimidating or overwhelming, keep it simple. In its most basic form, effective financial management is a simple matter of money coming in versus money going out.
Fortunately, modern technology and banking makes it easy for us. While it’s important to keep an eye on all transactions, take a few steps out of the equation by automating as much as possible. From digital reminders to automated bill pay and automated savings transfers and deposits, you don’t need to get bogged down in the tedious tasks and emotions that can arise when handling your money.
6. Reduce Debt
We can’t talk about reducing financial stress without addressing the elephant in the room -- debt. Whether you’ve racked up what feels like mountains of credit card debt, student loan debt, medical bills, or any other form of consumer debt, you’re not alone. Most adults have found themselves in debt at some point.
Reducing your debt will reduce your financial stress, so start by making a plan. Look carefully at your interest rates and account balances to calculate which debts to tackle first. If you choose to follow the debt snowball method, you’ll pay off debts from the smallest to largest balance, regardless of interest rates. If you choose to use the debt avalanche method, you’ll pay off debts from the highest interest rate to the lowest, regardless of balance. Either way, set an amount you can afford each month and put the full amount towards your debt until it is gone.
7. Take Back Control
While it is true that your personal financial circumstances can be particularly challenging, reducing your financial stress can only happen when you take back control. Avoiding the reality of the situation will only make matters worse. Know where you stand and plan from there. Prepare for emergencies and set yourself up for success.
No matter how uncertain you feel now, you can begin reducing your financial stress with the right guidance, planning, and action. Your health and relationships do not have to suffer due to money concerns. While money can’t buy happiness, taking control of your finances can provide the relief and peace of mind you desire.
Julie Bray, CFP® is the President and a Client Wealth Manager at GW Financial, Inc (GWF) in Orange County and Palm Desert, California. GWF is an independent, fee-only wealth management and financial planning firm specializing in advising and engaging individuals, families, and organizations. They focus on coaching clients toward financial peace of mind through financial education, clear communication, and smart resolutions.
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.