Financial stress has far-reaching negative effects even in prosperous times, and much more so in times of turmoil. It is well known that financial difficulties are the number one cause of divorce in the U.S. and the negative effects of debt, which the majority of Americans carry, are much farther reaching. In 2017 (during a time of prosperity and economic growth) the American Psychological Association reported that 62% of Americans indicated money troubles as their main source of anxiety and depression. The burden of anxiety on our mental health is one of the most common effects of financial stress, and as the two are ever entwined, our physical health can take a toll as a result.
Delayed healthcare is also an effect of dealing with financial stress: folks struggling to pay their rent are less likely to see their doctor at the warning signs of a medical problem. The long-lasting effects of this disparity are indicated by a study in The Journal of Gerontology showing that wealthy men at age fifty are likely to have 31 more healthy years, where 50-year-old men in poor countries will enjoy only 22 more healthy years. With this being so, how much more important is it to address financial questions during a global pandemic?
The weight of financial burden can be crushing, and for many, the problem feels like it has no solution. So it is easy to see that improving your finances improves your overall well-being. By taking steps towards addressing financial difficulties, anxieties can be eased and mental and physical health improved. Here are a number of steps anyone can take to ease financial stress in their lives:
1. Check your daily routine to guarantee you are using best practices in every avenue of mental and physical health
This is easier said than done, but mental, physical, and financial health are symbiotic, and correcting negative habits in one area will influence the health of another. Begin by following the advice of everyone’s favorite accountant, “The Office’s” Oscar Martinez, and eliminate “things that no one ever, ever needs, like multiple magic sets and professional bass fishing equipment.” You probably are not as bad off as Michael Scott, but most of us are guilty of some level of unnecessary spending. Next, consider ending discretionary spending for items that are also bad for your body and mind: Consider avoiding eating out, and think about your choices in alcohol consumption. Take a leap and eliminate tobacco products, cut back on entertainment spending, etc. The list of small routine changes can be endless, and through intentional practice, your mental/physical/financial health can begin improving in a few short weeks.
2. “Assess the damage” and complete a 360-degree review of your finances
The author C.S. Lewis is quoted: “If there is a wasp in the room, I’d like to be able to see it.” So it goes when dealing with finances. You cannot take control of your situation until you get into the weeds and know from whence you may be stung. If this task is overwhelming, begin by writing down what your take-home pay is each month. Next, make a list of all your monthly bills. Include everything that is owed each month, as well as your own discretionary spending. Looking at the money you have coming in versus the money going out will give you the best status report of your finances, and will hopefully spark some ideas of where to make changes.
For those of us suffering from financial stress, this exercise will no doubt be difficult. I promise you that the short-term anxiety you experience from completing a comprehensive review of your spending will lead you to greater peace as you respond to the challenge of taking control of your fiscal well-being.
3. Make a Plan to Deal with Your Financial Stress
Renowned shame researcher and TED talk presenter Brene Brown shared the following anecdote from her live session “The Power of Vulnerability:”
“I remember going to Diana (my therapist) and saying: ‘I am like a turtle with no shell in a briar patch. (…) I can’t be a turtle without a shell in a briar patch. I need a shell. What kind of shell – get some meds – what do you have for me? Give me a shell. Give me like a therapist-sanctified-you-know-whatever shell. Give me a shell!
She’s like: ‘Well… I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you get out of the briar patch?!…’
Why don’t you stop living the way you are living? Why don’t you get out the briar patch? And then you’ll be super happy without your shell. You’ll be comfortable, lightweight, move around, nimble…. You are getting poked and hurt all the time, not because you don’t have a shell, but because you’re living in a briar patch.’ ”
In the world of personal finance, we often find ourselves like the turtle in a briar patch of expenses; asking, hoping, praying, and working to obtain a shell in the form of a greater income to cover those expenses. We often neglect the option to remove ourselves from the briar patch by eliminating the lifestyle that has led us to mental breakdown brought on by financial stress.
Ease Financial Stress by Changing Your Lifestyle
Making a plan to reduce spending is the hard part of dealing with financial stress, and it requires discipline and sacrifice. By re-considering our lifestyle choices, many of us are able to downgrade some of our spending habits in order to gain the freedom of financial well-being. Costly items like late-model vehicles, spacious homes, recreation options, and exotic vacations are fun to have and experience, but you will find they are not worth the cost when you are up late worried about your overdue credit card bills and find yourself resenting your closet filled with expensive and outdated clothing.
We can remove ourselves from the briar patch of debt by weighing our purchases against the financial obligation that comes with them. Some of us may find the cost of a larger home worth the consideration it takes to foot the bill. Others may find it best to settle for a modest home and the security of a growing savings account. Only you can decide how much financial stress you should tolerate, though I would caution against debt of any kind. You may feel confident that you can handle a large car payment while you are standing on a dealerships’ showroom floor, but you may not feel that way in 6 months when the newer model is released and your shiny new car is only worth half what you paid.
Focus on the Essentials
For those in particularly dire straits, financial coach and radio host Dave Ramsey recommends that your financial plan focuses on what he calls ‘the four walls’ of Food, shelter and utilities, clothing, and transportation. Often, we forget that these are really the only necessities of life, and other purchases are non-essential. If you can feed, clothe, and shelter your family then you have what is required to sustain life. Taking comfort that you are not going to die from your financial situation is a great mindset for tackling debt and making decisions that will allow you to enjoy relief from money worries.
If you feel that you have cut every luxury from your spending and still feel you are struggling, now is the time to consider ways to increase your income to help create some relief. If you are not working full-time and have the capacity to do so, begin seeking full-time employment. Job opportunities available, and though the open positions may not be the most desirable, it will be difficult to meet your needs without full-time employment. If you are fully employed and still struggle, consider working a “side hustle.” In the new “gig economy” there are many ways to earn money in the evenings or during weekends. Some examples include: Delivering food or packages, driving for rideshare companies, teaching courses online, completing odd jobs, etc.
4. Revisit your plan and communicate
As you take on the challenge of gaining and maintaining a healthy relationship with money, you need to enlist your family and loved ones to help you along the way. In particular, you need to communicate regularly with your spouse or significant other. No plan for greater financial health will be successful unless everyone on the boat is rowing together. Be thoughtful when talking money with your loved ones and remember that they are likely also concerned about money and might be dealing with financial stress too. Try to avoid accusations, and focus on how your household can achieve greater harmony.
Do not forget to communicate with your financial institutions during this time. As you walk through your expenses and guarantee that your “four walls” expenses are paid, you may find that some of your other bills cannot be paid on time. If you reach the end of the month and cannot make credit card or other payments please do not avoid them. These creditors will often make arrangements so you can make smaller payments until a time when you can cover what you owe. Avoiding these tough conversations can lead to huge surcharges and further debt, and even destroy your credit which may prohibit you from renting a home in the future, or financing a vehicle.
Track your budget and celebrate your victories. Working from a budget does not mean that you must feel guilt every time you pass through a drive-through window or sneak out to a movie after work. What it does allow you to do is work towards goals and feel a sense of relief and accomplishment as you hit benchmarks on your road to financial sustainability. How often and to what degree you scrutinize your personal cash flow sheet is up to you, but what is most important is that you are tracking it and that you focus on your goals. As Peter Drucker put it: “What gets measured gets managed.”
5. Take a continued interest in your fiscal well-being
Aside from dealing with the dollars and cents of your budget and spending, utilize any of the following good mental health practices:
Express gratitude for the resources you do have and find ways to give back. For those of us struggling to make the ends meet, it is easy to get into a selfish rhythm as we labor to pay our bills. It is important to still recognize the good in our lives as we work through our trials, and daily expressions of gratitude will improve your outlook as you strive to accomplish hard tasks. As well, donating time or funds to others will help you to know that you ARE going to make it!
Seek support people. Finding support people is helpful in any endeavor, but particularly so in the realm of financial well-being and self-reliance. Find people in your life who will encourage you to make and hit financial goals and provide you with advice along the way. Seek out information on financial wellness and consume as much of that material as possible. Some resources will be listed below that you can use to increase your knowledge and motivation to put your fiscal demons to bed.
Remain decisive: Jane McGrath of HowStuffWorks Inc writes:
“When you’re late on the rent and can’t keep the utilities on, the idea of opening a savings account may seem as far-fetched as a picnic on the moon; but the truth is that all of us, even the poorest, have financial choices. Finding those choices may feel impossible: the second you get ahead, you’re defeated by relatives needing loans, kids wanting designer sneakers, downsizing, layoffs, unexpected medical expenses, and a myriad of other obstacles.
The trick to ditching your defeatist attitude is finding a way to believe that somehow, even in the most untenable of circumstances, there is hope. Organizations like America Saves exist to help you find that hope. Simple things like making a gratitude list or visualizing yourself free of financial stress can also help you feel more hopeful.”
Believe in Your Ability to Reduce Your Financial Stress
Setting and working towards financial goals is difficult, but it is the fastest way to lower your anxiety about your finances. If you feel that your mental health is keeping you from starting on the path to financial health, please enlist the help of a mental health professional to discuss ways to progress forward. The speed with which you make strides toward a better relationship with money and debt should depend on your unique situation, and you should exercise moderation in personal finance decisions. As you take control of your financial future, remember these words from New York Times columnist David Brooks: “Almost every successful person begins with two beliefs: The future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so.”
Advice on how to save money on purchases and handling creditors: https://clark.com/
Advice on budgeting and wealth-building: DaveRamsey.com
Curtis grew up in Texas and graduated from Southern Utah University with a master’s degree in Public Administration. He has spent the majority of his career working in field operations and currently works as a talent acquisition manager. His passion for mental health comes from personally witnessing the struggles of individuals experiencing mental health challenges and their suffering from the social stigma with which such illnesses are often met.