It’s little wonder that most of us suffer from financial anxiety at some point in our lives. Recent surveys have found that 80 percent of Americans were carrying mortgage or other types of debt, 60 percent couldn’t cover an unexpected $1,000 expense, and 24 percent skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they couldn’t afford it.
The stress of those factors can damage our health and well-being. A January 2016 study noted that households experiencing higher levels of unemployment were more likely than their employed counterparts to purchase over-the-counter painkillers. Study participants also reported spikes in physical pain when recalling a financially unstable time in their lives. Other research has associated debt with depression, high blood pressure, and poor general health.
When that stress becomes guilt-inducing, shameful, and otherwise paralyzing, it can lead to financial anxiety. Researchers at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge define it as “an uneasy and unhealthy attitude toward engaging with and administering their personal finances in an effective way.”
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford University health psychologist, argues that financial anxiety is more corrosive than other types of stressors because it can’t be compartmentalized, like a problem at work or a disagreement with a friend. It touches all aspects of one’s life: “your family, your home, your job, and your ability to serve your community.” (For more on the mental and physical effects of debt, see “Out From Under: Escaping the Burdens of Debt Stress”.)
Financial anxiety can strike even during our more prosperous days. Positive changes in finances — a salary hike or a great month in sales — can set the wheels in motion, says financial therapist Bari Tessler, author of The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness. “People can be very nervous when a big chunk of money is coming in.”
If we tend to spend money as soon as we get it, we may not trust ourselves with a windfall. Or, because of insecurity or lack of self-worth, we could feel as though we don’t deserve a big payday — even if we worked hard to earn it. Or perhaps we’re pleased with the influx of cash but still think we’d feel safer if it were more.
“Whenever there’s big energy, it brings up emotions,” Tessler explains.
Plenty of people struggle with serious money problems that typically can’t be solved in the short term — major debt or bankruptcy, for example. But even if escaping debt isn’t possible in the immediate future, there are actionable steps you can take to ease financial anxiety. These three strategies can help you feel more empowered in your financial life.
1. Examine your financial story.
Start by looking at your complete money picture, says financial educator Kate Northrup, author of Money: A Love Story. “Often, the free-floating money anxiety people have is disconnected from numbers,” she notes. “When we actually look at our reality, we come back to a place of power — and then we can see what changes need to be made.”
You might also consider your historical experience with finances, which could be driving your emotional reactions to your present situation. We all have our own stories about money. Some are handed down from our parents (“There will never be enough,” for example, which can lead to fear; or “Money will always come from somewhere,” which can lead to poor emergency planning). Some are learned through childhood experiences; others are acquired as an adult.
Northrup recalls a particularly traumatic moment that occurred years ago while she was discussing engagement plans with her boyfriend. When he brought up how much they might spend on an engagement ring, she says, “I totally lost my mind. When I went into it a bit, I realized that it was connected to an experience I’d had with my dad when I was a teenager, about paying for a birthday present.”
By digging into what seemed like extreme emotions on the surface, she understood where they were coming from and how they connected to her current situation. “There’s this expression that comes from the 12-step world,” she notes: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”
2. Shift your mindset from shame to self-care.
Money is a taboo subject for many of us. Tessler says that many of her clients would rather discuss their sex lives than their finances. That secret-keeping can make our financial lives seem shameful.
“We tie up a lot of our self-worth and personal value in what’s going on with our finances,” says financial coach Lynne Somerman. “People say all the time, ‘Everyone else seems to manage this without going into a lot of debt.’”
That money shame can create a vicious cycle. In an effort to feel better, you spend money you don’t have — which itself can lead to guilt, remorse, and self-doubt. Those emotions accumulate layer by layer, and eventually they can feel almost impossible to escape.
But shining light on shame can be helpful. That’s why Tessler prefers teaching financial literacy in a group setting. “If you’re in a group, shame can still come up,” she says. “But pretty quickly you see people from all different income levels and backgrounds, and you start to see that you’re not alone.”
You can also stop the shame spiral by investing your time in activities that make you feel capable and content instead of anxious and inadequate. Self-care is often considered a luxury, but caring for your needs doesn’t have to be expensive. It might mean stepping away from the budget spreadsheet and going for a run. Or it might mean getting some expert advice to quell financial anxiety.
When you’re not overloaded with stress, you’ll be able to attend more carefully to financial matters. Think of self-care as an investment. (For more on why self-care matters, see “5 Truths About Self-Care”.)
3. Quit the comparison game.
The “compare and despair” phenomenon is common when it comes to money. On social media, heavily curated posts can create the illusion that other people’s lives are happier or more fulfilling — which could be why research has tied social-media use to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Scrolling through photos of other people’s expensive outfits or extravagant vacations could lead to a feeling that you don’t have enough, and that you’ll never have that kind of life.
But “once a belief like that is unearthed and examined, most people will agree that it’s inaccurate,” Somerman explains. She adds that it’s important to look beyond social media and broach financial issues with your friends in real life, which can give you a more accurate picture of how your community deals with money. Be the one in your group who’s willing to suggest other options for gatherings, like meeting at someone’s house rather than dining out.
The relief others express is often palpable, she adds. “Admitting that you have a financial life, to whatever point you’re comfortable, is often enough to help others open up as well.”
And don’t forget that the words we say to ourselves — and to others about ourselves — have power, Somerman cautions. “So instead of saying, ‘I can’t create a budget that works,’ reframe it. Instead, say, ‘I haven’t yet found a way to do this that works for me.’
“Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen,” she explains. “One of these leaves open a possibility of doing something different.”
This originally appeared as “Financial Stress: How to Worry Less” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.