If you stress about money, you might find comfort in the fact that you’re not alone, especially if you’re a millennial. More than two-thirds of the generation report having moderate to high levels of anxiety about savings and income, while only half of the general population says the same, according to a survey by financial services firm Northwestern Mutual. Even worse, that financial stress is spilling over and negatively impacting other aspects of their lives: 28 percent of millennials say their financial anxiety affects their job performance, 23 percent get physically ill, 18 percent feel depressed and 24 percent say it causes issues in relationships with their spouse or partner.
“Stress doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it can permeate multiple aspects of our lives,” says Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia and president of the Financial Therapy Association, a professional trade group for this emerging field of finance. “Stress in our lives – related to money or otherwise – can be toxic to our physical health, emotional health and to our relationships.”
Of course, you can find plenty of reasons to stress about money at every stage of life: In or near retirement, concerns about having enough money to fund longer life expectancies loom large. Starting in your late 30s through your 40s, 50s and even 60s, your budget might be pulled in many different directions, from paying for child care to helping care for aging parents. For adults age 18 to 34 (how Northwestern Mutual defines millennials ), a lack of knowledge when you’re just starting out and first trying to wrap your arms around your finances can be a huge stressor.
And just thinking about all those financial demands, as well as daily expenses and how to cover them can weigh on people. “It’s this constant game of debits and credit, and it’s exhausting – emotionally, physically, cognitively,” says financial psychology specialist Meghaan Lurtz. “If you spend your entire day thinking about [finances] … even if you’re doing well … it’s gonna feel scarce, and it’s gonna feel stressful.”
Beyond the quantitative and logistical demands of financial planning, money can come with emotional pressure, too. “Often there are deeper reasons we react to money with fear, stress or anxiety,” Ford says. “For example, how your parents dealt with money or what your money climate was growing up influences your feelings and behaviors concerning finances.”
The first step to coping is to recognize that you have a problem and seriously contemplate how you’re feeling about it. “When we identify what specifically this anxiety may be rooted in, we can see more clearly what other steps are necessary to keep the stress under control,” Ford says.
For example, if you grew up seeing your parents struggle financially, that might have ingrained a sense of fear in you that makes you overly cautious about spending. Or perhaps you grew up accustomed to a certain standard of living, so you have difficulty giving up certain luxuries you can no longer really afford and have wound up digging yourself into a hole of credit card debt.
Whatever your personal situation, devising a solution to your financial problems starts with an inventory of your assets, debts, income and expenses. “Just really get a grip on what is happening in your financial life,” says Chantel le Bonneau Stewart, a Los Angeles-based certified financial planner with Northwestern Mutual. “That way you at least have the information you need to start making choices.”
Setting and prioritizing your financial goals is the next step to easing your financial stress. It can be challenging to juggle all the demands on your money, so knowing the root cause of your anxiety can really help you sort through what is most important to you. For example, if fear due to your parents’ financial struggles fuels your money stress, perhaps building and maintaining a sizable emergency fund should be a top priority for you. Or if you really need to treat yourself from time to time, you can find a way to fit some indulgence into your budget and try to avoid an unplanned splurge. “This can take some thought, but really reflect on what is important to you financially and why,” Ford says. “Investing in and spending on what ultimately makes you happy helps to reduce stress.”
Finally, you might consider getting some professional help. Tackling your finances is certainly a huge endeavor that requires you to become financially literate. But all the information on the subject that’s available online, on television, in newspapers and magazines – while helpful – might also be overwhelming. Working with a pro can help you sort through the noise and take control of your own financial situation.
“You don’t need to understand every component of finance, but you need to know how it impacts you and the choices that you’re going to have to make,” le Bonneau Stewart says. “A lot of times that knowledge empowers people to make choices and feel a lot better about the work that they’re doing.”