Finances Are Taking a Toll on Mental and Physical Health

The unfortunate reality for many Americans is that financial stress is a part of everyday life.

In fact, Americans of all ages say that managing their finances impacts their mental health, according to a study from Merrill Edge.

To break that down further, a shocking 73% of Gen Z, 69% of millennials and 58% of Gen X say their mental health is impacted by financial concerns. Baby boomers appear to be the least troubled by such concerns, at 40%, but even that number is not insignificant.

The Merrill Edge data also finds that 56% of Americans also feel their physical health is affected by their finances. And when it comes to both mental and physical health, women are disproportionately affected by money-related stresses.

The key takeaway is that Americans need help addressing the money-related worries that are keeping them up at night. To help with that effort, we reached out to financial experts across the country to gather tips about achieving a healthy balance between managing your money and maintaining your mental health.

Decide You Want to Take Action

Steffa Mantilla was one of those Americans stressed by finances until she paid off close to $80,000 in debt. The money she owed consisted primarily of student loans and medical debt from the birth of her son.

One of the first steps to relieving mental and physical stress caused by financial angst is to decide that you want to do something about it, says Mantilla, who went on to create a saving and lifestyle website.

“Many times, people are so paralyzed by fear and worry that they don’t take any action,” Mantilla said. “They think that their situation is hopeless, so they don’t bother trying, which usually leads to more debt and stress.”

But taking action can help put an end to the despair, she said.

“Once you’ve decided to change, you’ll have a sense of hope,” Mantilla said. “This hope will allow you to take a positive look at your situation.”

The best course of action to help improve your mental health quickly, Mantilla said, is to take small but significant steps that will act as positive reinforcement.

“With each completed step, you’ll gain more confidence and momentum to continue,” she said. “Even if it’s only saving $20 per paycheck, that small step of saving can matter. Having a small buffer of an emergency fund can turn a lot of stressors into mere inconveniences.”

Balance Short-Term and Long-Term Planning

As we become more conscientious about money and mindful of spending, it’s important to view financial wellness as self-care, said Matt Gellene, consumer banking & investments field adviser  and national performance executive for Merrill Edge.

Gellene’s approach to financial self-care begins with establishing a balance between short-term and long-term planning, which he suggests will help alleviate stress.

“When it comes to financial planning, determine your short-term costs and long-term financial milestones,” Gellene said. “Short-term expenses can include entertainment, travel, utilities or even paying off debt, while long-term expenses might include saving for retirement, a college education fund or buying a new home.”

When it comes to achieving long-term milestones, such as saving for a home or retirement, consider using the “set it and forget it” mentality, adds Gellene. You can do this by establishing automatic withdrawals from your paycheck to put aside money for your long-term milestone. This is a good way to jump-start savings habits and set you on the right path to achieve each milestone.

“This way, you don’t have to worry about manually setting money aside money every month for saving,” said Gellene.

More Simple, Attainable Steps

According to the Merrill Edge study, 85% of Americans improved their financial lives in meaningful ways last year. Nearly half (45%) worked at improving their credit score; 43% paid off some or all of their credit card debt; and 35% established an emergency fund by setting enough aside to live on for three months without an income.

“There are simple, attainable steps you can take to achieve your financial goals, whatever they are,” Gellene said. “Laying out a clear, coherent plan — and sticking to it — can help you stay on the path to your goals.”

Not sure where to start?

“Prioritize paying off debt,” Gellene said. “Consider prioritizing payments with the highest interest rate first, since those are the biggest financial strain.”

Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

Continually working to hold yourself financially accountable can be mentally exhausting. So, while you’re busy pursuing all of these money-related goals, be sure to avoid the mistake of comparing yourself to others.

“Financial comparison, often referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses,” will cause more anxiety, stress and fear than we might think,” said Joshua Hastings, founder of the site Money Life Wax. “Adding the stress of comparison makes life much more challenging.”

Living in a world dominated by social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, makes it even easier and more tempting to constantly compare yourself to others.

“You’re paying off some debt or saving for a wedding, meanwhile, you see your friends who just went out or who got a brand-new car,” said Hastings. “It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. The biggest action step is to either delete your social media apps from your phone, limit social media use to one to two times daily or make sure you do a really good job of keeping everything in perspective.”

Seek Professional Guidance

They’re called professionals for a reason, and if financial matters are causing you a great deal of stress, it may be time to seek assistance.

“Sitting down with a financial adviser can help you identify specific goals and create the roadmap to help get you there,” Gellene said. “An adviser can work with you to develop the appropriate action plan based on what you want to achieve.”

Elisa Robyn, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology and specializes in helping people deal with emotional and psychological issues around money and finances, says a financial adviser may be able to help you truly get to the bottom of the broader issues and challenges you may be having with money.

“Do a deep dive, possibly with a financial adviser, and understand what your real financial situation is,” Robyn said. “How much do you have? Where are you spending money? What choices have you made, and which ones might you want to change?”

Examine areas where you feel overwhelmed. And while you’re at it, consider reflecting on the messages you received about money as a child and young adult, Robyn said.

“What were you taught, and how has that guided your decisions? Which of these decisions are helpful and which are keeping your from building financial security?” Robyn asked.

Ultimately, you will need to learn to make money-related decisions that work for you over the short term and the long term.

If a financial adviser is not within your budget, you might even consider asking a friend or family member who has a track record of financial literacy for help, said Matt Edstrom, chief marketing officer for GoodLife Home Loans.

“For some, being able to just sit down and organize their finances is easier said than done, so in those situations, it’s vital to ask for help. Not everybody can afford a financial planner, especially those who are already in poor financial standing,” Edstrom said. “While finances are typically seen as a personal issue, don’t be afraid to reach out to a close friend or family member. They might be able to correct your path before it veers too far off in another direction.”

Taking these steps should help you make progress rather than remain stagnant in your approach to dealing with money, Edstrom said.

Mia Taylor

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations such as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Taylor holds a graduate degree in Journalism and Media Studies and had a fellowship to study journalism at the San Diego affiliate of National Public Radio. Over the course of her career, she has won numerous journalism industry honors, including five awards from the North American Travel Journalists Association and the 2011 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.