Feeling the Financial Squeeze

It’s no surprise that most of us stress over money. so what can we do about it?

Tom Giffey

News flash: Money causes stress!

As far as headlines go, that’s about as surprising as “Sky appears blue” and “Wisconsin produces cheese.” However, because confronting a problem is the first step to overcoming it, it’s important to examine just how and why finances cause such stress for us. If we do that, we can take steps to reduce our money-related anxiety and begin to move down the road to financial freedom.

Let’s consider some stark numbers, gleaned from a survey published earlier this year. Almost nine in 10 Americans surveyed (86 percent, to be precise) “feel stress when it comes to their finances,” according to a poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. These numbers are slightly higher for women (89 percent) and people 18-44 years old (91 percent). Senior citizens are surprisingly relaxed when it comes to money – but only by comparison to younger generations: 78 percent of folks aged 65 and up say they feel financially stressed.

Almost nine in 10 Americans surveyed (86 percent, to be precise) “feel stress when it comes to their finances.”

So we’ve established that Americans are anxious about money – but what, exactly, does that mean? According to the survey, the No. 1 reason for stress was the big “D.” No, not divorce, but debt: 23 percent of respondents put it at the top of their list of worries. Next came everyday expenses (21 percent), then health costs (14 percent) and retirement (13 percent).

For 25 percent of us, this financial stress is continuous. Meanwhile, about half (53 percent) feel the pinch at specific times, including the end of the month (24 percent), the holidays (15 percent), and at tax time (11 percent).

If there’s a silver lining in this cloud, it’s this: Only 13 percent of survey respondents “believe their stress definitely hinders their ability to make decisions about their money,” the CFP Board reported. Another 28 percent says the stress sometimes interferes with their decision-making. In other words, while the overwhelming majority of us may sometimes lose sleep about our financial situations, we still believe we have what it takes to make the right choices.

And that brings us to the choices we make when our wallets grow thin. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans limit spending when they’re financially stressed – which, all things considered, seems a reasonable response. Younger people (i.e., those aged 18-44), however, are more likely to do things to distract themselves from the stress: 21 percent do things such as watching the tube or going shopping (the latter of which may be the thing that got them to the point of anxiety in the first place).

So what’s the solution to all this financial fretfulness? Considering that the survey was conducted by the board that certifies financial planners, it’s unsurprising that the proposed stress-relievers are tools of that particular trade. Twenty-seven percent of those who answered said having a financial plan would put their minds at ease; this figure jumped to 35 percent among 18- to 44-year-olds. Another 22 percent said “having more knowledge in certain finance areas, such as investments, insurance, taxes or retirement planning” would lessen their stress; 14 percent cited knowing more about their own finances; while 12 percent said they’d feel better if they had “more time to focus on my finances.”

The overall takeaway, it seems, is that putting in a little more time and effort toward tracking our finances can reap big rewards: Not only will we have more money in our pockets, but we’ll likely feel less anxiety. A Web search of financial resources, a trip to the library, or a chat with a trusted financial adviser can be a good start. As Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate for the CFP Board put it, “A written financial plan ensures a stress-free tomorrow by managing your short- and long-term financial anxieties, and keeping your focus on what is needed to achieve your goals and dreams” – dreams that will be more attainable if you have fewer sleepless nights.