Financial anxiety is a monetary monster that haunts many Americans, stoking worry for people across income level, race and gender.
“Financial anxiety can be debilitating, and it can cause significant distress in one's daily life,” says Kristy Archuleta, associate professor of personal finance planning at Kansas State University and co-founding editor of the Journal of Financial Therapy.
According to a 2016 study by financial services company Northwestern Mutual, 85% of Americans reported feeling some level of anxiety around money; a majority said there were negative impacts on their health, social lives and careers. Although financial anxiety is common, it’s not insurmountable — and recognizing what triggers your anxiety can help you cope with it.
Signs of financial anxiety
Financial anxiety shares many of the diagnostic criteria of generalized anxiety disorder, like excessive worry, irritability and difficulty concentrating, but the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize it as an official diagnosis.
What causes it? A childhood of watching your parents overspend or worrying about bills could play a role, as could your own experiences — think about seeing your retirement savings plunge or having to shut down a business.
“Life’s “little-t” traumas, like losing your job or going through a foreclosure, can lead to financial anxiety.”
Jeff Shinal, Financial therapist and coach
Trauma doesn’t have to be something so major that it causes post-traumatic stress disorder, such as serving in combat, says financial therapist and coach Jeff Shinal.
Life’s “little-t” traumas, like losing your job or going through a foreclosure, can lead to financial anxiety, Shinal says.
Some common signs include:
Feeling depressed or anxious about finances
An obsession with being frugal
Discomfort with accumulating wealth
Relying entirely on others to handle finances
Inability to change financial behaviors despite incentives to do so
Repeatedly giving money to adult children or other relatives
Shinal says the last factor is the most common reason financial advisors contact him for help with clients.
How to cope with money anxiety
Schedule regular money check-ins
“A lot of people practice self-care,” says Bari Tessler, financial therapist and author of “The Art of Money.” “We need to relate to money the same way.”
“Set a money date with yourself or with your partner to address your finances.”
Tessler recommends scheduling time to address finances — setting a “money date” with yourself, or with your partner if your issue involves him or her. Money dates with yourself can focus on immediate actions like contacting an accountant or learning about a new bookkeeping system.
Money dates with your partner can be more personal. Start by sharing money stories and family histories. Then, move on to discussing values and how they show up in the way you save, spend or invest. The goal of these conversations is to help you understand each other’s feelings about money — an important step toward getting on the same page.
Explore how your mind and body react
Start paying attention to your emotions and how your body reacts when you discuss money or make financial decisions. How do you feel when you check account balances online? What about when you share your fee structure with a new client?
“Try to bring more awareness to what the emotions and patterns are in your body and mind,” Tessler says. If you have a physical reaction to money conversations (sweaty palms or a racing heartbeat), acknowledge it. Consider what is in the conversation that is triggering these feelings. Is it how you communicate with your partner? Are you feeling guilty or ashamed?
“If you have a physical reaction to money conversations (sweaty palms or a racing heartbeat), acknowledge it.”
“A body check-in teaches people how to step to the side and be able to observe and witness more of what’s going on so we’re not so consumed with it,” Tessler says. “It teaches us to work with our emotions instead of being our emotions.”
Addressing financial anxiety includes both exterior and interior actions, Shinal says. Exterior actions involve taking steps to create a budget or decrease debt and may involve hiring financial professionals.
Interior factors can be more elusive, and you may benefit from visiting a financial therapist or counselor to help you find the root of your financial issues. You can also dedicate a money date to examining your relationship with money.
“Achieving financial goals is not just about the numbers on a spreadsheet,” Archuleta says. “The numbers on the spreadsheet are a product of clients' behaviors and the emotions, attitudes and thoughts that drive those behaviors.”