If you're feeling stressed, you're not alone. According to a 2014 survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, over a quarter of Americans reported significant recent stress.
But the biggest source of stress for American employees may surprise you.
According to PWC's 2016 Employee Financial Wellness Survey, 45% of American workers report that financial and money matters are their No. 1 source of stress. That beat out their jobs (20%), relationships (15%), and health concerns (15%).
It's a holistic problem...
If you were surprised by that finding, consider that financial stress can impact a number of other issues -- including jobs, relationships, and health. With its major (and perhaps controlling) influence on many of the other components of people's lives, it's no wonder that finance is a top concern for these workers.
Twenty-eight percent of employees in the PWC survey noted that financial stress impacted their health. That number is supported by an ever-broadening set of research. For example, people reporting high debt stress in an AP poll were more than three times as likely to have digestive tract/ulcer problems as those reporting low debt stress. And while 4% of those reporting low debt stress had anxiety issues, a whopping 29% of the high debt stress group had those issues. It's clear that financial issues can be an underlying contributor to many health issues.
Twenty-eight percent of people surveyed by PWC reported that they were distracted at work by financial stress. That has obvious implications for job performance and work relationships. Financial stress can be a contributor to less-than-stellar work performance. And these issues absolutely come home, as well -- parental stress (including financial stress) trickles down to children and can impact their happiness and development.
All this is to say that financial stress can easily leach into all parts of your life. It's no wonder workers picked it as their top source of stress, particularly given the crappy spot many Americans are in financially. Whether it's debt, savings, or retirement preparedness, we've got a long way to go to get financially healthy.
...with difficult, but implementable, solutions.
If you're stressed about your finances, I cannot promise a one-size-fits-all silver bullet. But there are a few things that can help you improve your financial health -- and hopefully reduce your stress, too. If, like most Americans, you don't have $1,000 in savings for emergencies, let's start by making that happen. Going to the dentist is nerve-wracking enough without adding stress about the bill too.
The key thing is to figure out where you're spending your money and what things are optional or can be adjusted. Small changes can yield big results -- for example, bringing your lunch to work instead of buying. Lunch in Alexandria runs around $8 on the low end; I can usually bring in a basic salad with chicken to work for $2 a day instead. That's $30 a week (or $120 a month) saved on its own. (It's healthier too.) Negotiating your cable package or internet bill down, or getting rid of that gym membership you aren't using anyway, can potentially add more money back into your checking account.
With those projected savings, set up an automatic deferral to a savings account from your paycheck -- and feel free to start small, with perhaps $50 every paycheck. Because you aren't seeing that money, it'll quietly pile up in the corner, gradually helping you build up your emergency savings. Aim for three to six months of expenses in savings -- that'll help protect you from even big financial shocks, like the sudden loss of a job.
Next, tackle high-interest debt. Credit cards should be top of the list, especially given that they're high-interest and ubiquitous -- in fact, 51% of employees in the PWC survey reported that they regularly carry a balance on their credit cards. That's expensive debt that can quickly cost you thousands of dollars annually in interest and fees. Once you have your emergency savings account put together, take the money you were contributing to that and roll it into wiping out this debt.
Once you have both of those under control, it's time to start socking away money for retirement. First step should be investigating your workplace 401(k) if you have access to one. Work your budget so you can contribute at least enough to maximize your employer match (it's free money your job pays you because they want you saving for retirement, too). If you're already there -- or if your employer doesn't offer a 401(k) -- consider investing in an IRA instead.
Find your happy place
Like I said, I can't promise that any one of these things will reduce your stress or make you happier. But my sincere hope is that knowing both that you have a plan and that you're on track to execute it will make a crucial difference in your stress levels and outlook. Americans are right to be stressed about their finances -- but a few tweaks will hopefully have you on a better path, both financially and mentally.