Money is an emotional topic. We need it to survive, and we crave the power and freedom it provides. We're also really worried about it, according to a 2015 survey by the American Psychological Association. In fact, 64% of respondents said they felt "somewhat significant" or "very significant" amounts of finance-related stress -- especially parents (77%), Gen Xers (76%), and millennials (75%).
Money-related stress can have terrible effects on your well-being and your relationships, but there are ways to overcome it. Try taking these four steps to manage your finances and sleep easier at night.
1. Face your fears
The first step in squashing financial stress is to identify what's bothering you in the first place. Adopting the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality is tempting when money is causing you distress, but retreating from your worries can actually make things more painful. Studies have shown that anxiety is fueled by uncertainty, and remaining in the dark about your financial situation won't do much to help.
Whether you're living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay your bills, or simply feeling anxious about money, it's a good idea to name your fears. Make a list of the things you're worried about, and then take a deep breath. Things are about to get easier.
2. Organize your finances
It might not surprise you to learn that only one in three Americans follows a detailed household budget. In order to control your spending, you first need to start tracking it. You don't need to be a math whiz to create a solid budget, either. In fact, in a 2015 Nielsen survey, 69% of people credited online budgeting apps as the reason they changed their financial habits.
Whether you sign up for a budgeting app or create an old-school spreadsheet, managing your finances starts with categorizing your spending and saving. For instance, you might consider opening two bank accounts: one for necessities like your mortgage, utilities, and food, and another for discretionary spending like dining out, entertainment, and other fun expenses. If self-control is a problem, ask your company's payroll department to split your direct deposit between the accounts; you can assign dollar values to each category. Then you'll know exactly how your money can be spent, removing the temptation to overspend on fun things and the anxiety of not knowing where your money is going.
3. Reduce your burdens
Living from paycheck to paycheck is a sad reality for 78% of American households, according to CareerBuilder. The bad (and good) news is, you're probably losing a chunk of your income to mindless spending, which can drain your bank account and your emotional well-being. If positive cash flow sounds like a sigh of relief, it's time to stop wasting money on these popular expenses:
- Food: Food is a necessary expense, but it's also a major source of financial loss, according to a survey by Hloom. Of the 2,000 respondents, nearly 70% admit they spend too much on dining out. A separate survey by the American Chemistry Council found that the average American household spent $4,015 on food in 2015 and threw away 16% of it. Imagine what an extra $640 a year could do for your mental health: Instead of sacrificing it to uneaten food, investing it at a 7% return would add nearly $47,000 to your savings in 25 years.
- Credit card interest: Credit card users lose an average of $1,300 a year to interest, according to a NerdWallet study. Living with consumer debt can be stressful on its own, and compounding interest only adds to the pressure. If you want to take control, the first step is to call your credit card provider and ask them to lower your interest rate. The national average is just over 16% APR, and it's worth asking your lender to match that. Next, get serious about your repayment strategy by creating a time-specific plan for each account. For instance, if your current credit card balance is $5,000 at 16% APR, you'll need to pay $454 a month to be debt-free in a year. It may sound like a lot, but you can either pay $800 in interest on the balance for one year, or $4,000 over the course of five years. Make the hard choices now to lessen your stress in the future.
4. Get help
You don't have to cope with financial stress alone. There are plenty of ways to secure affordable, professional help, including:
- A financial planner: It's a good idea to talk to a financial planner about your long-term goals. The average American couple retiring today needs nearly $740,000 in their golden years, and that number is only rising with inflation. You'll likely need a little help reaching your goal, and the sooner you start, the more you'll benefit from compound interest.
- A tax accountant: Regardless of income, filing for taxes is a significant source of stress for 56% of Americans, according to a 2011 Zogby Interactive Survey survey, so you might feel inclined to avoid them until the last minute. While ignoring a stressful situation is comforting in the short term, you can eliminate that stress altogether -- and save some money -- by hiring an accountant. A skilled professional can point out deductions and credits for regular expenses like child care, education, business transportation, and other little-known perks you might have overlooked in the past.
- Personal support: There's no substitute for direct advice from a successful friend. Consider the people in your life who manage money well, and ask them to walk you through their budgeting and saving strategies. You might even consult a therapist if your finance-related stress is overwhelming you.
The topic of money may never feel entirely comfortable to you, but there are ways to lessen your stress and take control. Stay focused on the positive aspects of personal finance and find support when you need it.