Financial stress and ways to cope with it

Your finances can leave you feeling mentally stressed. Experts suggest five ways to deal with it

Financial stress is so common that certified financial planner Katie Lindquist says almost every client she has tells her they are feeling it. “They don’t know what they should be doing with their money, and they feel like they should know. They feel shame around their money habits, which is a huge driving force of stress,” Lindquist says.

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To alleviate that tension, Lindquist helps them get organized and take inventory of their financial accounts and goals. “People who have financial plans are a lot less stressed because they know where they are and where they want to go,” says Lindquist, who is based in Madison, Wisconsin. To combat overwhelming feelings of money stress, financial experts suggest taking these steps:

Normalise the feeling: Knowing how common financial stress is can help people realize there isn’t something wrong with them when they feel it, says Bari Tessler, author of The Art of Money and a financial therapist in Boulder, Colorado, USA. “Increased financial anxiety has everything to do with interest rates, inflation, job challenges, life curveballs and world events,” Tessler says. Those stressors impact almost everybody. It can lead people to freeze and ignore their finances or to check them too obsessively, she says, neither of which is helpful. 

Check in with your body: Sometimes, your body can alert you to financial stress first. Sonya Lutter, director of financial health and wellness in the School of Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, says when people experience financial stress, their fingers often get cold because they are experiencing a fight-or-flight response that affects blood flow.

“You can easily train yourself to notice when you are physiologically stressed,” Lutter says. Then, you can avoid making big financial decisions until you are in a calmer state. Otherwise, she says, fight-or-flight “leaves us to make very myopic decisions. You just want to get through right now, and definitely don’t care about 10 years from now, which is horrible for financial decision-making.”

If you’re making money choices with a partner, Lutter adds, you can gauge if you’re both in the right mindset by first holding hands to check in on temperatures and stress levels. You might decide to tackle the topic later when you’re both more relaxed.  

Learn your triggers: Sometimes, negative experiences around money from childhood can lead to a high-stress response whenever the topic comes up as an adult, says Jannese Torres, author of the forthcoming book, Financially Lit!  and host of the podcast, Yo Quiero Dinero

The idea of negotiating for a salary or bartering at the car dealership could send you into an emotional tailspin, Torres explains. She says exploring those early life experiences can help people learn to navigate financial conversations rather than avoid them.

“The more you know what triggers you, the easier it is to look objectively at your finances and realize you can handle it,” she adds.

Look for ways to reset: Tessler suggests slowing your mind down before a big decision, which could be done through activities like hiking, meditation, taking a shower or listening to music. Sometimes, getting a snack, going outside or lowering your shoulders can go a long way toward resetting, she says. “I would literally take a deep breath. Nobody even has to know. Walk away and analyze the situation,” Lutter says. “It’s OK to pause and come back” to the decision later, she adds. 

Take the first step to regain control: Because stress can cause us to freeze in the face of financial decisions, Stacy Dervin, founder of Tailored Financial Planning in Eugene, Oregon, suggests tackling one thing at a time. “Trying to solve everything at once can be really overwhelming. Just focus on the next right thing to help build your confidence,” she says. 

Lindquist says creating a spreadsheet to list all of your accounts, logging in to a workplace retirement savings plan, tracking spending or making a net worth statement to look at assets and liabilities are all great ways to regain a feeling of control over your finances. Sara Zuckerman, a CFP in Scottsdale, Arizona, and founder of Reset Financial Planning, says focusing on organizing your finances can bring you back to your own goals instead of comparing yourself to others, which can exacerbate stress.

“To really understand what you have and where it’s going is the biggest step toward putting that initial feeling of control in place,” Zuckerman says.

This article was written by Kimberly Palmer, the author of Smart Mom, Rich Mom, for personal finance website NerdWallet.

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