If you’ve ever felt anxious about how you’re going to pay off that mound of student loans, or even how you’ll cover this month’s bills, you can take some comfort in knowing that 72 percent of your fellow Americans report feeling stressed about money at least some of the time, too.
That anxiety doesn’t just have an impact on happiness, it can also affect your health, of course. Chronic stress can lead to fatigue and heart disease, on top of problems caused by overeating, smoking and other bad habits you might indulge in to deal with it, as the American Psychological Association helpfully points out.
But there's some good news. If you face your money stressors head on—like these five common ones—they lose their power over you. And both your financial and physical health can benefit.
The numbers paint a bleak picture: Forty-one percent of millennials, and half of Gen Xers, report having a hard time paying household bills on time. And nearly 20 percent of Americans don’t have anything saved for emergencies. In other words, many of us are just one paycheck or unexpected bill away from disaster.
Fight that stress—and break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle—by creating a realistic spending plan that includes fixed and variable expenses, as well as financial goals (like saving and paying off debt). “Writing down your budget is emotionally grounding,” says Certified Financial Planner Ron Weiner, partner at RDM Financial Group. “Without that, there’s always a reason to be worried.”
Next, look for places to save, no matter how small. Even painless moves like canceling unused subscriptions, shopping with a list and adjusting the thermostat add up. “There’s no one silver bullet,” Certified Financial Planner John Gajkowski of Money Managers Financial Group says. “Attack the problem incrementally: five dollars saved here, five dollars there.”
You can use that freed-up cash to build a safety net. Adding just $100 a month to an emergency fund will get you to $1,200—likely enough to cover a deductible or small repair—in a year.
Unexpected expenses may be unexpected, but they're not uncommon. Most of us will get hit with a big bill at some point in the year—whether it's a car or home repair or a health issue. That's one reason why it's so important to build up that emergency savings fund, even if you're only able to put in a few dollars at a time.
Having good insurance coverage can also help mitigate the costs of an unexpected event. Homeowners and renters insurance can cover damage to your home (just make sure to read the fine print to see what is and isn't covered). Car insurance can offset costs incurred in an accident or a break-in. You can compare rates on sites like Nerdwallet and Zebra. It's also worth looking at disability and life insurance (as much as we don't want to think about either), especially if you have kids.
A recent Northwestern Mutual study found that 36 percent of adults with debt expect to be paying it off for the next six to 20 years—and 14 percent don’t ever think they’ll be debt-free. There’s no doubt that debt can be overwhelming, but worrying doesn’t make it go away.
What does? “Sitting down to [determine] exactly what you owe and how much you’re paying for that debt,” says Gajkowski. With a list of debts owed and interest rates, it’s a lot easier to figure out the best repayment strategy: Generally, focusing on high-interest debts saves the most money over time, though clearing away small balances may be more motivating. If you've got student loans, refinancing your debt to a lower interest rate can not only help lower your monthly bills but cut down the total amount you'll pay, too.
A recent CareerBuilder survey found that 20 percent of workers in their 60s doubt they’ll ever retire. And thanks to the uncertain futures of health care and Social Security in America, many younger workers share those concerns. “It’s a universal problem to be reactive rather than proactive,” Gajkowski says. “But you have to take charge, sit down and make a plan.”
Investing doesn’t have to be complicated, either. If your employer offers a 401(k) or other retirement plan, take advantage of it—especially if there’s a match. If you don’t have access to an account through work, or want additional options, you can set up automatic transfers to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or regular investment account.
And it’s okay to ease into the process, contributing a small percentage of your income at first. Just commit to gradually upping that percentage once or twice a year until you hit your stride at 10 to 15 percent.
You know that feeling when the market’s down, and all you want to do is panic-sell everything? There’s a scientific explanation for that. A University of Florida study found that cortisol, the stress hormone, makes us especially averse to taking risks. That may be why investors are tempted to sell when prices drop, locking in their losses, rather than holding on till the market rebounds.
The solution? Make smart investment choices now—not during a downturn—that lessen your risk. For example, selecting well-diversified index funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) is a relatively low-cost way to get exposure to hundreds of stocks and bonds at once. If certain investments are down, your portfolio is balanced out, and therefore protected, by others that aren’t.
And don’t forget: You’re in the market to build wealth over time—not to get rich quick. That usually doesn’t work, anyway.
This article was updated by Grow editors in April 2018.