The love of money may be the root of all evil, but the need for money cannot be subjected to a harsh moral judgment.
Whether easy to obtain or difficult to access, money is often high up on the list of our most common concerns. The economic instability that has resulted from the current pandemic and the uncertain future it has thrown up have made financial stress a constant presence in the minds of most of us. In this context, it is imperative to understand the effects that excessive financial worry has on our health, as well as the ways in which we can counteract these effects.
A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicated that before the pandemic, 72% of Americans felt stressed because of money. If we refer to local statistics, only 44% of Romanians say they are financially independent and do not need to rely on help from family, friends, or the state in cases of immediate need. Additionally, financial independence does not automatically mean the absence of stress. Much higher percentages of people are certainly worried about money, even if they have a steady income. The accumulation of debt, unplanned expenses, illness, family problems, or the action of several adverse factors can derail our plans, and exhaust the financial resources we have. From this point on, our worries about tomorrow are inevitably amplified.
Side effects and unwise decisions
Financial stress often translates into sleepless nights, weight gain or weight loss, social isolation, relationship difficulties, and medical conditions such as migraines, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, or high blood pressure. When we are stressed because of money, we become anxious, and even depressed, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly. Research supports her statement: “chronic” debtors are twice as likely to be depressed compared to those who are in control of their own budgets, according to a study conducted at the University of Nottingham.
“Chronic” debtors are twice as likely to be depressed compared to those who are in control of their own budget.
Frequently, people who are invaded by negative thoughts develop unhealthy stress management techniques, leading to drug or alcohol abuse, gambling, overeating, self-harm, or, in extreme cases, suicide attempts.
In the face of financial difficulties, even rational, prudent and self-controlled people make unwise decisions. The explanation is simple: under the pressure of stress, the activity in the area of the brain responsible for planning, concentrating, and solving problems decreases, and the brain focuses on simple survival. Thus, certain decisions which may seem pragmatic, even life-saving, are later shown to have been impulsive, and risky in the long run.
Lack of predictability
Periods of economic uncertainty are accompanied by many variables that can easily slip out of our control. A lack of predictability is the biggest enemy of emotional comfort. A present that is financially compromised intensifies fears about the future, especially as the current context generates panic, mistrust, and pessimism.
Lack of predictability is the biggest enemy of emotional comfort.
For many Europeans, the struggle to ensure a decent living dates back to before the pandemic. Without taking into account cases of severe deprivation, which require special intervention, the situation of those experiencing financial stress due to temporary difficulties can be improved through a balanced approach to their problems.
Although most people focus on effects, experts suggest that the best way to manage financial stress is to recognise and treat its causes.
Sharing your worries
Often, stress occurs because of the exaggerated importance we give to money, but also because of the inner turmoil that comes from keeping our money matters to ourselves. People are frequently heard complaining about insufficient income, constantly expressing dissatisfaction with certain financial shortcomings. However, this falls short of an authentic confession. Since it is considered a form of vulnerability, or a direct consequence of personal failure, the desire to share our sincere frustrations with money is often viewed with reservation.
It has been observed that a burden shared is often a burden halved. By choosing to communicate with a family member or a close friend, we free ourselves from the prison of harmful thoughts and learn from the objective vision of another. Verbalising inner turmoil can help us better understand the source of concern, look ahead, and find solutions to a seemingly unsolvable problem.
The proportion of financially educated Europeans is around 52%, which means that a great deal of Europeans are used to haphazardly manipulating their budget, without carefully planning their resource consumption.
Financial education is important because it helps us answer a number of necessary questions: how much we spend and on what, how much we should save, when to save, if we should incur debt, or where we should invest our savings. It also teaches us to distinguish between desires and needs, to spend according to proper priorities, and to make well-informed financial decisions.
Although specialised counselling is a relevant option, we can still take some essential steps for efficient money management, even without the support of professional. To this end, it is not enough to keep an inventory of income and expenses. We need to identify consumer behaviours that lead to questionable spending, as well as personalised saving methods.
The importance of a monthly budget
This state of emergency period has taught us to live frugally, to re-evaluate our needs and their importance. So, what are the changes that can be made with this newly acquired insight? The answers, of course, are subjective, but a standard pattern can be applied. Each of us feels the influence of our consumerist society. Avoiding false needs makes all the more sense when we have a modest budget that provokes the expression “Make the best of what you have”.
Before starting complex economic recovery plans, establishing an individual or family budget adapted to our needs will help us take back control over the resources available to us. Writing down the net income and the expenses in a given month on a physical or virtual page gives us the overview we need to assess how well we use what we own and produce.
Based on this information, we can draw up a monthly plan of fixed expenses (housing costs, those related to food, transport and travel, health, subscriptions, loans and insurance) and variable costs (related to clothing, footwear, hygiene, free time, vacations, personal development, and so on). We should follow this plan as closely as possible, and keep a record of how well we are meeting or exceeding targets.
With a clearly established structure, it will be easier for us to manage finances, and to:
- keep records of entries and withdrawals (periodic and occasional)
- avoid impulsive shopping
- adjust variable expenses
- divide money into spending categories
- monitor progress
The real stress management
Financial stress is different to stress caused by periods of crisis, as it can always be found in our lives. This means that successfully coping with the worries of tomorrow is just as important as overcoming our present situation. Most of the time, our shortcomings trap us in a vicious cycle, giving rise to negative behaviours that worsen our bad state of affairs and amplify our stress. These behaviours include a denial of reality, emotional eating, a tendency to conflict with others, smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, self-victimisation or self-blame.
A good way to overcome the worries caused by money is to turn obstacles into opportunities, replacing maladjusted behaviours with healthy habits that can get us back on the right track. Although easy to debate and difficult to put into practice, transitioning from theory to action works wonders. Sport relieves us of stress and increases self-esteem, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables gives us energy, rest removes bad thoughts, practicing gratitude helps us see the glass as half full, spending time in the company of loved ones motivates us, and prayer sustains confidence in a bright future. Worries, on the other hand, only plunge us deeper and deeper into the abyss, without solving our problems.
One of the lessons we have learned during the pandemic is that there are paradoxical advantages to minimalist living. And the examples of those who live with little show that when we subject ourselves to limits and restrictions, our brains are forced to think outside of the box and find atypical solutions and alternatives needed to reach a reasonable threshold of satisfaction in life.
A lack of money can prevent us from purchasing products and services promoted on a large scale, but it cannot stop us from enjoying things of intangible value. It can deny us exotic vacations, but it cannot deny us the development of passions that open our personal horizons. It can discourage us from going to luxury restaurants, but cannot prevent us from finding cheap yet healthy alternatives, prepared by ourselves with a modest budget. It can force us to buy cheap clothes, but not to give up our unique style, it can force us to give up the gym, but not to exercise in the park. It can force us to work harder, but not to forget our loved ones.
The battle with financial difficulties requires constant effort and favourable circumstances that are not always up to us. But there is a positive side to any story. Even in austere times, hardship justifies its usefulness by how it disciplines us, and makes us rediscover our simplicity. It teaches us how to run the daily race of survival with smiles on our faces.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.