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Do you break out in a cold sweat whenever your mind drifts to your student loan debt or fluctuating 401(k)? Find yourself averting your eyes from the ever-increasing number in the "outstanding balance" box of your credit card statements?
Sounds like you have financial anxiety — and you've got a lot of company.
The American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America survey has identified money as the top stressor in the U.S. since 2007. And millennials may be even more money panicked than other generations. Almost 30% say they worry about their finances every day, and 63% go into financial freakout mode at least once a week, according to a 2016 Planning & Progress Study from Northwestern Mutual.
"Not all financial stress is bad. If you have no financial stress at all, that’s not necessarily healthy, either." says Dr. Mary Gresham, an Atlanta-based psychologist who specializes in financial anxiety. "A level that motivates you to work on your money, to manage your money, to earn more money, to save more money — that’s healthy."
While channeling a low level of anxiety into a tool for financial empowerment is a great idea, having too much means it's time to start dialing it back — like when it’s disrupting all your pleasure in life, messing with the quality of your relationships or cutting into your work performance and keeping you from scoring a raise.
So how do you live in that sweet spot where your stress level is just right? We tapped experts who study the intersection of money and anxiety and asked for their take. Here's how they suggested getting a grip.
1. Track Your Spending and Expenses
If you're feeling financially out of sorts, simply seeing your spending patterns laid out on a regular basis — say every week or bimonthly — can be a powerful way of putting things into focus and creating a sense of order. Do it via plugging the numbers into a financial software program or app or go old-school by writing it down in a notebook.
Viewing your numbers comes with a stress-busting bonus. Once you have a handle on where your take-home pay is going, it's easier to come up with a game plan for spending less or generating more income — and having a plan of action further cuts stress, says Washington, D.C.-based financial behavior expert Dr. Mary Bell Carlson. Tracking your money has another stress-busting effect: When you feel in charge of your money, you make better financial decisions, Carlson adds.
When Carlson asks her distressed clients to do this as a homework assignment, she often finds that it jump-starts a permanent behavior shift. They notice their spending patterns, identify areas of waste and start making plans to eliminate financial carelessness, she says.
There's also something to be said for organizing your finances by your own initiative. "It’s important for the client to understand that they’re in control of their financial situation, instead of being told what to do or how to do it," says Carlson. "Then it internalizes that motivating factor to 'I can make this change,' versus 'Somebody needs to do this for me.'"
2. Keep Growing Your Emergency Fund
Here’s something scary: Almost 44% of Americans only have enough money in their savings accounts to last less than three months.
If you’re in that group (or worse, you don't have an emergency fund at all), then no wonder you're financially freaked out. All it takes is an out-of-the-blue home repair, trip to the ER or pink slip to put you in the red. A well-stocked rainy day fund isn't a guarantee that you'll be able to weather these storms. But it does give a boost in confidence and peace of mind, and that dials back anxiety, says Carlson.
If your emergency fund is nonexistent, begin socking away anything you can — even if it's only $100 a month — until you can get it up to at least one month of take-home pay. From there, you should continue building up your savings until you have about six months worth of living expenses stashed away.
3. Talk It Out
Venting about money issues to friends and family doesn't come easy for most people, who worry about coming off as irresponsible or giving away TMI on the personal details. But experts make a strong argument for why you should open up — in the right venue, that is.
"Social support is one of the biggest stress-management tools that we have,” Gresham says. She suggests hooking up with like-minded people via digital support groups or online sites where people unload their fears and share tips about getting a handle on their finances, she adds. That sense of community, even if it's anonymous, can be enormously comforting and reminds you that you're not the only one staying up at night panicking about bills.
Another idea is to seek out an objective third party, like a financial therapist or counselor who specializes in money issues. "Getting expert help is vitally important to changing behavior," she says. "Going to a financial therapist is like going to the doctor when you break your leg. They are there to help you through the situation and rehab you back to health."
4. Stop the Facebook Compare-athon
Photos of your college roommate on a tropical vacation, a group selfie of colleagues cutting their filet mignons at a fancy restaurant, images of the dream house your sister just purchased: Scrolling through social media has the weird power to convince you that everyone in your world is happily living the good life — except you.
While it's almost impossible not to compare their carefree photos to your stressed-out reality, try to resist. "One of the dangers of comparing ourselves with others on social media is that most of us choose to show aspects of our life that are celebratory or even aspirational, while editing those parts that are more complicated or unflattering," says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in New York City. "When we're looking at social media as a lens on our own life, we're in danger of, as the saying goes, 'comparing someone's highlight reel to our own behind-the-scenes.'"
This compare-athon has even been linked to depression and anxiety. "Research shows that people are wired to constantly make social status comparisons," adds Gresham. "Often, people make these comparisons without even realizing that they are doing so. Social media really feeds this comparison process, and when clients get off social media — even for a week — they are often surprised how much happier they become."
You don't have to deactivate your Facebook or Instagram account entirely; just take what pops up with a grain of salt. The friend who's constantly taking snaps of her fancy meals, designer clothes and other swag? She may actually be in a debt hole that nobody knows about.
5. Remind Yourself What Money Is All About
A big part of managing money stress is taking control of your finances — but this certainly doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself of life's pleasures to do so. Treating yourself to small splurges reminds you that money shouldn’t be a source of anxiety but of fun and opportunity, says Clayman.
By getting a handle on financial issues, money becomes less associated with struggle and stress and is more neutral, she adds. "If you reward yourself [for being responsible], you're more likely to maintain those good habits."
Keeping this in mind is crucial for your well-being and so you don't feel like you're sacrificing too much ... and then go on a credit card bender. Just be sure not to treat yourself with something that contradicts your big-picture goals. Let's say credit card debt has you getting unhinged. Rewarding yourself with a $100 charge at your favorite boutique doesn't exactly make sense.
Go with a more wallet-friendly way to enjoy life and nix the idea that money equals pain and worry. Get a ticket to see your favorite band, make reservations at an exotic new restaurant or pick up a copy of the new book by a favorite author you're dying to read.