Financial stress seems inevitable. After all, there are utility bills, credit card bills and college tuition to worry about. There are student loans and mortgages to repay. There are retirement accounts that need to be fed, and medical bills to handle.
But stress caused by financial insecurity isn't something to take lightly. In fact, financial stress may be partially responsible for shortening U.S. life spans, which decreased in 2015 for the first time in more than 20 years, says Mark Rank, professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis' Brown School.
"The argument can be made that over time, economic insecurity has really been rising for a number of reasons," Rank says. "There seems to be a connection between that and the falling of life expectancy."
He notes that some leading causes of death -- heart disease, stroke, unintentional injuries and suicide -- may have their roots in high stress levels. "We know, based on a lot of medical research, that stress is related to a lot of diseases and conditions," Rank says.
Rank isn't alone in observing a relationship between financial stress and physical deterioration. Among U.S. employees, 52 percent reported feeling stressed about their finances, according to PwC's " 2016 Employee Financial Wellness Survey." Among them, 28 percent reported that financial stress had impacted their health. "When I talk to corporate wellness people, they believe that there is a very strong connection between financial health and physical health," says Carla Dearing, CEO of SUM180, an online financial wellness service.
One reason for the connection may be that people who are financially insecure often lack the resources necessary to seek mental and physical health care when their stress levels rise, says James Ruby, an assistant director of clinical training and a core faculty member for Counseling@Northwestern, an online Master of Arts in counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University. When people are short on cash and high on stress, "we do see an increase in things like health-related illnesses, an increase in substance abuse," Ruby says.
While Rank notes that it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which financial factors are related to shortened life expectancy, there are a few potential culprits. "I think it's been coming for a long time," Rank says. "In this last election, there was a lot of concern about economic vulnerability and economic stress." He adds: "It's becoming more and more difficult for people to achieve the American dream."
If you're concerned that stress caused by money woes is making you sick -- and potentially shrinking your life span -- make these changes to ease your mind and maybe even increase your longevity.
[See: How to Live on $13,000 a Year.]
Grow an emergency fund. Losing sleep is no surprise when you don't have the cash on hand if something, like a car breakdown, medical emergency or loss in income, rears its ugly head. "There's a massive savings problem in the country, so if you don't have any emergency fund, then everything is a crisis," Dearing says.
Start small. Automating monthly debits, even small amounts, into an emergency savings account can radically increase your financial hardiness. In fact, a study from the Urban Institute recently found that savings accounts stocked with as little as $250 to $749 can drastically reduce the chances that certain financial disruptions will derail a family's finances. Every little bit helps.
"Here's a baby step: Put away one month's worth of expenses," Dearing says. Doing that will teach you how to track spending, budget and get a sense of your monthly expenses, she says. You can grow a full emergency fund -- three to six month's worth of living expenses -- from there.
Prioritize. If every aspect of your financial life is amiss, prioritize which ones need the most attention, Ruby says. Focus on making sure that you have food, shelter and clothing before stressing about the rest. "As much as the credit card company may want us to believe that what we owe them is the most important thing in the stack of bills, our mortgage is probably the most important thing, too," Ruby says.
If you don't know how to start, seek professional help. An expert can show you how to get your finances back on track -- and sleep better at night.
Find stress relief. Look for low-cost or no-cost ways to relieve your stress. Those might include deep breathing, positive self-talk or exercise, Ruby says.
While these money moves can help individuals who are struggling find some relief when it comes to their finances, Rank says that large-scale policy changes are essential to relieving financial stress for many Americans. "I think a larger part of the answer is: What are we doing on a large sale in terms of our policies?" Rank says. For example, he says, we need to examine policies that create good jobs and strong safety nets.
Until then, these steps may help you at least chip away at your financial fretting.
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