We all stress out about money from time to time. And for most young people, edginess about personal finance is par for the course: as things stand, we’ll have more fragmented (but longer) working lives, shakier pay, higher housing costs and more insidious demands on our spending than any previous generation.
But how do you know if your financial worries have become something much more serious?
It seems that we are Generation Anxious. Official mental health statistics show that mental disorder, distress, and depression among millennials are at an all-time high, more than trebling in recent years. Causes are varied and hotly disputed – and of course, there doesn’t have to be a clear-cut reason for any mental health issue. Everybody can experience mental health problems at any time and a straightforward clinical diagnosis is not always possible.
But financial anxiety is a specific mental health problem that’s slowly gaining recognition, though it’s still under-discussed and misunderstood. The psychological definition of financial anxiety is “an uneasy and unhealthy attitude toward engaging with, and administering […] personal finances in an effective way”.
Financial anxiety can be crippling because money is an inescapable fact of life. And worrying about money can exacerbate generalised anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, which in turn makes it harder for us to cope with bills, debt or potential spending triggers. Extreme financial behaviour can also be a symptom itself of an underlying heath condition, like bipolar disorder.
I am not a clinical psychologist so I would never want to offer a pat definition of financial anxiety. While I have spent a lot of my career trying to unravel the psychology of money, my blogs are definitely no substitute for expert clinical advice and I would advise against too much self-diagnosis – if you are in any doubt at all, you should ask your GP for a mental health referral (though prepare for a scandalously long wait.)
In the meantime, other lifelines that might help you understand and treat financial anxiety include:
🧠 the excellent mental health charity MIND, which has quickfire advice to help you cope with mental health emergencies as well as plenty of advice, stories and useful contacts on money and mental health.
🧠 The Money and Mental Health Institute, which was set up by Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis. It publishes thoughtful articles from experts and case studies, runs campaigns and lists helpful contacts to help you feel a bit less alone in your financial anxiety.
🧠 Mental Health and Money Advice – another key source of information and insight in this area, but it also provides an interactive tool suggesting common financial scenarios that might affect your mental health (such as being a carer) with specific pointers on how to cope.
If you feel uncomfortable seeking help, that’s nothing to feel bad about. Money is still somewhat taboo in our culture – though I’ll argue in weeks to come that it’s becoming much less so – and having an aversion to discussing money could – itself – be a symptom of financial anxiety. There are other signs that what you’re experiencing goes beyond everyday money stress. I spoke to Bustle recently about the hallmarks of financial anxiety – here’s a summary below.
1. You Feel “The Pressure”
“The pressure” — that constant, niggling feeling that you should be earning more, spending more and hitting certain material milestones that will prove your success — is widespread, but can be toxic. If you try to conquer it by earning and spending more, the pressure just gets worse and worse. You take out credit to keep expanding those horizons, you become more obsessive in your desire to acquire… before long, your finances become so complex and fragile, they resemble a giant Jenga tower that could be toppled at any moment. Constant preoccupation with your financial goals and how you’re not reaching them can be a signal of financial anxiety.
2. You’re Averse To Spending Money
You feel guilty about spending money – even on reasonable everyday items. Saving money is crucial but excessive hoarding or scrimping can get in the way of enjoying life. Perhaps you grew up with little money and fear returning to that situation, or a previous financial shock has scarred you.
3. You Find It Really Difficult To Know What To Prioritize
Errand paralysis was marked out earlier this year for being a peculiarly modern phenomenon – and it’s a manifestation of very deep-seated anxiety about how we should spend our lives. As our opportunities expand, so does our inner conflict. How can we earn the biggest salaries, do huge social good, love what we do, have a rich personal life, use our wealth to signify our value to the world (as is expected of us) while also saving enough for the future? Avoiding decisions is easier in the short-term than making them, but they will ultimately harm our finances in the long-term because key outcomes – like a decent retirement income or a savings buffer – can only be achieved if we take action.
4. You Live in The Moment and Avoid Thinking About Money At All
Just thinking about money can spark financial anxiety. You might believe you’re bad with money, or that money management is hard, or that it’s impossible to be well off today. And these beliefs will play out in how you manage money. You may shun financial decisions, ignore looking at your bank statements and spend like there’s no tomorrow. This can become a real issue, since it has the potential to snowball.
5. You Feel Guilty When You Have Money
Financial rejection is the experience of guilt whenever you acquire money. It could be down to low self-esteem and a feeling that you’re not worth it, but it’s highly troublesome when you’re trying to negotiate your way through a tough jobs market and ‘back yourself’ for promotions or better opportunities.
6. You Over-Work And Under-Spend
If you’re self-employed, periods of rest can feel indulgent and time that should be spent earning more money. Refusing to take breaks can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle and an obsessive state of mind, and there is a particular danger when you’re one half of a couple with a huge imbalance in how you both spend money.
7. You Don’t Tell Your Partner About Your Money Stress
If you are in a relationship and prone to telling fibs about your financial behaviour, you may be falling into financial infidelity – this is where couples don’t feel they can be honest with one another about big-ticket items, individual accounts, debt or regular spending habits. If you have both agreed to keep your finances separate, it may not be necessary (or helpful) to be completely open about your finances. But if you have any kind of shared budget, accounts or liability, covering up some of your financial behaviour can harm your relationship AND financial goals.
THREE INITIAL STEPS TO START DEALING WITH YOUR FINANCIAL ANXIETY:
👐 Identify the potential root of your issues – either write down how you feel they may have come about or talk to a trusted friend who will listen and not judge.
👐 Consider speaking to a registered counsellor, therapist or coach who is particularly adept at dealing with money issues – you can search the UK counselling directory and use ‘money’ or ‘debt’ to narrow down the search for specialists. They can help you unlearn those patterns of behaviour, but homework will also be needed…
👐 The most important piece of action you can take is to try and catch yourself in the act. Whenever you encounter a thought or feeling that you know is associated with your anxiety, practice separating that emotion from the situation. Techniques can include writing down the problem and either scheduling a good time to research potential solutions (or to seek help with them) or simply articulating the feelings (either in writing or with a good friend/family member) and identifying the triggers if no obvious ‘solution’ is needed. Mindfulness, moderate exercise, time with positive, supportive friends and a well-rounded lifestyle will all help you develop a calmer and more balanced relationship with money over time.