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‘I’m Always Worrying’: The Emotional Toll of Financial Stress

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The New York Times

‘I’m Always Worrying’: The Emotional Toll of Financial Stress

Experts share tips on how to feel empowered and manage stress as prices continue to rise.

By Christina Caron

For Ellie Alvarado, a teacher and mother of three in Elgin, Ill., figuring out how to pay the bills has become a source of anxiety and tension, especially when she and her husband argue over how to cut back.

“When I say, ‘OK we cannot buy anything this week or else we’ll go into overdraft’ — he says, ‘No, what are you talking about? We’re both working. That shouldn’t happen,’” Ms. Alvarado said.

Soaring food costs have meant no more impromptu trips to McDonald’s. Name-brand cereal and other little luxuries are out, too. Gas prices, which recently hovered around $5 a gallon, are also eating into their budget.

“Every time I fill up our van I’m flabbergasted,” said Ms. Alvarado, who sometimes sees as little as $100 in her family’s checking account. “I’m always worrying,” she added.

Her husband, who works in a factory, decided to take the overnight shift because it pays more per hour. But her family still fell behind on their housing payments.

“I can postpone the mortgage by two weeks,” said Ms. Alvarado, 38, who keeps track of the family’s budget. “But then it becomes two more weeks, and then all of a sudden they’re calling you.”

Inflation has now reached its highest level in 40 years, forcing many families to make do with less. According to data released this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index rose 9.1 percent from a year ago, with some of the biggest price increases in necessities like food, rent and gasoline. The added financial stress isn’t just tough on bank accounts, however, it can also bring feelings of depression, shame, anger or fear.

A study of older adults published in 2017 found that the way someone perceives and reacts to financial strain can have implications for their mental well-being. Those who were upset by their economic circumstances were more likely to have higher depression scores than those who were also under financial strain but who were not as bothered by it — even when controlling for other factors, like health and income.

Fortunately, “there is a lot we can do to manage and work through that stress and the emotions,” said the lead author of the paper, Sarah D. Asebedo, director of the School of Financial Planning at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

We spoke with financial experts about how to cope with the emotional fallout of money worries and have productive conversations about finances with family members.

When couples disagree on how to handle their finances, each partner usually tries to convince the other to change their mind, said Rick Kahler, a co-founder of the Financial Therapy Association who is collaborating on a book for couples with money problems.

Instead, Mr. Kahler suggested, think about how you’re reacting when you discuss your finances. What’s being triggered from your past? Are there stories or scripts that you live by when it comes to your finances — for example the idea that working hard will always lead to rewards?

Approach your partner with empathy and ask: “What is your hope for spending this money?” Or “What is your fear around cutting this item?” Mr. Kahler said.

Both partners may eventually realize that they want the same thing — for example, that they each want what’s best for their family.

Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in Los Angeles, noted that, when communicating around differences, any requests should be specific. So rather than saying, “We need to save more,” instead say, “Let’s find ways to save $200 extra dollars each month.” And try to use “I statements” when possible, such as: “I am uncomfortable with how much we pay for entertainment subscriptions and wonder if we can cut there.”

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