Almost everyone stresses about money. Very few of us dare talk about it.
It’s time we broke the taboo. In Australia, we have some of the world’s most expensive housing and the highest levels of personal debt. The moment interest rates go up, so do stress levels across the country.
Rising interest rates, runaway rents and rampant inflation are not things we can control. When it comes to these factors we are largely at the mercy of the markets – and it’s not a comfortable feeling.
We feel financial stress so acutely because it is linked to our survival instinct. A need for secure accommodation, food, heating and other essentials is part of our DNA. Having enough money makes us feel safe. Not having enough can make us feel extremely worried.
Our personal identity and values can also be intimately wrapped up in our finances. Most of us take pride in being able to provide. It’s also very natural to want to keep up with our peers and fit the picture of success that has been so heavily marketed to us.
As much as we worry about paying the bills, we worry about what others will think. The thought of not being able to afford all those things we think we ‘should’ have can fill us with dread and shame. While we may be competent and hard-working, economic factors can easily make it seem like doing our best isn’t good enough.
Financial stress also often comes at times when we are going through other difficulties, such as a relationship breakdown, an illness or having to act as a carer. It we are already experiencing a mental health issue, financial stress can make things seem even harder.
If you are experiencing financial stress, you are not alone. To help ease the strain, there are numerous practical strategies we can all put in place.
Size it up
Many of us can find money stuff boring, confusing or scary. When we don’t know exactly how big our problems are, in our minds we can make them a whole lot bigger and scarier. Budgeting can help cut down problems to their actual size. It can also reveal paths forward and prompt us to take practical action. By tackling what is within our spere of influence, we can regain agency over our financial situation and move forward with a clear plan. This can make us feel far more comfortable than facing a daunting unknown. For a simple budgeting tool and some practical advice, visit the Money Smart website.
Reach out for help
In Australia, the National Debt Helpline is one of many services that provide valuable information and free support, including financial counselling. Financial counsellors provide the type of practical help that can alleviate a huge amount of stress. By assisting with budgeting, consolidating debts and organising payment plans, they can help straighten out your finances and get you back on track. Financial counsellors can help you to understand your rights, negotiate debt relief and access hardship provisions to make paying off debts more manageable. Most financial counselling services are free of charge (and free of judgement).
Get on the same page
If you are in a relationship, it’s important to talk about money and have a shared plan. Work out what is essential, what you can cut back on and what you are both working towards. While these conversations may not be easy, they can get you on the same page and help prevent ongoing friction and added stress. While it may be your partner who regularly takes care of the finances, it’s important that you understand your financial situation and have an equal say over financial decisions. Financial abuse can easily undermine our mental wellbeing. If you feel finances are being used to control you, 1800 Respect provides free counselling plus a financial abuse support toolkit.
Choose coping strategies that put you ahead
When under stress we often turn to strategies that help us avoid uncomfortable feelings. While activities such as gambling, smoking, drinking, overeating or online shopping can provide some temporary relief, eventually they end up bringing many more problems and adding to our financial worries. While breaking old habits can be challenging, doing so can bring very big benefits. When we become less reliant on avoidant coping strategies, we become more psychologically resilient and far better equipped to handle whatever comes our way. There are many fantastic free services in place that can help us break with gambling, smoking, drugs, alcohol and eating disorders.
Get serious about self-care
When experiencing financial stress, we need to do more than look after our finances – we need to look after ourselves. Prolonged stress can take a toll on our physical and mental health, so while trying to resolve money problems make sure you are taking extra care of sleep, nutrition and exercise. Prioritise spending time in nature, connecting with friends and doing things that bring you joy. Be mindful of your digital diet and avoid spending too much time doom-scrolling or consuming media that arouses further stress.
Work out what you really want
Often, we get caught up spending money on things we couldn’t care less for, simply to fit in or please others. While some may already have cut spending down to the bare essentials, others can benefit from making decisions about what they actually want. If Friday night drinks aren’t your thing, save your beer money for something more important. If you would much prefer going for a nature walk than eating an overpriced breakfast in a crowded cafe, suggest a different plan to your friends. If your child hates clarinet and you hate driving them to clarinet lessons, do yourselves both a favour! Being true to yourself typically works out very well for mental health and it means your precious finances are only going on what’s precious to you.
Rely on community, rather than going it alone
We can feel huge amounts of shame around financial matters. Rather than ask for support, we may attempt to keep up appearances, go it alone and pretend everything is okay. Remember, there is power in community and reaching out for support is a true act of resilience. What we may feel uncomfortable with the idea of receiving, there will always be plenty of opportunities to give back and support others. If you are struggling to find money for groceries, you can access your local Food bank here. There are a range of other charities including the Salvos, Vinnies, the Red Cross, that can help with items such as furniture, clothing, whitegoods, emergency accommodation and financial support.
Please note, this article references services available in Australia. If you are outside of Australia, please search for services available in your local area.