Money may not buy happiness, but studies show it can buy better health.
Research has demonstrated a clear correlation between stress about money and poor physical and psychological health.
This is rather sobering, as consumer debt continues to balloon to ever-higher levels in the U.S. Fortunately, therapists and money management specialists say that improving your relationship with money can go a long way toward repairing not only your finances but also your health.
It’s well known that stress can trigger unhealthy habits. We’ve all heard of stress eating. Long-term stress — including anxiety about money — can trigger a bump in cortisol, which increases appetite. There’s also evidence that stress can affect food preferences, prompting people to increase their intake of fatty and sugary treats. Indulging in comfort foods regularly can, in turn, lead to weight gain and health problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, creating an unvirtuous cycle.
“Financial stress seems to trump almost every other kind of stress except health stress,” said Elisabeth Donati, a financial coach who promotes financial literacy for kids, teens and adults through educational camps. This is because money is tied to our basic, hardwired drive to survive. “When that drive can't be attained — you can't pay your rent, you can't pay for your car, you can't feed your kids — it compounds the stress,” she said.
A 2018 study by researchers at the cardiology and geriatric departments at UCLA, the economics department at Duke University and the epidemiology division at Drexel University found significant increases in blood pressure and blood glucose levels in U.S. adults during the 2008–2010 recession. Researchers found that two groups of adults were disproportionately affected: younger adults still in the workforce and older homeowners whose declining home values likely affected their long-term financial plans.
Dr. Nancy Molitor, a psychologist who practices in the suburbs of northern Chicago, saw firsthand some of the impact that financial stress had on people’s physical and mental health during that time. She saw a huge rush of finance executives coming in with depression, ulcers, anxiety, sleep disturbances and psychosomatic symptoms. Things quieted down, but more recently Molitor said she’s seen another uptick in the number of patients wanting to discuss financial stress, particularly debt.
Financial education is often seen as the solution, but financial coaches and therapists say there’s an important emotional component that should be addressed too.
The more anxious someone is about money, the less likely they are to deal with it, said Dr. Mary Gresham, an Atlanta-based psychologist. “Many people who are deeply anxious about money will handle that anxiety with avoidance. Unfortunately their avoidance increases their anxiety and then they want to avoid even more,” she said.
Because of that mental block, telling someone who is stressed about money to start tracking their daily spending or creating a budget can be a tall order.
“Tracking money is somewhat time-consuming, and some people just don't want to look. There’s a fear that if they look, it will be upsetting and that it means they will be deprived of something they enjoy,” Gresham continued. That has particularly been the case in recent times as earnings have not kept up with the costs of housing, healthcare and education and people are feeling squeezed on the necessities.
Much of the discord around money that people experience as adults may stem from childhood.
“Money's complicated because very few young people get explicit training or education in money. We don't learn about money, we experience it. We watch how our parents handled money,” said Molitor.
Most of the time, Molitor sees two extremes.
“Either it’s a lot of conflict and arguing about money, which can be frightening and emotional. Or it’s the reverse, where you see people not talking about it at all, like money doesn't exist and it grows on trees. Then it becomes very private or taboo and, again, tinged with this very negative, scary kind of emotional valence,” she said.
Neither approach is helpful for people trying to get a grip on their own relationship with money.
Because dealing with money can be fraught with emotion, therapists say the first step is to acknowledge the emotional component.
“It's important to just own it and say, ‘You know what? This is very overwhelming, and I'm angry or sad that I didn't deal with this earlier,’” said Molitor. “You don't need a therapist, necessarily. You just have to own it.”
The goal is to acknowledge the emotional part of the brain and to appeal to the executive functioning, decision-making part of the brain, Molitor explained.
Changing your behavior is not easy. Changing your mindset can be even harder. But a healthy relationship with money is better for your health — and probably for your wallet, too. Here are some exercises that might help.
There’s a “rational” part of the brain, but also an emotional part of the brain that sometimes wants to take over. Acknowledging the emotions could help you set those feelings aside and appeal to your rational self. Setting aside emotions can help you make more “rational” decisions about money.
Realize that little choices add up, whether it’s about spending, diet or anything else in life, really. Every penny makes a difference and adds to the final picture. Best of all, you can control these choices.
Picture your 70-year-old self. Saving for long-term goals such as retirement is hard, partly because the future can seem so far off and theoretical. Visualizing your future lifestyle with all the details — your daily routine, your diet, the vacations you want to take — can help put things in perspective and keep you on track to turn that vision into a reality.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that people who regularly put money aside in a nest egg are also more likely to make healthy choices when provided with the results of a health examination. The researchers concluded that this is because certain personality traits make some people better at saving money and taking care of their health.
There’s even evidence that frequent exercise can raise your salary. A study by Cleveland State University economist Vasilios Kosteas found that frequent exercise can lead to up to 10% higher pay. Kosteas attributes the wage increase to a boost in productivity that results from hitting the gym routinely.
Saving money and exercising regularly may come easier to some than to others. While temperament plays into it, there are things that people who aren’t type As can do to improve both their health and finances.
“Nature and nurture act together. People don’t have to accept it as a fait accompli. They just have to understand that that’s a vulnerability that they might have and say, ‘It’s not too late. I can still consciously make decisions about how I want to change my behavior,’” Molitor said.