An Expert Reveals How To Tell If Your Money Worries Are Typical Stress Or Financial Anxiety

by JR Thorpe
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Every single one of us will go through a period of stress about money. For millennials, this might be more common than it was for your Baby Boomer parents, thanks to factors like coming of age during the Great Recession and the rise of the gig economy. But there's a difference between typical money stress and financial anxiety that's important to be aware of, especially since the best ways to tackle it are different.

The psychological definition of financial anxiety is "an uneasy and unhealthy attitude toward engaging with, and administering [...] personal finances in an effective way". It can be difficult to figure out whether you're just having everyday money worries — money is undoubtedly stressful — or whether your thoughts and behaviors around money are symptoms of anxiety.

There's no hard and fast test for financial anxiety; a therapist might be able to detect and talk about money issues, but many therapists and psychologists sense a taboo around discussing money in sessions, according to psychologist Stephanie Newman. But if you feel averse to the idea of examining your financial feelings in the first place, that could be sign number one. A bit of anxiety around money is incredibly common, but if your money worries are getting in the way of your life, it's time to take action. These are the seven biggest differences between financial anxiety and money stress.


You Feel "The Pressure"

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Iona Bain, founder of the Young Money Blog and author of Spare Change: Better Ways to Manage Money, tells Bustle that "the pressure" — "the 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.


You're Averse To Spending Money

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Saving for a rainy day is a common (and helpful) piece of financial advice, but people with financial anxiety can take it to extremes. "It may be that even though you are comfortably off you feel panicked about spending and tend to hoard your cash rather than using it. It is worth reflecting on why that might be," The Guardian reported in 2019. "Perhaps you grew up in a family with little money and don’t want to return to that situation, or you have had a financial shock at some point, or maybe your job or relationship don’t feel secure." If that's the case, you may have financial anxiety around your savings and spending.


You Find It Really Difficult To Know What To Prioritize

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Paralyzed by indecision about money? That's not unusual, says Bain. "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?" she tells Bustle. However, when you're so worried about these choices that you can't make any decisions at all — a phenomenon called "decision paralysis" — it might be a sign of financial anxiety


You Avoid Thinking About Money At All

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Just thinking about money can spark financial anxiety, Bain tells Bustle. "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.


You Feel Guilty When You Have Money

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You would think that having money would be the solution to money stress, and for the most part, it is. But one kind of financial anxiety can lead to guilt when there's actually money in the bank.

It's called "financial rejection," and psychologist Brad Klontz writes for Psychology Today that it's "the experience of guilt whenever money, of any amount, is accrued. People with low self-esteem are particularly prone to this disorder, and it leads to a whole host of financial and psychological troubles."


You Over-Work And Under-Spend

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If you work in the gig economy, it can often feel like periods of rest are just periods where you're not earning money that you could be. But being unable to take those necessary breaks can be a sign of anxiety.

"People who don't know when to take breaks, and feel the need to earn every penny they can, are often living an unhealthy lifestyle," financial journalist Bob Sullivan wrote for Experian in 2018. "Underspending can be a big problem for couples, particularly when only one partner feels compelled to hoard cash."


You Don't Tell Your Partner About Your Money Stress


Anxiety about spending can turn into "financial infidelity," according to Klontz. "Telling 'little green lies' about one's spending or finances to one's partner, like making purchases outside an agreed-upon budget or lying about the cost of a big-ticket item," is a classic sign, he wrote. "Extreme examples might include taking out a second mortgage behind your partner's back or opening a secret bank account." Hiding these financial necessities from your partner, especially if you and your partner share some aspect of your finances, can be a real issue in both your relationship and your future financial goals.


How do you help your financial anxiety? It's wise to consider your own issues and where they might have come from, says Bain, including your family history. Then, work on unlearning those patterns with a therapist.

"Brooding about money, in and of itself, won’t help you at all. But identifying that you’re worried about money is a useful first step. Separate your feeling from the situation — practicing mindfulness will help you get good at this," she tells Bustle.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.