The road to financial wellness is rarely a straight line. It bends and curves, at times doubling back, depending on a multitude of factors including our income, saving and spending habits, and retirement goals. But it’s often our health — both physical and mental — that determines whether we reach our destination at all.
Indeed, the correlation between mind, money, and body is increasingly clear. Studies reveal that lowering debt and managing money effectively can help alleviate financial stress — the leading cause of stress for most Americans.1,2,3 But doing so with consistency can be far more challenging when you live with a costly chronic health condition or experience job insecurity due to mental illness.
“These three seemingly separate facets of our lives do not operate in a vacuum; each are intimately connected,” said Jessica Frank, a program manager for the Marion Institute, a nonprofit focused on health care, sustainability, and community building. “When financial health is negatively impacted, a cascade or domino effect can take place.”
The cycle of wellness
Frank notes that financial stress often leads to rumination or looping thoughts about the financial stress. Those thoughts then impact our physiology, which can lead to chronic health conditions, digestive problems, and sleeplessness.
“If one has an attitude of lack, scarcity, or not-enough-ness in general, this can have a direct negative impact on physical health,” she said. “Stress actually begins in the mind with how we perceive a problem. On a biological level, that stress then manifests in the form of insomnia, hypertension, headaches, digestive issues, and fatigue.”
A lack of financial wellness can also contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Depending on the diagnosis, people dealing with a mental health disorder may find it difficult to manage their monthly bills, hold a steady job, or maintain productivity to secure promotions, all of which may negatively affect their earnings potential.
Health challenges, of course, also come with higher medical bills, which makes it harder to cover expenses and save for future goals, thus perpetuating a cycle of financial stress. (Related: How to handle sudden medical expenses)
The London-based nonprofit Money and Mental Health Policy Institute reports that those experiencing mental health challenges are three-and-a-half times more likely to be in problem debt than people without mental health challenges.4
“Financial challenges and mental health issues are, in many contexts, two sides of the same coin,” said Matt Bahl, vice president and workplace market lead for the Financial Health Network, which aims to help industries, business leaders, policymakers, and innovators improve financial well-being for their customers, employees, and communities. “When one area is off balance it can lead to a negative cycle of chronic financial precarity and increasing mental health despair.”
Financial wellness equals freedom of choice
But what is meant by financial wellness?
It’s important to understand that financial wellness is not attained by simply making more money. Nor is it defined by net worth. Rather, financial wellness is a state of being in which you have enough income to meet your basic needs, manage your debt, and absorb financial shocks. It is about control over our spending and saving choices. Fundamentally, it is about freedom of choice. (Learn more: The 'wellness wheel' on the road to financial security)
In a broader definition, financial wellness also relates to safety nets, having the savings and protection products in place to ensure that our loved ones will be able to maintain their lifestyle no matter what the future may bring. For many, that includes adequate health insurance and life insurance coverage. (Calculator: How much life insurance do I need?)
Clearly, balance is key when it comes to achieving wellness. But striking that balance is often easier said than done.
Bahl notes that much research is needed to determine which types of interventions have an impact and how that impact then translates to other spheres of well-being.
“Given how financialized our health care system is, it seems clear that navigating that system in poor financial health may set you up for failure,” he said, noting medical debt remains the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. “And given how toxic unsustainable debt is to mental and physical health, it seems like getting more people to baseline levels of financial stability is very important.”
At the same time, he noted, many Americans still lack access to mental health resources even if they are financially stable, and the resources themselves are scarce compared with the scale of the problem.
For those in need of mental health services:
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a referral and information helpline.
- The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers a search tool to find treatment.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers tips on choosing a professional who may meet your needs.
Steps you can take today
That said, there are some basic strategies we can deploy in our everyday lives to get our financial house in order, many of which mirror the steps we might take to support our physical and mental health as well. They include.
- Ask for help — We all need backup now and then, professionals on our team who can answer questions and offer valuable guidance. That includes financial professionals, doctors, and therapists. Your employer may offer health care and/or financial services benefits that can cut your costs considerably. “Certainly, individuals can leverage their workplace benefits, community resources, and other public services to seek help,” said Bahl. “These resources can help people set goals, get treatment, and pursue opportunities to elevate their financial and mental health. But ultimately, we need a concerted effort as a society to truly improve and move the needle at scale.” (Learn more: How to prepare for your first meeting with a financial professional)
- Make a plan — To get from where you are today to where you want to be, you need a plan. Here again, a financial professional can provide valuable guidance. By writing down your goals and verbalizing them to others, it may help to keep you accountable. Your plan may include creating a monthly budget, determining how much you need to comfortably retire, or paying down your smallest debt as soon as possible for the psychological win. (Learn more: 3 ways to jump-start your financial wellness plan)
- Manage expectations — Don’t try tackling everything at once. You can maximize your chance of long-term success by setting small, attainable, and measurable goals. For example, aim to increase your retirement plan contribution by 1 percent per year, create a healthy eating journal, or register for mindful meditation classes. (Learn more: What holistic financial planning does for you)
- Be consistent —Like your strategy for staying healthy (eating right, getting exercise, not smoking), it’s important to stay the course in your long-term investing strategy. A financial professional can help you create a tailored asset allocation plan that aligns with your goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon. With a balanced portfolio in hand, you will likely sleep better at night. You will also be better positioned to ignore short-term market volatility and avoid costly market timing mistakes. (Learn more: Why you can win with a steady investment strategy)
- Give yourself a break — There will be setbacks on your wellness journey. You may experience an unexpected job loss, a health care expense, or a moment of weakness when you stray from your saving and spending path. That’s OK. Every reasonable plan includes a cushion. Don’t be hard on yourself. And don’t give up. An emergency fund that consists of three to six months’ worth of living expenses, at a minimum, can help you alleviate anxiety and ensure that your financial detours don’t derail your future plans. (Learn more: Don’t have an emergency fund? Get one)
Our physical, mental, and financial health are closely connected, each a component of the three-legged stool. By taking steps to support our personal well-being, we may be far more likely to experience better health outcomes and ultimately reach our goals.
“I would say to explore what your relationship is to money first,” said Frank. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘How was money talked about in my childhood or in my own upbringing?’ or ‘Am I an impulsive spender?’ or ‘Am I a penny-pincher?’ Then, approach financial health the way you would your physical health. Ask for help when you need it, seek advice from trusted sources, and put it front and center as part of a self-care practice.”
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