It’s no surprise that being on top of your budget feels better than being financially stressed. But money fears can do more than tank your mood — they can affect your overall well-being. “When money stress gets really bad, it can be toxic to our physical health, emotional health, and our relationships,” says Megan Ford, a financial therapist and clinic director at the Aspire Clinic at the University of Georgia. That’s especially alarming considering that nearly three-fourths of Americans feel stressed about their finances, according to the American Psychological Association.
Need more motivation to start budgeting, saving and facing your finances head-on? Here are a few surprising health perks you can take to the bank.
You may avoid depression and anxiety
Debt and depression or anxiety are common bedfellows, says Ford. When researchers at the University of Southampton in England combed through 65 studies on debt and mental health, they found a strong relationship between financial problems and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. And while debt didn’t seem to affect smoking rates, it did have a correlation with both problem drinking and drug use. In a recent study, published in the “Journal of Family and Economic Issues,” researchers found that short-term debt, like credit cards and overdue bills, was most closely associated with higher rates of depression. That was particularly true for certain demographics, such as people near retirement age, unmarried people, and those without high school diplomas.
Your blood pressure may improve
Stress isn’t only a mental issue — stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can trigger a psychological response in the body, causing blood pressure to rise. And researchers have found that money stress can elevate blood pressure even in young adults. The study, published in "Social Science and Medicine," showed that those 24- to 32-year-olds with higher debt had a 1.3 percent increase in diastolic blood pressure over the mean. That might not sound like much, but even a two-point increase is associated with a higher risk of hypertension and stroke. On the flip side, good money habits may actually help you get your blood pressure back under control. In another study, employees who contributed to their 401(k) accounts were 27 percent more likely to see improvements in their abnormal blood work than non-contributors.
You could get more shut-eye
A 2017 poll found that 65 percent of Americans reported that they lost sleep because of financial worries. (Health care, retirement, and student loans top the list of reasons we’re missing sleep.) That’s no surprise to Jay Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Wellness Institute in West Allis, WI. “Our brains have evolved to turn on a fight-or-flight response in the face of threats,” he says. “But these days our threats are things like mortgage payments and tax deadlines and debts. The financial stress is causing a physiological stress that doesn’t let up at bedtime.” That can make it harder to fall asleep and reach the restorative levels of deep sleep needed for optimum health, he says. But patients find that when they’re able to lessen their money stress, they sleep better and longer. And you don’t have to wait until your finances are shipshape to get some shut-eye, either. Balachandran suggests picking up a journal before bed, to jot down your anxieties and a to-do list, so you can give your brain a break.
You’re apt to eat better
Potato chips are cheaper than kale salad, sure, but stress also has a way of making those unhealthy choices look more appetizing. Low-income households where financial stress was higher were more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, like eating too much or picking unhealthy foods, than other low-income households in which stress levels were lower. The same pattern held true when researchers at the American Psychological Association looked at millennials or women: For every group, greater financial stress seemed to trigger an uptick in bad eating behavior. And, over all, one-third of Americans reported noshing on junk food or overeating because of stress.
You’ll be more satisfied
“Financial stress doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it permeates all aspects of our lives,” says Ford. That means it’s hard to turn off the drumbeat of money woes when you’re, say, having dinner with your family or out on a date. And when part of your mind is always fretting about finances, you’re more likely to miss the small moments of joy and opportunities to connect that can make your life and relationships so satisfying (no matter how much money you make). Greater life satisfaction may even keep you healthier and help you live longer: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, higher levels of well-being are associated with decreased risk of disease, illness, and injury, a better-functioning immune system, and greater longevity.
Tips for being better with money
- Make a spending plan: A budget makes it easier to make savings a priority, so you’re better prepared when life throws you a curveball. If the thought of overhauling your monthly budget feels too daunting, try focusing on just one category each week, such as groceries, entertainment or clothing, suggests Brian O’Connor, author of "The $1,000 Challenge."
- Resist the impulse: Small splurges and impulse purchases can quickly add up — even to the point of threatening your financial foundation. One effortless way to slash those budget killers: Institute a 24-hour waiting period. “More often than not, if you wait a day you won’t even remember what you wanted to buy,” he says.
- Think progress, not perfection: Many finance pros recommend having six months of living expenses set aside in case of emergency — a figure that can feel so daunting, it’s impossible. But even having far less ($100! $500!) can go a long way toward easing your money worries, O’Connor says. Set that small goal and high five yourself when you meet it. Then use that momentum to aim just a little bit higher.
- Get the tools you need: If mapping out a budget feels overwhelming, tap free resources. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a wide range of home finance tools. Getting started is worth the effort.