For the last eight years PricewaterhouseCoopers has conducted a financial wellness survey where they gather information from over 1,500 employees on a myriad of financial wellness topics. The 8th annual Employee Financial Wellness Survey released in 2019 continues to demonstrate the same themes. One of the most intriguing findings – and one that shows consistency with prior survey results - is around financial stress. Financial stress drastically trumps stress associated with one’s job, relationships, health, and other categories.
PwC’s survey (1) found that 59% of employees cite stress from financial matters as the number one stressor in their lives. Job and relationship stress hold next at 15% and 12%, respectively. This makes sense. My experience working as a financial planner over the last two decades shows that financial stress is a “gateway-stressor” to other stress. People who are financially stressed tend to worry about their ability to earn, save, and provide enough for their loved ones. The effects flow to their work and close relationships.
Why is financial stress growing when there is so much convenience, and so many financial programs to utilize? I believe money stress evolved similar to media stress.
Growing up in the ‘70’s, I remember watching a few stations on our black-and-white television. There wasn’t much to watch, so I didn’t watch much. Instead, I wore out my sharp, rusty-edge, Tonka trucks. In other words, I took my mind off TV.
As the 80’s took root, I remember the day cable was brought to our house. Heaven! I had MTV, and a pool of cable channels. My TV time commitment grew, and so did my stress.
Today, the media market is all over the place. You can’t go into any establishment without seeing a screen. There is so much to choose from, but so little to watch. There is so much to take in and process. I can say my media related stress has sky-rocketed, without me being fully aware of what’s been happening.
Now, let’s parlay this to money. My mother cashed the payroll checks back in the day. I loved going to the teller because I always walked away with a lollipop. She categorized spending money in envelopes, which didn’t require passwords, and the rest was saved. She paid all her daily expenses with cash. My father’s retirement was first an accruing pension before he was later introduced to a 401(k) plan. They had a mortgage, and the cost of living was arguably less despite high inflation because what they did buy lasted. Things didn’t need to be replaced as often, or have as many features tempting them to buy more.
Today, the financial system is more convenient than ever, with many financial products and alternatives at our avail. We open accounts from our seat. Purchases are made with a click or swipe, and we can assess our wealth in real-time through Apps. We save through payroll deposits. We can Venmo to split meal checks or pay expenses. The global markets are open to us, and we can find research and educational information at a click.
So, why is financial stress increasing? Why is it the number one stressor? I think it is similar to the stress caused from the expansion of media. When there were less options, and more simplicity, we could get our arms around what’s going on. We could process what was of interest and relevant, with little distraction. Even if that meant we had to go to the bank to cash a check, or twist rabbit ears to clear up the picture. Less was more.
The contrary is not true. More is not less. More is more. More complexity equals more stress. More convenience equals more stress. More options equal more stress.
Much of what exists in the financial marketplace is not needed for the common person. Most of us don’t need the complexity that comes with so many of these products. Complexity fosters stress. For example, would it be less stressful, if health insurance coverage was simple and easy to understand?
We could also benefit from inconvenience. The necessary time and effort caused by inconvenience would require attention and a bit more focus. Convenience breeds undisciplined behavior and complacency. Undisciplined behavior is a leader of financial stress. For example, purchasing by swiping a card has a different psychological effect than purchasing with a set cash allotment. Or, having to write a check for taxes or health insurance, versus and automatic payroll withdrawal, would cause us to be more conscious around what we are paying.
Too many options confuse and hampers decision making ability. Couple this with so many companies’ marketing efforts highlighting their own product features and benefits, our brains go on overload. We rush to decisions, push off critical choices for later, or select the most convenient or seemingly safest choice.
So, how do we relieve financial stress? It’s easy.
First, seek simplicity. Decompress to a simpler mode. This is why we sit at a beach staring at waves to relax. It’s simple. We remove everything to the bare necessity. Simplify your investment strategy. Simplify your budgeting process. Simplify the number of accounts. Find financial professionals who speak in simple terms.
Second, be patient. Our lives are a journey, and so are our financial lives. Events will occur to tempt you to change. Life events will create ebbs and flows. Sales messages will try to trigger seeded fear, doubt, and worry. Neighbors will brag about what they have, what they earn, or where they are going. These and many more patience benders will tempt you to break your simple, disciplined approach. There is an old saying, “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Last, understand your relationship and views around money. Our brains are great at creating believable stories around things that haven’t happened, or may never happen. If you have caught yourself dwelling over some fear in the future, or some remote possibility, then you understand what I mean. Many of these stories are a fabrication from marketing and social media messages we’ve unconsciously taken in, or from core beliefs passed down from parents and society. If we can take inventory of what is causing the stress, then we can begin to open awareness. We cannot change that of which we are unaware.
As I end, try this exercise:
1. What is your greatest fear regarding your financial future?
2. How many times per week do you worry, or think, about it?
3. Why is this fear so concerning?
4. Where did it come from, or who taught you to think like this?
5. If this worst fear happened today, what steps would you take tomorrow?
The last question is what opens awareness to all the possibilities the fear is blocking out. Be simple, patient, and look within.
(1) PwC's 8th annual Employee Financial Wellness