January is a time when many of us commit to becoming the best version of ourselves: breaking bad habits or picking up positive ones, cultivating personal relationships, and setting new fitness and career goals. January also happens to be Financial Wellness Month — making it the perfect time to check in on our finances and adopt better money behaviors if we’ve gotten off track.
I dedicate my time at work to thinking about this concept we call financial wellness, poring over statistics, and talking to employers and their employees about the challenges they face. There are just so many demands on our paychecks; from basic bills to medical expenses to the crush of debt that’s befallen on so many Americans, there often isn’t much to go around for longer-term planning for your financial goals. Not to mention, we are in the wake of the holiday season, when gifts and travel wreaked havoc on our credit card balances.
And with all of these financial demands comes financial stress, or anxiety around meeting your obligations and your body’s accompanying response. Money worries are never just about money — they can creep up in physical and emotional ways all across our lives. Stress can take a toll on our health, lead to conflict with our partners and families, and impact our performance at work.
The good news is that there is more awareness around this issue — and more is being done to address it — than ever before. Here are some strategies for alleviating your financial stress and its root causes this financial wellness month and beyond:
1. Get your stress level down
When we’re stressed, we often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like overeating or barely eating at all. These behaviors may provide some artificial relief in the short term but potentially lead to other problems that compound our stress in the long term.
There are plenty of ways to counteract the effects of stress and improve your overall quality of life. Journaling can help you process your feelings and better identify specific triggers. Yoga and meditation are great options for channeling your stress into more positive energy. Regular exercise, even just taking walks, is restorative for your mind and body.
To that end, your workplace may offer benefits related to your well-being, like reimbursements on your gym membership if you log a certain number of workouts. That’s a win-win that can go a long way in helping reduce both your stress and your bills.
2. Get to the root of the matter
While the techniques above can help with the symptoms of financial stress, you’ll need to address the underlying causes to achieve longer-term relief. Put simply, stress comes from feeling like you’re not in control of a situation; reducing it is ultimately about gaining or regaining control.
To get started, it will be instructive for you to understand what you’re working with. Make a list of all of your financial accounts, other assets, sources of income and outstanding debts. Next, build a budget that reconciles assets and income with expenses and debt payments.
Fear of the unknown can also weigh on you. While you can’t predict the future, you can try to be prepared for it. Setting aside cash to build up an emergency fund, designed to cover three to six months of essential living expenses should you find yourself short on income, can give you some level of comfort.
Another way to feel more in control of your finances is to have a plan in place for the future. Saving enough for a comfortable retirement might be one of your greatest financial challenges, but starting early and saving steadily throughout your career can make it a more manageable task. Checking in on your retirement plan periodically and making any necessary adjustments can help you feel like you’re on the right path.
3. Get together with your loved ones
Money can be a taboo topic in some families and a major source of conflict in others. Making sure you and your partner, as well as your children and parents, are on the same page about spending, saving and your vision for the future can go a long way toward reducing animosity and arguments.
I realize this can be easier said than done. For so many families I know, finances are the hardest thing to discuss — even harder than politics and religion. But as most of us have experienced, avoiding a problem rarely makes it go away.
By keeping an open dialogue with your loved ones, you can make sure everyone feels a sense of ownership over the family financial plan. You can work together to set goals and understand the discipline and teamwork it will take to meet them.
4. Get some help
It’s important to understand that you are not alone. Financial stress affects more than half of working Americans (58%), including those at all levels of income.
You’re not alone in combating it either. Health care professionals and counselors can help with physical and emotional effects of stress, and the latter can also provide guidance around managing family and relationship conflicts.
With financial stress spilling over into the workplace, many employers are now providing financial wellness programs as a key employee benefit. These programs vary from employer to employer, but popular features include digital resources to help you take your financial pulse and become more knowledgeable about personal finance topics, access to financial planning and coaching professionals, and in-person educational seminars to get a more in-depth understanding of money-related topics.
5. Get inspired
As if the start of a new year isn’t enough to get you inspired, keep in mind that 2020 is also the start of a new decade. This is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean of unhealthy habits and strike right at the root of your stress. You can start small — replacing just one coping mechanism with a healing behavior, taking a manageable financial action like setting auto-contributions to your emergency fund, or sending an email to your HR coordinator to see if there are any benefits you may not be utilizing.
While it’s wonderful to set aside one month to focus on your financial and overall well-being, keep in mind that wellness is a year-round and lifelong commitment. Armed with these strategies, I hope you can begin to move from a place of financial stress to a place of financial confidence.
Krystal Barker Buissereth, CFA, is executive director and head of financial wellness, for Morgan Stanley at Work.
This article has been prepared for informational purposes only. The information and data in the article has been obtained from sources outside of Morgan Stanley. Morgan Stanley makes no representations or guarantees as to the accuracy or completeness of the information or data from sources outside of Morgan Stanley. It does not provide individually tailored investment advice and has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. The strategies and/or investments discussed in this article may not be suitable for all investors. Morgan Stanley recommends that investors independently evaluate particular investments and strategies, and encourages investors to seek the advice of a Financial Advisor. The appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives.
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC. Member SIPC. CRC 2885492 1/2020