That Funny Little Hum That Follows You Around

William Shatner has often spoken of the tinnitus he experiences as the “hiss-static” of an empty television channel, always there in the background, no matter what he is doing. Financial stress is a lot like tinnitus in that it is often sitting there, in the back of your brain, quietly influencing the aspects of your daily life and not generally for the better. Yes, a certain level of financial stress can stop you from making a silly purchase but, more often if can lead to things like insomnia, marital issues, and a lower effectiveness at work. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter how much you have (or don’t have) – people of all socioeconomic levels suffer from financial anxiety.

A study by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that 53% of Americans say that thinking about their finances makes them anxious and the American Psychological Association reported that six in 10 adults identify money is a significant source of stress. And while these stats might be very true, I would propose a different take on the situation. It isn’t necessarily that “money” or “finances” is the source of this stress, it’s the lack of financial literacy that is causing a great deal of this angst. Thankfully, building strong financial literacy is within reach for everyone.

One of the foundations of alleviating someone’s financial stress is to bring them in touch with what’s coming in and what’s going out. Yes folks, the dreaded budget. Following the time-honored adage that knowledge is power, building a better understanding of our money ins and outs is important whether your income is $50,000 per year, $150,000, or $1 million. Ironically, the lower end of the pay spectrum often has a far better understanding of their cash flow than the higher levels. Their stress is often based in how to stretch a dollar whereas the higher income levels are more often cases of “where is it all going and do I have enough to keep this up?!?!?” Neither scenario feels particularly good.

Another source of financial stress is good old-fashioned lack of perspective. Long before YouTube, Tik-Tok, and Instagram encouraging us to lose our perspective on everyday life, we had “keeping up with the Jones.” In the fifties/sixties/whenever, if the next-door neighbor bought the latest and greatest kitchen appliance, everyone else went out and got one as well (or at least talked about it). Of course, years ago, people actually spoke with one another so someone’s overall finances, in broad strokes, wasn’t always cloaked in secrecy as it is now (one social hurdle at a time). Today, in most neighborhoods, we know very little of other people’s financial situation so perhaps that ski/beach/European trip is well within their cash flow plan. On the other hand, with credit card debt totaling over $840 billion dollars and car loans equaling $1.3 trillion, someone, somewhere is living a little beyond their means.

Children of all ages generally thrive with some level of structure (be it bed-times, sitting down to a meal, wearing a uniform to school, etc..) but for some reason, we throw out structure as we age, just when having that structure can provide us with the way to relieve some of the financial stress heading down the pike straight at our lives (this, of course leaves more room for climate change stress, artificial news media induced stress, aging parent stress – what would our pharmaceutical companies do if we were all blissfully Zen?).

Regardless of your income, ask yourself: Do I know what my family has for assets? How about debts? Do I have financial goals AND a plan for reaching them? If you’re married, do you know who owns what and who is the beneficiary on those accounts? And if you are married (or in a relationship), don’t wait for your partner to get on the financial literacy school bus with you – hop up those steps yourself and take the lead. Your marriage might end up healthier for it (or crumble like a stale carrot cake, in which case you might be better off).

There is no shame in asking for help with your finances. As I’ve often said, as a rule, we don’t teach this stuff– not at home, not in school, and not generally in life. We’ll put ballistic blankets in our schools on the off chance that something will happen but neglect the issue that will impact each and every child in each and every school. Most people simply don’t know what they don’t know. Now, there’s probably a certain level of shame in eating an entire container of Pringles, sampling every flavor of Oreo, or spooning through a bucket of Pittsford Dairy ice cream but there is absolutely no shame in asking for help with your finances. NONE.