R U OK? How to cope with financial stress

Collage of a little girl thinking about money because she's financially stressed.

Financial stress often gets overlooked as a source of anxiety. Money troubles are common enough to experience, but without support or management, the pressure of coping with the cost of living can have a significant physical, emotional, and mental toll on someone’s life. 

Financial stress has been quite high in Australia thanks to disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. A recent study from the Australian National University found that one in four (25.1%) Australians need help to get by.

Money troubles don’t affect everyone equally, either. Self-employed workers and people on fixed or casual incomes often struggle to absorb sudden financial shocks, like a car accident or a jump in grocery prices. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, young Aussies and women are more likely to work multiple jobs just to afford necessities.

While mental health awareness has come a long way, talking about money can still be challenging. People may feel overwhelmed or ashamed and thus shut down the conversation, leaving them to suffer in silence. However, some strategies can help deal with money worries – and there are plenty of places to reach out for help.

So, for R U OK Day, let’s learn how to spot, talk about, and cope with financial stress.

Causes of financial stress

Collage of a little girl desperately holding onto balloons.

Financial stress is widespread and can arise for a variety of reasons. Some common causes of financial stress include:

  • Losing a job, work hours, or income.
  • Unemployment.
  • Financial abuse, or a history of abuse in general.
  • Having large amounts of debt.
  • Anxiety over cash flow.
  • Utility and grocery bill pressure.
  • Significant medical expenses.
  • Disability and mental illness. 
  • Divorce or relationship problems. 
  • Addictions such as gambling, drugs, or alcohol.
  • Family history, such as intergenerational low-income or poverty.
  • Cultural shame or taboos around money.
  • National and global economic factors, like a pandemic or recession

Poor money management and money mindsets can also contribute to financial stress. Still, it’s important to note that regardless of the cause, having financial stress doesn’t make you unworthy, invalid, or alone. It just makes you human.

Symptoms of financial stress

Collage of a little girl staring into the void.

Financial stress can show up in several ways. The effects can be mild or acute, short-term or chronic. Symptoms can also manifest differently in different people.

If you’re under financial stress, you may:

  • Have trouble concentrating or sleeping.
  • Have poor diet and exercise habits. 
  • Ruminate or obsess over your spending.
  • Feel extreme guilt when making purchases.
  • Feel sad, tense, or irritable.
  • Avoid talking about money.
  • Argue about money. 
  • Numb with unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol. 
  • Feel ‘out of control’ or powerless.
  • Let debts and overdue bills pile up.
  • Delay important purchases, like healthcare, due to the costs. 
  • Experience suicidal feelings or thoughts.*

*Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if you or someone else is at immediate risk of suicide or self-harm.

These symptoms can all impact your physical and mental health. Chronic stress has been shown to lead to complications like anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, insomnia, trouble thinking or remembering, and even a weakened immune system and heart disease. 

Experiencing financial stress or insecurity can be a scary and isolating experience, but you are not alone, and these problems are temporary. No matter how minor or large the issue, there are places you can go for help and things you can do to manage it.

How to manage financial stress and get help now

Collage of a little girl climbing out of the financial stress hole.

There are lots of ways to manage financial stress. You can try one or more to find a combination that works for you and your lifestyle.

If you’re in crisis and need immediate help, contact LifeLine (13 11 14) or triple zero (000). You can also refer to these free mental health and financial health resources:

Your bank will also have a support team and resources if you’re experiencing financial hardship

In the meantime, you can also manage your emotional and physical symptoms by performing self-care. Self-care can include:

  • Eating balanced, nutritious meals.
  • Going for a walk.
  • Showering or bathing.
  • Talking with loved ones.
  • Meditative or deep-breathing exercises.
  • Cleaning your living area. 
  • Giving yourself space to feel strong emotions. 

These can all shift your attention from inward to outward. Do activities that ground you, not ‘numb’ or help you ‘tune out’. 

For longer-term solutions, try to address the root causes of your financial problems and tackle these with professional and social support. The right answer for you will depend on your needs. For instance, you could:

  • Start a budget
  • Track your spending
  • Talk to a financial advisor. 
  • Seek employment assistance if needed.
  • Speak to a GP or counsellor about managing your stress. 
  • Reach out to friends and family for support.

Your progress may be nonlinear, so it’s okay if something doesn’t work right away. The important thing is to ask for help.

How to talk to someone about money troubles

A little girl smiles as she reaches out for R U OK Day and a talk about money stress.

It’s essential to approach any money conversation with honesty. Giving a problem a name and speaking frankly about it can help make it less scary and overwhelming. 

To start, choose a time and place where you can talk uninterrupted with someone about your financial situation. Avoid distractions and respect boundaries. “When is a good time for us to talk about this?”

Remember, feeling embarrassed, overwhelmed, or confused when talking about money is common. Financial literacy isn’t widely taught in schools, so knowing how to start the conversation can be tricky. But if you’re experiencing financial stress, reaching out to someone is a vital first step. 

Some great questions to ask during a financial stress conversation include:

  • How do you feel about your money?
  • Is your living situation secure?
  • Do you have a stable source of income?
  • What is giving you the most stress right now?
  • Are you experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings?**

**Call triple zero (000) or LifeLine (13 11 14) if someone is in immediate crisis. It is okay to ask this question directly and plainly – avoid using euphemisms like “hurting yourself” or “doing something bad”. 

A financial stress conversation can also be about comfort, not solutions. Sometimes, listening is the best way to help someone experiencing hardship, though practical steps can be helpful, too. 

The conversation also doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. You can step away and return to it or have multiple talks as the situation evolves. The important thing is not to go through it alone.

For more information, head to Health Direct’s financial stress hub. Subscribe to Moneyzone for weekly news and insights in your inbox.