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Retirement planning

How to deal with financial stress and gain control of your finances

Woman paying bills at computer
Woman paying bills at home
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

If you find yourself constantly worried about upcoming bills and unexpected expenses, you may be dealing with financial stress. That stress is understandable. But with the right tools and support, you can feel more secure about your finances.

Facing your money worries

Financial stress is worry and anxiety resulting from financial hardship or uncertainty. It is often triggered by a dramatic change in your economic situation. Leaving a job, losing a loved one or getting unexpected medical bills are just a few things that can cause overwhelming uneasiness about money. Financial hardship is felt by many:  Over 50% of Americans  have experienced severe money stress over the past few years.

For some, the resources have always been scarce and the opportunities limited. The uncertainty of how to provide for themselves and their families is so familiar that it's hard to imagine a life without it.

Without seeing a clear way out, you may feel stuck. This pressure can take a toll on your mind, body and loved ones.

Ways financial stress can impact your life

Physical and mental health

According to WebMD, 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, leading to physical symptoms that may worsen in time. Those symptoms may include  physical ailments  like headaches, chest pain and digestive issues. Stress also can fuel conditions like  anxiety and depression , putting a strain on your physical and mental health.

If you're experiencing these symptoms, it is okay to reach out for help—whether it is a trusted friend, a family member or a therapist who can listen and help you navigate this hardship. Check with your employer to see if there are opportunities to meet with a therapist at no or low cost to you.

Relationships

Stressing about money can build tension in romantic, familial and other relationships. You might withdraw and isolate at a time when you need your family and friends' support and encouragement.

Future outlook

What's probably most damaging is the effect of financial anxiety on your view of the future. When you don't see a way out, it's easy to assume you'll be in a hard place forever. This can discourage you from setting goals and creating plans to change your situation. But no matter how you got here or how long you've been here, you are worthy and deserving of more. And "more" is attainable, one step at a time.

How to deal with financial stress

Having a sense of financial control can bring a sense of empowerment to relieve money stress. But the idea of changing your budgeting and planning can be overwhelming.

The reality is, there will always be something more you could be doing to reach financial success. But dwelling on what you're not doing only adds to the stress. Instead, focus on taking the next step—even if it's small.

Set your money goals

Financial goals keep you focused. While there are countless goals you can set, pick one to three goals that address your major sources of financial anxiety. Then focus on one of them at a time.

The best financial goals are as detailed as possible. They typically have a specific amount and a monthly or weekly strategy to help you reach that goal. For example, if a major stressor is not having enough money, your goals might look like this:

  • Decrease debt by paying an extra $50 per month on the credit card with the highest interest rate.
  • Increase savings by contributing $25 per month.

Other goals might include putting away a monthly amount to afford a car payment or save up for tuition.

Setting financial goals won't alleviate all your money stress. But having your goals front and center is often enough to remind you that brighter times are ahead.

Track your cash flow

Every successful personal finance strategy starts with knowing your cash flow: money coming in vs. money going out. If you track your monthly income and spending, you'll have a better idea about what flexibility you have to reach your money goals. You'll realize whether you have a positive cash flow (bringing in more money than you spend) or a negative one (spending more than you bring in).

Several apps can help you pay closer attention to your monthly cash flow. Some can even track it automatically by linking to your accounts. These apps categorize your spending so it's easy to see how much goes to bills, debt payments, groceries, transportation and other things.

It can be uncomfortable facing your monthly expenses, especially if they're significantly more than your monthly income. But you'll be better equipped to adjust your spending instead of spiraling into a cycle of debt.

The goal — no matter how much you earn per year — is to minimize your expenses and maximize what's available to move you forward. Take one spending category at a time and ask yourself how you can realistically spend less. This ongoing practice will lead to less financial worry as you exert more control over where your money goes.

Create your budget

Once you have a solid picture of your cash flow and where changes might be made, you're a short step away from budgeting. A budget sets guardrails that tell you how much to spend in each category to stay on track to reach your goals.

The  best budgets  are based on your natural spending habits. This is why it's worth taking the time to track your spending. Tweaking your natural spending habits gives you a greater chance of sticking to your spending plan than setting aspirational limits.

A budget also works best when you set aside time to check your progress. The apps that help you track your spending usually allow you to enter spending limit alerts. But even the best budgeting app only helps if you check it regularly. Consider setting aside 10 to 15 minutes each week to see whether you're on track.

Don't give up on budgeting

One of the biggest misconceptions around budgeting is that you have to follow it perfectly or else you've failed. A budget is a plan, and the best-laid plans should have the flexibility to adapt as your needs change.

Some months may go well, and some may feel like a disaster. It's not a failure to overspend — it's an opportunity to learn and adjust to get back on track.

If you're a first-time budgeter, give yourself grace. It takes time to see if your spending limits are realistic and practice sticking to them. Even if you're a seasoned budgeter, you'll have your share of hard months. Life often presents us with situations that force us to rework our plans. Let your budget be a living document that ebbs and flows with you.

Build your support system

When dealing with financial stress, you may be tempted to pull back and carry the burden on your own. To avoid getting stuck in a discouraging place, build a support system of friends and family to help carry you through.

If your budget allows for it,  professional financial help  can go a long way. Financial advisors can look at your situation and create a realistic plan that works for you.

Taking small steps can lead to a brighter future. By consistently exerting more control over your finances, you'll gain confidence and realize that with the right tools and support, you can handle anything.

See how you can get started with Thrivent's  free budget program .

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