Nearly one in three Australians is feeling financially stressed, with damaging effects on mental and physical health and social relationships.
The CoreData/Financial Mindfulness Financial Stress Survey of 1000 people found 30 per cent of people reported financial stress, and the problem affects all socio-economic groups.
Marian Russell, from North Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches, knows the feeling well.
Her husband, Zac, 28, works long hours as a carpenter while Ms Russell, 24, looks after the couple’s two children, Allegra, 2, and Bodie, 1.
The family lives pay cheque to pay cheque and struggles to pay off a debt they acquired when they bought a vehicle for Zac’s work.
“This week we literally had $30 after all the bills were paid. It’s sad but we’ve got to be thankful we’ve got food in the cupboard,” Ms Russell said.
“It’s taking its toll, not just on our relationship but emotionally, on myself. I have anxiety and depression and it doesn’t help not having my husband around because he has to work six days a week to keep food on the table. It’s a lot of pressure for a young mum.”
Ms Russell said her husband found it hard to switch off from work and the couple rarely get to go out together. Her husband’s family live nearby but are away until the end of the year, so free babysitting is off the cards for now. They got married in the registry office because money was too tight for a wedding and Ms Russell has shelved her plans for study.
Her biggest fear is not providing for her children. She cancelled their swimming lessons because it cost too much, a decision that weighs heavily given the family live so close to the beach.
Ms Russell said she would like to contribute financially but if she went back to her former work in retail, the cost of childcare would leave the family only $10 a day better off. “I would love to work but it’s not worth it,” she said.
Instead she sells her art online, under the name LunaTribeDesign on Instagram and Facebook, providing some “pocket money” and a much-needed emotional boost.
Ms Russell said they were lucky to live in a good rental property but she doubts they will be able to get ahead while living in Sydney.
The financial stress survey found money worries were widespread across all socio-economic groups. Clinical psychologist Dr Nicola Gates, who was involved in the study, said people on high incomes reported financial stress as well.
“It can be over-commitment but also things can change profoundly for people,” Dr Gates said.
“A client in my practice had a recreational sport accident … he came off his jet ski and hadn’t set himself up well with insurance, so the family lost the major breadwinner just like that. So where do the school fees come from? How does the mortgage get paid? People’s financial position can be more precarious than they realise.”
Dr Gates was aware financial stress was a problem for her clients but was surprised the survey suggested it was so high in the general population. Potential reasons include the high cost of housing, lack of wages growth, perceptions of job insecurity and the fact financial literacy has not kept up with the complexity of the financial system.
“Financial stress is very prevalent and there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment around financial stress and as a result people don’t really talk about it,” Dr Gates said. “Shame is a particularly acute risk for mental illness.”
The psychological burden of stress has a physical effect on the body, with lack of sleep and lowered immunity. And people often cope with financial stress in ways that can damage their health and relationships.
Thirty-five per cent of financially stressed respondents have used drugs or alcohol to manage negative feelings stemming from their money worries, while 38 per cent have been hurtful towards themselves or others.
Almost nine in 10 financially stressed respondents regularly miss social events because of money worries, compared with only one in five of those not financially stressed.
More than seven out of 10 people who are financially stressed regularly lose sleep because of money issues, compared with less than one in 10 of those who are not financially stressed.
And more than half of financially stressed respondents report considerable difficulty concentrating due to money worries, compared with only 3 per cent of those who are not financially stressed.