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Thrive Guide to Better Money Habits

Seven expert-backed strategies to reduce financial stress and boost your happiness.

You can get regular checkups, go to the gym, and eat a healthy diet — and yet, you may still be overlooking a powerful factor in your health. 

Money is one of the biggest sources of stress in the United States, according to the American Psychological Association. From mortgages to emergency funds, health care costs to student debt, financial concerns are weighing on our minds. It’s natural to think about how you’re doing relative to other people, says Lance Palmer, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “But if you feel like the people you’re comparing yourself against are doing better than you, it creates a lot of stress.”

Though small doses of stress can be useful, prodding us to take action and solve problems, even low levels of chronic stress can take a toll on our mental and physical health. That’s exactly what’s happening, reveals a new survey from Discover and Thrive Global.

According to the survey, 31% of people have felt the physical effects of money stress, and many of those respondents have even seen an impact on their blood pressure levels. More than a fifth of respondents said their mental health has taken a hit from financial worries. And a third said they’re losing ever-important sleep; studies show that sleep can improve everything from your body’s ability to fight the common cold to promoting the restorative health of your body’s cells and tissues, so not getting enough sleep can really do a number on our physical well-being. Money stress can have a compounded effect, research suggests. A November 2019 study from ​Moody’s Analytics and Blue Cross Blue Shield​ concluded that “If the current pace of decline in millennial health continues unabated,” they’re likely to see higher unemployment rates and lost income — causing more financial stress, leading to more health problems, and so on.

All the more reason to get a better grip on your financial situation now. “Being in control helps us feel better about ourselves,” says Hersh Shefrin, Ph.D., professor of behavioral finance at Santa Clara University. “And there are all kinds of mind-body connections that wind up interacting.” 

But change can be overwhelming — and stressful — in itself. The good news is that there’s a powerful, impactful approach to managing our finances and our health, based on the latest behavioral science showing that starting small — with too-small-to-fail Microsteps — is the most effective way to make habits stick. 

“Do one thing at a time and make it very small so you can feel successful,” says Chicago-based financial therapist Nicolle Osequeda. We asked several experts for actions that can add up to big results. They’re a powerful way to start the new year. Read on for their tips, plus some Microsteps you can start implementing in your life for more financial freedom and less stress. 

Identify your pain points

Get curious about your financial feelings, Osequeda advises. Reflect on what specifically causes you stress — and recognize that while your feelings are certainly real, their triggers may not be dire. For instance, if you were taught that debt was bad, holding student loans could cause you undue stress even if your loans are not straining your budget. “It might not be, how do I pay this down quickly?” she says. “It’s, how do I become comfortable with it?” she says.

Divert 10%

Worried about your lack of emergency funds or retirement savings? It only takes a few minutes to fill out a form or make a phone call and have part of your paycheck deposited into a savings account. If 10% feels like too much, make it 5%. Chances are, you won’t miss it, says Tom Corley, author of the book Rich Habits.

“You get used to living within your means,” he says. You can up the amount a little at a time, when you see how good it feels to build your nest egg. 

Microstep
Take two minutes each week to check how your retirement or savings account is performing.
Seeing the number rise is motivating, and you may be inspired to increase the amount you’re depositing.

Make a bite-sized budget

Fewer than 20% of households say they engage in serious budgeting, Shefrin says, but people who do it feel more in control over their finances. It’s key to recognize how much you spend per month in different broad categories, like groceries, entertainment, and fuel. “Then you can make a decision about whether you’re overspending or if you’re happy,” Shefrin says. 

Microstep
Every night, take a few minutes to log what you bought that day.
The first step for you is to get acquainted with where your money goes. You’ll have a real accounting of where your dollars are going, which will give you visibility into areas of your budget that you can trim. Don’t judge or blame yourself for the past. Just focus on the hope this new beginning brings. Once you have a good sense of your spending, you can create a budget for each category.

Do a little at a time

If college loans are getting you down, you’re not alone — according to the Federal Reserve, there’s $1.6 billion in outstanding student debt in the United States. The only way to tackle it is a little at a time. Tom Corley advises automatically paying a little extra every month. “Whatever the minimum is, add $50 to $100 to it,” he says. It only takes a few minutes to set the automatic payment, so eventually you can forget it.

Assess your subscriptions

You may have already cut down on, say, your use of Netflix, but are still paying for it. Check your App Store, Google Play, monthly delivery services, and other accounts for any subscriptions you don’t use and cancel them, Osequeda says. Then take that money and put it toward one of your financial goals. Try to resist any deals the companies give you to maintain your subscription. “You can always sign up for Birchbox or ClassPass again,” she says.  

Find a replacement habit

Identify a financial behavior you’d like to change — say, using online shopping as a pick-me-up when you’ve had a bad day at work — and come up with a different response, Osequeda says. Even better, make your response to that trigger a healthy one. “You could replace online shopping with 20 minutes of yoga, you could go for a walk and get some air and sunshine,” she says. “You could call a friend.”  

Microstep
Once a week, swap an online shopping session for a quick walk, stretch session, or phone call to a friend.
Replacing a spending session with a healthier behavior is a great way to introduce a stress-reducing habit without adding any extra time.

Boost your savings with bargains

Using a common trigger can help you build up your bank account — and solid habits, Shefrin says. 

Microstep
Whenever you buy something on sale, take the difference between the retail and sale price and deposit it into your savings account.
It takes two minutes, and it will not only feel good, but add up over time. Just make sure you’re not using this trick to justify unnecessary purchases.

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