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Women are more likely to feel stressed about their finances than men – here’s what to do about it

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Money can be a stressor for all Americans — but more often than not, women are the ones worrying the most about it.

More than 2 in 5 women (or 46 percent) say money issues have negatively affected their mental health, prompting feelings of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and stress, according to a recent nationwide Bankrate poll. That number compares with 38 percent of men.

Among those who said money negatively impacts their mental health, women are more concerned than men about having enough emergency savings and paying for everyday expenses (at a respective 60 percent and 59 percent, versus 53 percent each for men).

Common financial situations are also more likely to trigger negative emotions for women than men, such as checking one’s bank account (52 percent of women versus 46 percent of men) or facing unexpected expenses (73 percent of women compared with 64 percent of men).

“These survey results are sobering, as financial stress impacts us all,” says Faye McCray, editor in chief of Psych Central, a Healthline Media company that also sponsored the report (Healthline and Bankrate have the same parent company, Red Ventures). “Often, we equate our financial situation with our worthiness, and that may prevent us from seeking support when the worry and anxiety becomes too overwhelming.”

For women, money isn’t always equal

Experts say the results highlight concerns bigger than just women and their individual financial choices — many of them tie to long-standing pay disparities between men and women.

The national median salary for full-time working women was $43,394 in 2019, compared with $53,544 for men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That’s left women with less money to work with, making it even more challenging to cover basic expenses let alone aspirational goals of saving for retirement and investing.

More women (at 41 percent) said their mental health was negatively impacted by fears of being unprepared for retirement than men (at 36 percent), according to Bankrate’s poll. A separate Bankrate survey from May found that men (at 50 percent) were also significantly more likely than women (at 37 percent) to say they have stocks or stock-market related investments.

“This is the impact of women not making as much money as men,” says Zaneilia Harris, CFP,  president of Harris & Harris Wealth Management Group. “And when you don’t bring home enough income that you feel can sustain your family, that’s a stress point.”

Women (at 61 percent) are also disproportionately more likely to assume caregiving responsibilities than men (at 39 percent), according to a 2020 AARP analysis. Those opportunities can significantly dent their lifetime earnings — especially if women have to take time away from their jobs or work fewer hours.

Starting a family is one of those endeavors that can cost women more than men. Mothers working full-time, year-round outside the home are typically paid just 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, according to a Census Bureau analysis from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).

Bankrate’s survey shows that caregiving is also responsible for the stress that women feel. More than half (or 51 percent) of women who are either married, in a civil partnership or living with a partner and have children under 18 say their finances negatively impact their mental health, compared to 42 percent of women who have the same relationship status and no children.

Single-parent women are unsurprisingly even more stressed. The majority (or 57 percent) of women who are not married, in a civil partnership or living with a partner and have children under 18 say money has negatively impacted their mental health, versus 49 percent of single women with no children.

“In so many ways, women are taking on the burden of the household, whether it’s just managing the finances at home or actually raising children or supporting other family members,” says Lauren Anastasio, CFP, director of financial advice at Stash.

In her own life, Anastasio said one of the biggest stressors was being left alone during the day to care for her one-week-old son when her husband’s paternity leave ended.

The burden was really on me at that point. We think we’re being incredibly supportive of women and their well-being [with parental leave], but if we’re not offering those same benefits to their partners, it’s still going to unfairly place additional burdens on women.

— Lauren AnastasioCFP and director of financial advice at Stash

Coronavirus pandemic derailed women’s equal pay progress

Gender pay gaps have narrowed in recent years, but experts say lingering impacts from the coronavirus pandemic have threatened to derail that progress. Roughly 1.2 million women are missing from the labor force since the pandemic-induced recession began in February 2020, according to the Department of Labor, while the crisis disproportionately affected women’s employment, a Fed analysis found. Another 1 in 3 women (33 percent) had to reduce their work hours amid pandemic-related school closures and child care restraints, according to a joint Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult poll from May.

Even worse, nearly 40 percent of women — which includes 51 percent of women working jobs that pay $15 an hour or less — say their family’s financial situation is worse off today than before the pandemic, compared with 26 percent of men, the NWLC found in a February poll.

“Women were starting from the bottom of the canyon and had maybe gotten halfway up, and then the pandemic hit and knocked them back down,” says Julie Vogtman, director of job quality and senior counsel. “It has been very difficult for women to even get back to where they were, and so many women were in a precarious position to begin with.”

‘My relationship with money was not healthy’

One of those women is JoVonna Chase. A single parent for 22 years and a social worker based in Washington, D.C., she’s no stranger to making tough financial choices. She also knows what can happen if she isn’t on top of her money: She’s reminded of a time seven years ago when her and her two children, then 11 and 15, were evicted. They moved back in with her mother, where they would ultimately stay for five years as Chase regrouped with her finances.

“My relationship with money was not healthy, and I learned it the hard way,” she says.

She buckled down with her credit, built up an emergency fund worth six months and felt like her finances were back on track when she decided to move out in December 2020. Six months later, however, another stressor would take its toll: health issues. Often working 14-hour days, she no longer felt the physical strength to do her job. She initially enacted a plan to work part-time, then dropped out to take a two-month-long medical leave. She’s now been out of work for more than a year with no end in sight. Chase receives just three-fifths of her original pay on disability.

“Physically, it was just too much for my body,” she says. “That was the biggest stressor for me, when I knew that I was home for health reasons, and I knew that my body was in a place where I couldn’t do the part-time work.”

She’s had to make substantial cuts to her expenses to make her savings last — including shopping around for cheaper cable and internet providers or dining out just twice a month with her two children, now 17 and 22.

Women in any culture, we’re expected to be the rock. We expect ourselves to parent well; we expect ourselves to be good spouses, to be good employees, to be good managers. Money is in that same category, but it can get lost in the shuffle.

— JoVonna ChaseWashington, D.C., resident

6 steps to limit stress with your finances

If you’re feeling stressed about your finances, it’s important to remember you’re not alone. Here are six steps experts recommend women take to help alleviate the stress they feel and limit the impact money has on their mental health.

1. Focus on what you can and can’t control

Financial anxiety is often like regular anxiety. Limiting your worry starts by acknowledging what’s bothering you and recognizing what’s within your own control — and what isn’t.

Credit card debt, an insufficient emergency fund or an unstable monthly budget, for example, are all parts of your individual financial life that you have the power to improve. Volatility in the stock market, surging inflation or gender pay gaps, however, are major societal issues that Americans can’t prevent.

“Another way to alleviate stress is to accept the fact that there are always going to be surprises that may come up,” Harris says.

Give yourself grace and acknowledge just how much you’ve accomplished despite the odds being stacked against you. Then, start by making small steps toward your goals. Even if it’s finding an extra $50 that you can use to stash away each month or use to pay down a high-interest bill, it can all add up to make a major difference for your wallet over time.

“What I recommend people do when they are dealing with financial anxiety in many ways aligns with wise mental health practices,” says Stash’s Anastasio. “We can focus on what’s in our control, and by putting more of our energy in that, it’s a natural way to help curb anxiety.”

2. Track your progress with saving over time

Financial goals such as building an emergency fund worth six months, saving for retirement or improving your credit score can seem like lofty tasks, especially for women who are contending with gender pay gaps. While starting small makes your goals easier to tackle, your goals undoubtedly can also still feel overwhelming (55 percent of women in Bankrate’s poll said their finances made them feel overwhelmed, versus 43 percent of men).

That’s where tracking your progress helps. Seeing just how much your credit score has improved, as well as how much cash you’ve managed to stash away in your investing or savings account can help you feel like you’re on more stable footing.

“Look at how things build over time,” Anastasio says. “Being able to see progress helps people stay motivated when they’re trying to reach a goal, and it helps you stay optimistic when you’re able to look back and see how far you’ve come in improving your personal finances.”

3. Find ways to monetize your hobbies or start a side hustle

Another powerful tool to help curb your financial worries: Bringing in additional income. You might not have enough time to work a second job, but you might already have hobbies or interests that you can monetize.

Chase turned to that strategy in her medical leave. She’s taken up three different side hustles based on her own skill sets: providing therapy services to individual clients; fulfilling speaking engagements; and selling soaps, waist beads and scrubs that she originally only crafted for fun in her time off. That’s helped her feel more control over her finances, she said, especially when she felt a significant amount of stress knowing that her disability pay depends on other people.

“There were all these things that I knew I was good at,” Chase says. “I had to create my own way to make sure that those ends stay together and aren’t moving further apart.”

4. Think carefully about your insurance policies

Having a safety net to protect your most valuable assets can be a crucial way to alleviate stress when emergencies happen. Experts say one area not to cut back on is insurance.

Choosing the cheapest policy “could reduce your monthly expenditures — until something happens and you have to fight an insurance company to get your claim paid,” Harris says. “That’s not a good place to be.”

Be sure to shop around, compare quotes and policies from different vendors and check third-party ratings to make sure you’re getting the best possible coverage.

5. Prioritize taking care of yourself

Self-care is crucial when it comes to managing the stresses of money and for wise reasons: It’s hard to make rational decisions when you’re feeling panicked.

Remember that taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of your wallet. Consider setting aside a few hours each week specifically to pay bills or to look over your finances. Then, stop yourself from worrying about your money outside of that window, Anastasio recommends.

It could also include going for walks or spending time outside, Harris suggests. Even better, both of those activities are free.

“It’s about doing things that help you to mentally release,” Harris says. “Because walking is something that you naturally know how to do and you don’t have to think, it allows you to process information better if you’re going through an issue.”

6. Remember that you’re not alone

One of the most powerful ways to limit any kind of stress — even financial ones — is by refusing to bottle it up. Talking about money with friends or family can help you vent when times are tough or feel encouraged when you’ve recently hit a financial goal. A certified financial planner or counselor could also provide you with even more tailored advice.

“It’s good to have someone on your personal board of directors that you can bounce ideas off of,” Harris says. “You want to build a team.”

Money has long been a taboo topic (only until recently has it been one workers themselves are starting to discuss), and women may be feeling the burden of carrying the torch for the many generations before them who were either shut out from their family’s finances or limited in their career prospects. Normalizing conversations about money can be a way to limit its negative impact simply because it will help you know that you’re not alone.

“I’ve seen so many stories over time, including my parents, where a wife or partner is kept in the dark,” Anatasio says. “Now, I feel like we’ve put this immense amount of pressure on younger generations of women to not make the same mistake. ‘Be independent, be smarter, and don’t let this happen to you.’ But being independent gives the sense that you have to go it alone. … Feeling like you’re not alone is so unbelievably important. Whatever your financial anxieties are, countless people are going through the exact same thing.”

Written by
Sarah Foster
U.S. economy reporter
Sarah Foster covers the Federal Reserve, the U.S. economy and economic policy. She previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily Herald.
Edited by
Banking editor