How to cope with money anxiety

Woman stressed about money.
Woman stressed about money.
Getty Images

Unless you are born into a wealthy family or happen to win the lottery, you will most likely worry about money at some point in your life. Keeping afloat financially is a responsible, and perfectly normal concern. But, in certain instances, it crosses over to a real worry.

This then manifests itself in a number of ways that add up to various symptoms, presenting as a disorder. In a 2012 report submitted to the American Psychological Association, Dr Brendan Burchell and Dr Gilla Shapiro defined money anxiety as “an uneasy and unhealthy attitude toward engaging with, and administering, personal finances in an effective way”.

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Having said that, there is no exact test to diagnose it, so a therapist will have to do more probing for a diagnosis. Dr Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and Associate Professor of Practice in financial psychology and behavioural finance at Creighton University, says money anxiety can also be described as persistent patterns of self-destructive and self-limiting financial behaviours.

These are a result of distorted beliefs about money, that were developed from financial flashpoint experiences or distressing and dramatic life events associated with money. They are so emotionally powerful that they leave a lasting imprint. Additionally, many of these experiences stem from childhood, and persist well into adulthood.

Typical money stress or money anxiety? 

It is normal for money to be a concern as it dictates what is possible in terms of living space, transport options and leisure activities. But, holistic psychotherapist Alison Stone says we should be mindful of the level to which our anxiety interferes with daily functioning.

“If money is the first thing you think about in the morning, the last at night, and takes up a lot of space in-between, that’s probably a clue that something larger is going on that you want to pay attention to.”

In South Africa, the issue of black tax adds another layer to this already complex issue. In a 2017 article titled Fulfilling your ‘black tax’ obligation does not have to lead to financial ruin, BDO’s corporate benefits consultant Lesego Mpete unpacked how black tax contributes to money anxiety.

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“Black tax is an opportunity cost on savings you could be making to ensure that you have a brighter, debt-free future. The fact that you are spending all this money on taking care of family responsibilities means that you are not saving, especially for things such as retirement.”

The symptoms 

Although the symptoms of money anxiety vary from person to person, below is a shortlist of the most common indicators: Overspending. Having a bit of month left at the end of your money happens to many of us. If you are constantly short of money, in spite of having regular income, then all is not well. Hiding financial status.

Discussing money publicly is also considered as taboo within our societies. But, being unable to have financial conversations with your partner or close family could be an indication of something that you need to look into. Financial enabling.

The instinct to want to help family and close friends is perfectly normal. But, if you’re paying for your adult children’s expenses or signing your friend’s surety for loans, then you’re crossing unhealthy boundaries Inability to change financial behaviours. In theory, we all know how to be fiscally responsible – save for emergencies, have a solid retirement plan, pay taxes regularly, etc. Of course, there are serious consequences to not doing so. But, continually flouting good spending rules is a red flag.

Being frugal seems like a no-brainer when trying to save. But, if it crosses over into denying yourself basic needs, such as healthcare or repairs to your home, then it no longer makes sense. Now, if any one of the above-mentioned symptoms sounds familiar or you are experiencing inordinate worries about money, you need to seek professional help.

A way out 

Money anxiety has many layers, and therefore has no single cure. As with all problems, the first step is to accept that something is not right. This important decision will be the beginning of your journey to wellness.

If money problems are the reason for your anxiety, first reach out to a financial adviser to help you with budgets and saving. Thereafter, reach out to a therapist to help you with the root causes of fiscal imbalance. Even people society considers relatively well-off have money anxiety that manifests in either hoarding or overspending.

In these instances, one of the most powerful tools for healing would be to be transparent with your spouse and close family members so that they can be an effective support system. Continue to seek further help from financial planners as well as mental health practitioners who specialise in this condition.

Additionally, have a savings account in case of emergency as this alleviates a lot of stress about future emergencies. The bottom line is, no matter how overwhelming it seems, you can overcome money anxiety through a combination of self regard, support and external help.


Even though this is slowly changing, many people find talking about money impolite and, in extreme cases, a taboo. But, if a friend or family member is going through money anxiety, here are some ways in which you can be supportive.

Educate yourself about it

Money anxiety can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. So, it is important to know some of the more common symptoms. If you are unsure, read up on the article or do some research with reputable sources online.

Don’t be judgemental

Because all our journeys are different when it comes to money, it can be easy to make assumptions from the outside. You might have the urge to lecture the person confiding in you for not budgeting better or berate someone you perceive to be relatively well-off for being so tight-fisted. Instead, try to make your conversations a safe space so that they feel comfortable talking to you.

Offer sustainable

help This can range from offering to be a financial accountability partner, to gently encouraging them to seek the necessary professional assistance. The most important thing is to reassure the person trying to resolve their money worries that they have a bedrock and someone to lean on when things are tough. Reassure them that you are in it for the long run

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