Coping With Financial Stress


Most older adults can’t withstand a financial shock, putting them at a greater risk for money stress and related health problems. Here’s a plan to get back control (and peace of mind).

Worried about money? Join the club. Between the rising costs of, well, everything, and uncertainty about the future, people from all walks of life are dealing with financial stress.

However, older adults may be at a unique disadvantage. As we age, our health needs tend to increase, which equals more doctor’s visits, medications, and procedures. All of that care costs money.

But many of us are retired or unable to work, so we must rely on retirement funds and government assistance to see us through.

Sadly, even that support often isn’t enough.

In 2022, the National Council on Aging reported that 80% (47 million) of older Americans couldn’t withstand a financial shock, such as paying for long-term care services or the loss of income due to divorce or widowhood.1

Many older adults are either coping with a financial shock or bracing for one. In short, they’re stressed about money, and on-going financial stress can have consequences for your health and happiness.

Money Stress Impacts Your Health

Financial problems can take a huge toll on mental and physical health.

For starters, people who are under financial stress tend to limit how much they budget for health care. They may not fill prescriptions, visit the doctor as often, or seek necessary treatment. In fact, the percentage of Americans who reported postponing medical treatment due to cost reached a record high of 38% in 2022, according to a Gallup poll.2

Trimming medical costs may save money in the short term, but it comes with a higher price in the long term.

The pandemic gave us a wealth of insights, given that many older adults steered clear of their doctor’s office for fear of catching the virus. Research reveals that delaying medical care during the pandemic increased mortality risk among those with various health conditions, including preventable and treatable ones.3

Things haven’t gotten much better post-coronavirus: One study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that, among older adults who were hospitalized for a heart attack, those who had too little money each month to make ends meet had a 60% higher risk of dying within six months of discharge from the hospital.4

As Alexandra Hajduk, PhD, MPH, one of the researchers and an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine, explained, financial strain could make it harder for patients to access transportation to their follow-up appointments and to afford co-pays for their medications, leading to missed appointments and skipped medication doses.5

Ultimately, too many older adults undergoing financial hardships aren’t getting the medical care they need to stay healthy.

Financial Stress Creates More Health Problems

Increased stress from money problems can also worsen health outcomes due to the effects of chronic stress on the body.

—— Dr. Hajduk said.6

Your body is equipped to handle stress in small doses. Your sympathetic nervous system (also known as the “fight-or-flight” nervous system) releases stress hormones like cortisol, which tell your body to prepare to battle or run away. Once the stressful situation has passed, your hormones settle down.

But when financial stress is constant, your sympathetic nervous system continues pumping out stress hormones. Eventually, this disrupts everyday body processes, increasing your risk for digestive issues, headaches, and muscle pain.7

And then over time, the toll of stress on the body accumulates and can contribute to chronic physical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses

—— said Linda Gallo, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.8

The Link Between Financial Stress And Mental Health

Constantly worrying about money also does a number on your mental health. You may feel hopeless, embarrassed, irritable and tired. Your self-esteem may drop, especially if you always prided yourself on being able to cover the bills. All of those negative feelings can build up over time, leading to depression.

There’s even a name for it: Debt Depression.

Debt Depression is not a formal diagnosis. Rather, it is a term used to describe depressive symptoms brought on by the emotional stress of debt

—— said Joyce Marter, LCPC, a licensed psychotherapist.9

If you’re not careful, you can fall into a downward spiral, where depression saps your energy, making financial struggles even more challenging to tackle. This worsens your money situation, which intensifies your depression… and so on.

Advice For Coping With Financial Hardship

It can be tough to see a way out when you’re in the thick of financial hardship, but you can fix things. Get started with these tips.

Tip #1: Share Your Struggles

No one likes to admit they’re struggling, and to admit that you’re struggling with money is even more difficult. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed or consider money a taboo topic, something not to be discussed openly. So, you may keep your troubles to yourself and try to fix things on your own.

But bottling up your emotions can often make stress worse. Why? Because many of us don’t think rationally when we’re stressed. You might convince yourself that your money problems aren’t fixable or that financial struggles somehow mean you’re a failure.

Sharing your issues with a trusted friend or loved one can relieve some of that stress. It may feel awkward at first, but talking things through with another can help you put things in perspective, making them seem less intimidating. Your friend may even have fresh ideas to offer.

So, sit down with someone you trust and tell them what’s been going on. You might be surprised by how much better you feel afterward.

Tip #2: Get Professional Help

While friends and family can offer emotional support, a financial counselor can often give more practical advice for managing debt, budgeting, communicating with creditors, and claiming benefits or financial assistance.

There are many organizations that offer free financial counseling services, including GreenPath, National Foundation for Credit Counseling, and Financial Counseling Association of America. Depending on where you live, you may also be able to find free financial counseling through local government and churches.

Once you’ve identified a few financial counseling organizations, check with your state consumer protection agency ( to make sure they’re reputable before contacting them.

Tip #3: Come Up With A Plan

The best way to get rid of financial stress is to address it head-on. Create a plan to make it more manageable. Depending on your situation, your plan might include tightening your budget, seeking government benefits, finding another income source, lowering the interest rate on your credit, and more.

A financial counselor can help you create your plan, but there are also plenty of online resources you can use, including:

  • The National Council on Aging offers a budget calendar, along with helpful articles on benefits programs that can help you reduce monthly expenses and pay for food, financial scams to watch out for, and how to get started with online banking.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has resources to help you navigate debt, understand reverse mortgages, and make housing decisions when your health changes.

Tip #4: Manage Stress

Your financial struggles won’t resolve overnight. In the meantime, it’s important to take steps to lower your stress levels. Keeping your stress under control will help you regain energy and put you in a better state of mind for tackling your financial challenges.

Here are a few ways to manage stress:

  • Do some form of daily physical activity. To keep exercise from straining your finances even further, stick with no-cost options like walking or look for free yoga and fitness classes in your community.
  • Practice meditation or deep breathing. These types of relaxation techniques have been shown to reduce muscle tension and stress-related headaches.10
  • Don’t forget to have fun! Spend time with friends and family and do hobbies and activities you enjoy. To cut costs, find cheap or affordable ways to have fun. Visit museums, zoos, and aquariums on free admission days, check out books and movies from the library, or go bird-watching.

Get Control Of Your Money And Your Health

Money problems can trickle into every area of your life, impacting your mental and physical health. Retake control by being proactive about solving your issues, and keep your sanity by practicing stress management techniques… daily.

We have tons of helpful tips for handling life’s inevitable challenges, and managing the stress and cortisol in your life through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a gradual process that helps you take incremental steps toward behavior change. Look for articles on the top CBT techniques to help gain back control in your life.

1 80% of Older Americans Cannot Pay for Long-Term Care or Withstand a Financial Shock, New Study Shows. National Council on Aging. April 19, 2023.
2 Record High in U.S. Put Off Medical Care Due to Cost in 2022. Gallup. January 17, 2023.
3 Gertz AH, Pollack CC, Schultheiss MD, et al. Delayed Medical Care and Underlying Health in the United States During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Study. Preventive Medicine Reports. August 2022.
4 Falvey JR, Hajduk AM, Keys CR, et al. Association of Financial Strain With Mortality Among U.S. Older Adults Recovering From an Acute Myocardial Infarction. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2022.
5 In Older Adults, Money Problems Linked to Higher Risk of Death Following Heart Attack. Yale School of Medicine. February 22, 2022.
6 In Older Adults, Money Problems Linked to Higher Risk of Death Following Heart Attack. Yale School of Medicine. February 22, 2022.
7 How Stress Affects Your Health. American Psychological Association (APA). Last updated October 31, 2022.
8 Speaking of Psychology: The Stress of Money, With Linda Gallo, PhD, episode 22. American Psychological Association (APA).
9 4 Tips to Cope With Debt Depression. PsychCentral. Last updated July 21, 2021.
10 Stress Effects on the Body. American Psychological Association (APA). Last updated March 8, 2023.