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The truth about financial stress and your relationship with money

Why you might have a stressful relationship with money and what you can do to change that.

By ATB Financial 1 November 2018 3 min read

We’ve all been conditioned to have a certain response to money—for many Canadians, it’s a stress response. According to FP Canada’s annual Financial Stress Index study, 38% of Canadians say money is their biggest concern, outranking personal health (21%), work (19%) and relationships (18%). One in three (35%) say financial stress is leading to anxiety, depression or mental health issues. But why?

In a conversation with neuroscientist Dr. Trudi Chalmers, PhD, we got a better understanding of why money is stressful and how to assess our current money mindset.

The origin 

Our relationship with money starts with our earliest relationship—with our primary caregivers.

“Interestingly, although most people will say they were never ‘formally’ taught money management from their parent(s) [or caregiver(s)],” Dr. Chalmers explained, “most will say how they think about money (their relationship with money) has been most heavily influenced by their parent(s) [or caregiver(s)] and what they experienced and observed growing up.”

We bring this relationship with money—for better or worse—into our new relationships, including partners. If we aren’t aware of our money relationship, it can create tension when we join with someone whose view of money is different—which it most likely will be.

The symptoms

No matter what kind of stress your body perceives (even if the stressor isn’t real), it reacts the same way. Dr. Chalmer listed the symptoms of stress: “increased heart rate, narrowed focus, feelings of fear with a fight or flight response, defensiveness, anxiety and loss of sleep.”

If these symptoms of stress sound familiar, the good news is that we can change our experience—but it’s going to take some personal investment.

The challenge

“Money is an object. As such, it’s not the actual money that creates stress—it’s what the money represents [for each of us].”

Money has become a symbol of something for us based on our upbringing and what was modeled to us by our primary caregiver(s). This is where the hard work comes in for each of us—we have to unpack what money has come to represent in our lives, beyond the stress we experience.

The shift 

“We can be stressed because we don’t feel we have enough money, but is the real issue the lifestyle you feel you need to have in order to keep up with some ideal? Or, is the stress behind it resulting from a need to upskill so that you can get a different job with a higher income? These are difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions to sit with and explore.”

But they’re necessary if we want to conquer our personal myths surrounding money. Once we’ve taken the time to understand our relationship with money, we can do more than just avoid stress in the moment—we can start to understand what triggers our response and recreate our mindset entirely.

Dr. Chalmers offered a few more practical steps you can take to invest in a healthy relationship with money:

1. Pause and respond (not react). “To combat stress symptoms in the moment, take time to recognize your specific stress response—maybe your heart beats incredibly fast, or your chest feels tight—and choose to step away from the financial decision until you’ve calmed down.”

2. Get different perspectives on money. “Talk about money with those who you’re close with and trust. We need to hear and see others’ perceptions and relationships with money in order to understand our own.” 
If you’re sharing finances with a partner, have honest conversations about your perspectives, along with your income, goals and expenses. This allows you to be united as you work towards your ultimate objectives

3. Get serious about your budget. “Take an honest look at money coming in and money going out. What are your natural tendencies with spending and saving? Be honest and create a system that works for you, not against you.”

If you’re in a partnership, try having regular “budget dates” where you talk about finances. One of our team members, Tayllor, started doing weekly budget dates with her husband, with a special date at the end of the month where they go out to their favourite coffee shop to allocate savings and dream about their goals.

Creating meaningful and fun routines around budgeting and finances can help create a more positive relationship with money and bring you closer to your partner.

Want more resources to help you change your relationship with money? Our Wealth team is here to guide you so you can boost your financial confidence.

Need help?

Our Client Care team will be happy to assist.