A little stress is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes, challenges us to improve and can even lead to healthier brain function. A life without any stress at all would be pretty boring.
But when it comes to money, most people are dealing with more than just a little bit of stress. On this end of the spectrum, the upsides of stress are replaced with even more downsides – poor sleep, increased anxiety, decreased immunity and more. Just about everyone could benefit from stressing less about money.
That might be easier said than done, but there are some tried and true strategies we can recommend. Here are some of our favorites.
Adjust Your Withholding
Emily Guy Birken, author of “End Financial Stress Now,” said one of the fastest ways to add more money in your budget is to adjust your tax withholding at work. If you’re used to getting a large tax refund, you can change your tax withholding status to make your regular paycheck larger.
Talk to your HR department about how to change your tax withholding and use the IRS tax withholding calculator to see what you specifically need to change. Depending on when your employer implements the changes, they could come into effect during your next paycheck or the one after.
“The only caveat you need to remember is that you’ll get a smaller or no refund in April,” Guy Birken said.
Start a Money Journal
Research has shown that journaling about your problems can lead to reduced stress and anxiety. If you’re worried about money, take a notebook and start writing down what you’re worried about. Consider it a brain dump exercise; just start writing and don’t worry about having all the information perfectly laid out.
Once you’re done, go through the entries and prioritize your stressors. Are you more worried about saving for retirement or establishing an emergency fund? Are you more worried about your student loans or your credit card balance? Try to list items in order from most important to least important.
After prioritizing the items, start a new list and break down the steps you need to take. Then, you can start tackling those tasks and reduce your stress.
Call Your Credit Card Provider
If you have a credit card balance, try calling your provider and asking for a lower interest rate. Remind them that you’ve been a long-time customer and that you’ve never missed a payment. A lower interest rate will prevent more interest from accruing and help you pay off the balance faster, which should help alleviate some financial stress.
Switch to a Lower Student Loan Payment
Lowering your monthly student loan payment can provide some breathing room in your budget. If you have federal student loans, you can switch to an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan which may result in a lower payment. IDR plans also offer loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan and type of loan.
Here’s how much of a difference you might see every month. Let’s say you owe $50,000 in federal student loans with a 5.28% interest rate and a 10-year term. If you switch to one of the IDR plans, your monthly payment would be $256 compared to $537 on the standard 10-year plan.
The main downside of an IDR plan is that your repayment term is extended, and you may owe taxes on the forgiven amount when the term is over. But it’s a good temporary fix if you need a lower payment. You can always switch back to the standard plan if you want to repay your loans faster.
Lower your Bills
If you need more breathing room in your budget, try negotiating with your internet, cable and cell phone providers. You may also be able to lower any outstanding medical bills if you call the billing department and ask for a discount.
“Internet and cable service is an easy place to start because they’re used to be negotiated with,” Guy Birken said.
Some tenants have had luck negotiating their rent during the pandemic, especially if they live in a city where people have moved out in droves.
Examine your Transactions
A 2020 Mint survey found that 65% of Americans don’t know how much they spent last month. While ignorance may feel like bliss, the anxiety that comes with being unaware of your spending feels more like misery.
Print out or download your credit card and bank statements from the past month and parse through them. You may discover that you’re still paying for a makeup subscription box or gym membership you thought you canceled. You may also find transactions you don’t recognize, which could be evidence of fraud.
Cancel any subscriptions you no longer use and ask for a refund if the expense has gone through within the past month. Be persistent about canceling. Sometimes it can take weeks for the request to go through, so set a calendar reminder to double-check that the subscription has been canceled.
Start a Budget
If you discover that you’re spending more than you earn, you need to make some radical changes. Start by making a budget, which can help you track spending and free up money to save, pay off debt and meet your other financial goals.
You can use Mint to create a budget. Mint will suggest categories based on your current spending and show how much you spend on average. You can then decrease or increase the amounts depending on your goals. When you’re close to exceeding the budget, you’ll get an email notification.
If you’re new to budgeting, don’t be surprised if you keep going over budget in certain categories. It takes time to change your financial habits, so be patient with yourself.
Close Old Accounts
A common stressor is having to manage multiple accounts. You can forget about one and end up with an overdrawn bank account or some fraudulent activity. If you have several accounts you don’t need or use regularly, consider consolidating them. After you do that, set up your bills, credit cards and loans on autopay so you don’t have to worry bout missing a due date.
“It made it easier to maintain the financial aspect of our lives because we didn’t have a sprawling mess to manage and many of the ‘day to day’ activities were on autopilot,” said Jim Wang of Wallet Hacks.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Conscious Coins.