Dealing with money can be stressful. In fact, the level of stress surrounding finances can be so debilitating for almost one in four Americans that they suffer from symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study by financial wellness company Payoff.
Being stressed about your finances certainly won't help improve your financial situation. "People under stress perform differently than when they're not under stress and make all kinds of bad decisions," said Dominique Henderson, a certified financial planner and founder of DJH Capital Management in Cedar Hill, Texas. As a result, their finances can seriously suffer.
Certainly some financial decisions are more nerve-racking than others. Here are some of the most stressful money situations Americans face — and what to do about them.
Dealing With a Financial Emergency
Not having enough money to fund an emergency is one of the the biggest sources of financial stress for many Americans, a GOBankingRates survey found. So when a financial emergency such as a job loss or major medical expense strikes, many people struggle to figure out to handle it.
"People often feel their whole world has been turned upside down," said Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner and founder of the Wealth Pilgrim financial planning blog. "And since their financial situation changes for the worse so quickly, it can actually be a traumatic shock and cause them to freeze up."
If you don't put cash in an emergency fund, you could be forced to decide whether to ask friends and family for help. Or, you might have to tap your retirement account or rack up debt to cover your costs.
"While there is no way to absolutely shield yourself from these types of upsets, the best solution here is to be proactive," Frankle said. "Besides building up your emergency fund, make sure you have proper property, auto, health, life, disability and liability coverage."
You might need to take other steps to cover your risks. "This might involve dialing down your current lifestyle now for a limited time in order to be better prepared for potential financial speed bumps and land mines that may lay ahead," Frankle said. "This proactive approach can help you deal with the unexpected in a more manageable way."
Buying a Home
Buying a home can be exciting but incredibly stressful. Online real estate brokerage Owners.com found that 72 percent of potential homebuyers said they expect stress in the homebuying process. Many of the respondents cited the financial aspects of buying a home as their primary worry.
"As one of the largest financial transactions in a person's life, it can be extremely challenging to remove your emotions and approach it with a methodical and rational mind," said Steve Udelson, president of real estate brokerage Owners.com. "This reality is exacerbated even more by the current real estate market, where home prices and interest rates are on the rise, and inventory continues to be low."
Making sure you don't rush is the key to avoiding headaches during the homebuying process. Start by figuring out how much home you can afford based on the amount you have saved for a down payment, and the monthly mortgage amount you can afford to pay without stretching your budget too thin.
Once you've calculated this figure, commit to not exceeding it. Owners.com found that more than half of potential homebuyers were willing to go over their budget by $37,809 on average.
To ensure you don't exceed your budget, Udelson recommends researching the real estate market in your area to understand if the price you're paying for a home is in line with its value. Cut transaction fees with a low-cost brokerage such as Owners.com.
Think critically about how long you will be in the home to determine which mortgage option is best for you. "Thoroughly inspect the home to assess any additional fees before inking the deal," Udelson said.
Related: 8 Ugly Truths About Buying a Home
Figuring Out How Much to Save for Retirement
Figuring out how much to save for retirement can be stressful for many people. "They know they need to save, but don't know how much," Henderson said.
In fact, a study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that 81 percent of Americans said they don't know how much money they'll need in retirement. It's likely because they haven't tried to figure out how much they need, Henderson said. They put it off because they don't want to see how far behind they are on savings.
As stress-inducing as it might be to calculate how much you need to save for retirement, it's a good place to start. "There are so many retirement assessments and calculators out there," Henderson said. "That's an easy Google search."
Figure out how much money you need for retirement. Then, take steps to boost your savings. And don't beat yourself up if you're behind. After all, you're not alone. More than half of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement.
To have enough for a comfortable retirement, you should save at least 15 percent of your income annually, Henderson said. If you can't save that much, contribute enough to your workplace retirement to get the full matching contribution from your employer, if it offers a match. That's free money that can help you reach your retirement savings goal faster.
Knowing When to Retire
Perhaps even more worrisome than figuring out how much to save for retirement is trying to decide when to retire. "The anxiety around this question can be overwhelming," Frankle said.
That's because many people don't know if they have enough money to retire. "A bad decision here could mean having to go back to work or relying on the kids," Frankle said. "Both of these outcomes are the last thing anybody wants."
To alleviate the stress, you need to have a plan for exiting the workforce years before you want to retire. "By creating your retirement plan and updating it over the years, you'll have a very good idea of whether or not you are on track, when you can retire and how much you'll have to live on," Frankle said. "Without running a retirement plan, you'll be in the dark, and that spells worry for most people I know."
Consider meeting with a financial planner to develop a plan. You can find a fee-only planner through NAPFA.org, the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. You can also find a planner who charges by the hour at GarrettPlanning.com, the website of the Garrett Planning Network.
Deciding on How Much Support to Provide Your Kids
If you're a parent, one of the tough decisions you'll have to make is how much financial support to give your kids. "As a father of three, I know how difficult it is to say 'no' to my brood," Frankle said. "But where do you draw the line when giving more to them means you'll have a more uncertain financial future and less control of your own situation?"
The question can be especially difficult to answer if you are deciding whether to help your children pay for college. If they have their heart set on a private school but you can only afford tuition at a state university — or can't afford to pay for college at all — you need to have a conversation with them. Explain why you can't help pay for their school or afford to send them to the school of their choice. "Teach them about the trade-offs," Frankle said.
Another tough decision is whether to provide financial support to your adult children by helping them pay off debt or letting them move back home. As much as you might want to help your children, you might need to close the Bank of Mom and Dad so your kids learn to be responsible with money and your finances don't suffer.
Understanding How to Help Your Aging Parents
Figuring out how you can afford to provide support for aging parents can be extremely stressful.
A report by Caring.com found that four in 10 caregivers spend $5,000 or more per year on caregiving expenses. Meanwhile, 18 percent of those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or dementia will spend $20,000 or more annually. Plus, most caregivers have had to miss work to help family members. That can take a financial toll.
To alleviate some of the stress of this tough financial situation, Henderson recommends having a plan in place well before your parents need care. Talk to your parents about their finances. "Get everyone in (a) room together to discuss basics," he said. Having a conversation well before your parents need care might give you time to help them get insurance coverage for long-term care needs and get all of the proper legal documents — such as a power of attorney — in place so you can step in and take control of their finances, if necessary.