NEW YORK (MainStreet) Nearly four in five people (79%) said the stress of personal finances is keeping them awake at night, according to a National Foundation for Credit Counseling poll.
Credit problems stemming from overwhelming debt can manifest themselves into larger issues -- causing distraction at work, tearing families apart and wrecking marriages, said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC, the Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit financial counseling organization.
"Debt is like a dark cloud that follows a person 24 hours per day," she said. "They wake up with it, take it to work with them and as the NFCC poll confirmed, they take it back to bed with them."
Personal finance issues play a large part in the psyche of the American consumer with 71%, or 179 million, who admitted to having concerns about a lack of savings, their jobs, debt and credit.
The positive news that can be gleaned from the poll is that respondents were able to identify the source of their distress, Cunningham said. Consumers also went to a reliable resource like www.DebtAdvice.org for help.
"Consumers who are in financial distress or those who see the handwriting on the wall should take action and the sooner the better," she said. "I have never seen a financial issue that resolved itself. Their next step should be to reach out to an NFCC member agency for personalized and solution-oriented assistance."
Financial stress affects people not only mentally, but also physically, said Alisa Ruby Bash, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. A debt stress index developed by researchers in 2009 at Ohio State University showed that individuals had 27% more digestive tract disorders when experiencing debt stress and 29% suffered severe anxiety, she said. This was compared to people without debt stress and whose complaints were at 4%.
"This stress creates a vicious cycle," she said. "People under stress are linked to more absenteeism at work, poorer performance, substance abuse and poor health in general. This of course can lead to increased job loss and more financial worry."
Revealing a high amount of debt after a relationship has become serious can result in serious issues, Bash said.
"Few things can kill a budding romance more than the revelation of high debt," she said. "It often is not spoken about until a relationship becomes very serious and two parties start to merge finances or take a step like purchasing a house or car."
While many couples think the financial issues will resolve themselves, unpaid debts over time can slowly can chip away at a relationship and the couple's dreams. The couple may be faced with the inability to access credit and secure a mortgage, Bash said.
Paying your bills on time is the most important facto to have creating a good credit score, which allows consumers to be able to rent an apartment, purchase a car or obtain the job they want, said Jeff Golding, CEO of WilliamPaid, a Chicago-based company which allows people to build credit through paying their rent online for free.
Creating a realistic budget or cutting back on discretionary expenses can help resolve some issues, he said.
"As you soon as you come to terms with the debt, you will start feeling better," Golding said. "Debt can be overwhelming. You have to think through the outlying variables that come into play and avoid looking at just the lump sum payment of an apartment lease."
Developing a plan by prioritizing your debt and obligations can be the first step in creating less stress, said John Heath, directing attorney for Lexington Law, a Salt Lake City-based credit report repair law firm. He recommends paying your rent and transportation first, followed by health insurance and then unsecured debt.
"Many personal finance issues don't get the attention they deserve out of fear and a misunderstanding of how consumer credit works," he said. "The first thing is to step back and not panic about your debt and how overwhelming they can be. Triage your obligations."
Pulling your credit report at least on a monthly basis because creditors report at different frequencies will enable consumers to catch mistakes and identity theft sooner, Heath said.
"One of the most important things is to be cognizant with what is going on with your credit," he said. "It is a very good thing to understand what is on your credit report and how it affects your credit score."
--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet