Personal Finances Are a Top Source of Stress for Americans

More than two-thirds of Americans are feeling anxious about their financial situations.

Americans are more stressed-out than ever before, surveys show. And despite the robust GDP and job numbers, personal finances still rank as a top source of anxiety for people across the country.

More than 67% of Americans say they are somewhat or even extremely anxious over the state of their finances, according to a survey by the American Psychiatric Association.

The triggers for this anxiety range widely, from health issues to divorce to tension between paying college tuition bills and saving for retirement, according to anecdotes from certified financial planners, and a spate of consumer surveys.

And for their part, financial planners say they find themselves on the front lines of this epidemic of anxiety as they help coach clients through major financial challenges.

The intense and never-ending news cycle has helped raise the anxiety level of clients when it comes to their finances as well, notes Thomas Rindahl, a CFP at TrueWest Wealth Management Services in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"The greatest fear my clients express concern over is (market) volatility and the fear of not knowing what is coming and the worries that are brought up by 24-hour news channels," Rindahl says.

Medical Bills

A wellness survey by Stanford University and Fidelity Investments of more than 9,000 employees of companies around the country found 42% fell into the "unwell" category with their finances, with only job-related stress ranked higher.

One in eight employees reported anxiety over unpaid medical bills, to the point of losing sleep, making it one of the top sources of financial stress. Those with medical debt were also were more likely to lose time at work, averaging three more sick/personal days a year than their colleagues.

It's a finding that meshes with what Monica Dwyer, a vice president, wealth advisor, and CFP at Harvest Financial Advisors in West Chester, Ohio, sees when clients express to her their financial worries.

"I think that the thing that causes the most financial stress for clients is divorce or illness that endangers their savings or causes them to have to pay off large medical bills," Dwyer says.

Second to that is the financial stress clients experience trying to meet competing for demands to save for retirement and help pay for college for their children.

During a stint earlier in her career as a service rep at a major financial-services firm, Dwyer says parents would call in to move money out of retirement accounts to pay tuition bills.

She notes it was "often to their peril" since the parents needed that money for their retirement. In an ideal world, parents would save early and take advantage of various state tax breaks, but "we don't live in a perfect world and many people struggle to put food on the table, help their children succeed, save for retirement, pay for healthcare, etc.," Dwyer says.

Retirement Priority

As a wealth advisor and CFP, Dwyer says she strongly urges clients to consider making retirement savings their top priority.

"No parent wants to say no to their child, and many parents will put their child's needs above their own, but we had a saying that you can borrow for college but you can't borrow for retirement."

Sean Williams, a CFP at Sojourn Wealth Advisory in Timonium, Md., reflects he has recently helped various clients through a divorce, a layoff and the loss of a loved one, as well the purchase of a first home.

"These can be life's greatest stressors and can bring with them a great deal of anxiety," Williams says.

Williams sees his role in helping clients face tough financial situations as two-fold, offering support and professional guidance while also zeroing in on the technical issues, whether these are laws governing estate plans or a first-time home purchase, which could have an impact.

"Being familiar with these situations you first help your clients prepare for them through planning," Williams says. "Then if they are faced with the situation themselves they have a guide to be sure that the plan is being followed or adjusted as necessary."

For his part, Jeremy Hutzel, president, and owner of Sailer Financial in Brentwood, Tenn., says a dearth of communication between spouses is the biggest financial stress he currently sees when working with clients.

In the interest of efficiency, couples will often divvy up various financial responsibilities, with one handling the investments, the other the day-to-day expenses, for example. But one hand is often not talking to the other, leaving both spouses feeling left in the dark and potentially leading "to confusion or even frustration," notes Hutzel, a CFP.

"The role of the planner is less psychologist and more marriage counselor -- bring everyone together, communicate, and find a common goal," Hutzel says.