The Health Toll of Financial Stress

Depressed businessman sitting under falling papersSure, this post comes right on the heels of Cyber Monday…but is there ever a perfect time for a message like this? Yes, I run a business, but I still don’t mind kicking the cultural hornet’s nest. Some things don’t change.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t contradiction. Here I am doing my own holiday shopping today (don’t tell Carrie)—and offering my own deals to those who are interested. The holidays—with all the shopping and parties and prep—are fun. No doubt. Simultaneously, I know financial stress takes a major toll this time of year, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Estimates for last year’s Christmas gift spending placed the average American in the vicinity of $936—with the average parent spending an additional $422 per child on top of that already princely sum. (Whether that figure still holds true in a family of four or five is debatable.)

And that may not even be the half of it. Holiday dinners, events, decorations, clothing, and trips add to the price tag. The result? More than half of us rack up debt for holiday expenditures, a sizable portion of which will take more than half a year to pay off.

Financial stress carries over past the festivities of the season, and its costs can be much higher than a credit card total. 

Financial Stress at The Holidays

Let’s talk numbers. According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. retail sales during the 2015 holiday season surpassed the GDP of 181 other countries. That’s more spending on presents, food and holiday sundries than the combined GDP of countries like South Africa, Sweden and Norway…amounting to a whopping $630+ billion.

Perceived social expectations set the stage. A few years back, a survey of 1000 Americans across all income brackets found that 45% of those polled were under so much financial pressure that they’d prefer to skip the holiday scrabble altogether. Another 45% said they didn’t have enough money set aside to cover holiday expenses.

It gets worse. While 41% of people are unable to survive more than two weeks without a paycheck, 59% of people are carrying debt into the new year. Not surprisingly, a 2015 Healthline survey showed that over 60% of people get stressed out just thinking about the holiday season, with finances being the biggest cause of that stress.

The Health Costs

Even within the Primal community, there’s a tendency to focus on tangible sources of stress—inflammatory foods, toxic compounds in our living environment, etc. Yet, financial woes crop up again and again as one of the most pervasive forms of stress. 

A 2008 study found that college students with a debt of $1000 or more were at significantly higher risk of obesity, excess TV viewing, infrequent breakfast consumption, fast food consumption, binge drinking, substance abuse, and lack of exercise.

In another study, financial strain held a particularly strong association with heavy drinking and smoking among elderly men. Further research indicates that smokers with financial stress are less likely to try to quit, less likely to succeed if they do try, and more likely to relapse. Presumably, it’s something of a vicious cycle, with smoking leading to financial strain, which in turn promotes more smoking. Stress can send us into a cul-de-sac of bad habits.

Over time, these stress-justified bad habits are likely to create their own slew of health problems, the most common of which is weight gain. In a study involving 1,355 U.S. men and women, increasing levels of psychosocial stress in the form of “difficulty paying bills” was associated with a higher propensity for weight gain. The mechanisms behind this are well understood, with higher levels of stress leading to the development of “palatable food” (aka junk food) motivation and engagement in overeating to offset the negative emotional effects of stress. This higher energy intake, coupled with a reduction in physical activity, stimulates visceral fat accumulation. The rest is history.

Perhaps most famously, higher levels of stress, both acute and chronic, have been associated with impaired cardiovascular health and life-threatening complications. Research shows that work-related stress, which often goes hand in hand with financial stress, can increase a person’s risk of a first coronary heart disease (CHD) event. Among existing CHD patients, long-term stress can increase the risk of repeat CHD events and mortality. Other studies indicate that psychological stressors can lead to sudden death, myocardial infarction, myocardial ischemia, and wall motion abnormalities.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the brain, stress undermines well-being by releasing corticosteroid hormones that control neuronal and network responses tied to behavioral adaptation. In acutely stressful scenarios, this process is beneficial to our survival, heightening awareness and honing reflexes. But over the long term, such as is the case in chronic financial strain, these corticosteroid binary control mechanisms can erode mental health and promote brain disease.

In the early days, this detrimental effect of stress on the brain can manifest in impaired cognitive function. For example, male rats exposed to 21 days of restraint stress exhibited both reduced visual and spatial memory, while chronic unpredictable stress can drastically alter the behavior of rats and promote a rapid shift towards habitual tendencies. The mechanisms by which humans respond to stress aren’t all that different.

Then there’s sleep. Even among the elderly, financial stress appears to be a key contributor to poor sleep, with ongoing financial strain correlated with difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and impaired sleep efficiency. Another study involving a wider age range of subjects found that financial strain was associated with decreased sleep quality and lower sleep efficiency.

And if you’re not sleeping well, you’re probably not aging well. Researchers postulate that chronic psychological stress “is significantly associated with higher oxidative stress, lower telomerase activity, and shorter telomere length, which are known determinants of cell senescence and longevity.” In other words, financial stress leads to oxidative stress, which undermines the health and longevity of your cells—making you age faster.

Then there’s all the digestive issues that come with chronic stress. In animal models, stress has been shown to promote the “development of gastric ulcers, altered gastrointestinal motility and ion secretion, and increased intestinal permeability.” Stress also teams up with other pathogenic factors in the GI tract, including H. pylori and NSAIDs, to encourage gastrointestinal disease.

Indeed, the type of stress induced by financial strain has been associated with almost all of the most common chronic digestive diseases, including functional gastrointestinal disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. So many of us have been there at some point….

Final Thoughts: Sidestepping the Financial Circus 

Short of packing the car and whisking the kids away from all civilization, there are plenty of steps we can take to keep budgetary sanity. I’ll share a couple thoughts, and I invite you to offer your own strategies for keeping a handle on the finances as you enjoy the best of the season.

Ditch Debt

With the deceptive ease of credit cards, it’s all too easy to blindly spend and worry about the consequences later. No rocket science here of course, but we can all benefit from figuring what we can afford to buy without borrowing this month, and to stick to that amount. Clarity around financial matters isn’t a killjoy. It just offers the objective facts we have to work with. 

Smart shopping, deep discount or consignment bargains, secret Santa exchange, or a one-gift-per-family-member policy can ensure present spending doesn’t break the bank. For the holiday meal, consider taking a drive to the farmgate to purchase your turkey and ham and save a considerable sum.

More importantly, make a point of not using your credit card for your holiday spending— meaning when the cash runs out, the buying stops and there’s no debt accruing. (Anybody still use the old envelope system? Some things shouldn’t ever go out of style.)

If need be—and there’s nothing wrong with hardcore accountability, give your credit cards to a (trusted) friend and tell them not to give it back until after the festivities are truly done and over.

Forget the Crowds

We’ve all been there: a shopping mall packed to the rafters in the weeks leading up to the holidays, filled with people like you desperate to get their last minute gift buying and food acquiring out of the way. It’s not an enjoyable time in anyone’s life, even if there are no budgetary constraints. I know I personally don’t make good decisions in that environment. 

My solution is to ditch the crowds altogether and do most of my holiday buying online. It means something to shop from the sanity of your own home and walk away from the computer when you’ve had enough—financially or otherwise. It’s open anytime, so I can research, mull, and make decisions when I’m ready to make them. And let’s be honest…the experience is more pleasant with a glass of wine anyway. 

Thanks for reading folks. What’s your strategy for staving off financial stress over the holiday season? Take care.


TAGS:  marketing

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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22 thoughts on “The Health Toll of Financial Stress”

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  1. I find that living well within our means (no debt other than mortgage) makes the small splurges at holiday time easy to manage. Our sons grew up understanding the value of a dollar and how to be smart about money. Now as young adults, they save and invest and stay out of debt. Most of all: we know that so much of the joy in life comes through the quality of our relationships and time shared together, not in mindless consumerism. There is a point where you simply must accept and claim your values and not succumb to social pressure. Others will follow suit or go their own way. This is a pertinent topic every time of year. Paleo folks ought to be used to going against societal pressure by now anyway!

    1. I agree. Living within one means makes good sense and relieves a lot of stress.

  2. To say I’m not a shopaholic would be a massive understatement. I’ve never liked milling around in stores and, other than buying groceries, I do as little of it as I can get by with…but that’s just me. Many people love to shop, hence the money woes.

    Mark’s excellent advice to ditch debt is paramount for reducing finance-related stress. A good mantra in most cases is, if you can’t afford to pay cash for something, then you probably can’t afford to charge it either. Credit cards should be strictly a convenience and not viewed as a free lunch.

  3. Great article full of truth! Financial debt is definitely not a Primal thing, I mean, I doubt Grok was borrowing money for some rare fur loin cloth or whatever! My wife and I lived like most Americans early in our marriage….credit card card debt, student loan debt, 2 car loans, a mortgage, etc, but got sick of the “debt stress” and realized that material things really don’t make us happy so we paid off the credit cards, student loans, sold the cars and paid cash for used ones and downsized from our big new home to a smaller, older home. Now, at age 38, I sleep well at night with no debt other than a very small mortgage. This allows us to be spontaneous with our money and take fun trips with our kids without any guilt or worry. We are also able to save quite a bit and also are able to give freely to those in need. It is very freeing to eliminate debt, especially unnecessary debt like cars and credit cards.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post! We’ve really pared down on gift giving in my family, and it’s a wonderful feeling. Time together is a gift in itself!

  5. I agree that financial stress can be toxic. Mark, is there anything you specifically do to combat the uncertainty involved in being a business owner? Our only debts are a mortgage and business loan (just acquired the business a year ago) and even though I’ve made a huge amount of additional principal payments and we’re doing well, the uncertainty is quite stressful. Clients, employees, regulations, landlords, etc., it’s a lot to take on.

    1. Nikki, thanks for your comment. I can’t give business advice, but I do believe in keeping a healthy liquid reserve. That’s hard when you’re beginning (trust me, I’ve been there). But prioritizing a reserve means I can be more resilient and agile as a business owner. I have a cushion for uncertainty and opportunity to invest quickly when timing matters – without taking on additional debt. Savings are underrated – for both business and personal finance – these days.

  6. Buying Christmas gifts that people would actually like, let alone want, was a very stressful thing. I hated the post-Christmas bills, and the stress of even finding what someone wanted. And it bothered me that my dad would spend money on some really weird, well, crap (a hot chocolate machine? really?), that I didn’t need at all, but I knew his feelings would be hurt if I told him that.
    That’s when we decided to start family vacations, instead of gifts. My husband and I started it all by boxing up travel brochures and a “gift certificate” for my mom and dad, toward their cost of the trip. Then, as a family, we decided where we wanted to go. (I only have one brother so consensus wasn’t as hard for us as it might be for bigger families.) It turned out that everyone had something they liked to plan–I did the flights, hubby got the rental cars, my SIL did our accommodations, my mom and dad made dinner plans. The trip was hugely successful. There’s something about staying in a house that doesn’t belong to any one family member that makes it a lot easier to be around family too.
    We now do a trip every 3 years. My dad is gone now, but I know this family time together meant more to him than any gift did.

  7. We have a reasonably large extended family, so the family rule is small, cheap, presents for Christmas. If we want to give someone a more expensive gift, we let it wait until their birthday.

    That spreads the load, and no-one feels under pressure.

  8. Love how this blog covers so much more than eating and working out. I don’t really enjoy shopping and thankfully don’t have to buy for many people. My favorite holiday shopping is the food shopping…really enjoy planning Christmas dinner with my mom and sister, and love the shopping and preparation for that. So much more fun than going to the mall. When I do shop for gifts, I do most of it online. While I’m no stranger to Amazon Prime, I’m trying to focus on buying smaller companies that I really believe in.

  9. The way I have always kept expenses down at Christmas is to make homemade presents. Over the years, my husband and I have done a variety of homemade gifts. A jar of homemade salsa, or a container of homemade granola, or a box of my shortbread cookies (before Primal days began), or a bag of my own garden garlic, etc. One year, presents were the MDA bacon nut mix! Not only is it cheaper to give something like this, but it is also more satisfying.

    1. I think this is wonderful, Marge! I know your gifts are appreciated much more than a store bought trinket. And you get to have fun making the gifts. It’s a win-win situation! Thanks for sharing.

  10. We don’t do much gift exchange in my family anymore, now its all about the vacations. I only buy for the kiddos, and that’s finished by October

  11. So on the money (ha!)!! This past year, we sold our house, owe nothing but rent, have scaled back spending, including cancelling the small little monthly subscriptions, and can now easily live off one income should we need to. Our plan is to pay college a year ahead as our child goes, so that he starts off debt-free as well. It’s a joy to watch the savings grow, to be able to step in and help friends and family out without thinking twice (and no expectations of being paid back in any way), and to face the mailbox with no fear. We are late to the debt-free game, but will still reap great benefits and hopefully our son is smarter earlier on than we were. Dave Ramsey and Mark Sisson should join forces on this focus. Thanks Mark!

  12. Having Christmas stuff on display before Halloween kind of says it all. There is no way any holiday can live up to this amount of hype.
    Perhaps The Second Coming, the reuniting of all four original Beatles, and another moon landing….but even then only once.

    1. I agree. I don’t care what other people spend or if they send themselves to the poorhouse doing so. I just wish all the hype and advertising would get scaled way back. I dislike being inundated by it for two solid months. It’s bad enough that my neighbors are into trashy-looking outdoor Christmas displays that they don’t take down until February. How on earth did the holidays get to be so tacky?

  13. Fun shopping? Au contraire. While the seed of change (minimalism) was planted in my mind while traveling across Australia in a camper van and sleeping under the open skies whenever possible, once I adopted the primal philosophy, I also said goodbye to needles shopping except for real necessities (you know what they are) and learned to just say NO. And as far as the holiday craze for shopping — I was never big on it and never will. What amazes me is the avalanche of promotional emails (MDA not guilty of such) during this time of year. Granted, I gave my consent when I placed an online purchase sometime in the past but I didn’t expect them to bombard me with emails day after day; so instead of getting stressed over it, I unsubscribed and was done with them. Should I decide otherwise, I can always resubscribe. But this stress pales in comparison to making ends meet, having a roof over ones head, having medical coverage and so on. All which are far worrisome and stressful, then living over your means — something that many do during this time of year and beyond. The 1st is hard to deal with, while the later requires restrain and strong will.Thank you!

  14. Great article! As a (very) long time IT person, we always have a target on our back. My wife and I learned a long time ago that if you are living below your means life is a lot more calm and enjoyable.

  15. I wonder if the correlation between debt/spending and other bad habits (smoking, drinking, overeating) is more of straight-up correlation than implying causation between spending stress and bad habits. People like to spend money (even if they don’t have it) to deal with stress much like they enjoy eating/drinking/smoking to deal with stress. All of these negative coping mechanisms just cause more stress, but that doesn’t decrease their popularity. I’ve seen it in myself and close friends – even when the money isn’t there, retail therapy makes you feel better for a short while.

    Looking at spending too much/racking up debt in the same way as binge eating or binge drinking might be a more helpful approach. Finding positive coping mechanisms to deal with life can make it possible to live within one’s means. I don’t think a lot of people look at their finances and debt in this way, and therefore as something they can change.

  16. This is a timely post indeed. I am have been debating on how best to tackle gift-giving this year, as I am working so hard to manage our money, first by tracking every last expense and then figuring out what we can cut out. We have a dollar limit per person for gift-giving but my husband is not on the same page as I am and he’s ok with being in debt (besides our mortgage, I am so not ok with it) so he doesn’t take money management seriously. So I guess my first piece of issue is if you have a partner, make sure you’re on the same page!!

    A few years ago I figured that people would value experiences over things so I try to gift experiences. For example I am giving my mom and sister tickets to a ballet and I think i’ll get my brother-in-law movie passes.

  17. The reality is that the further you are from “money,” the easier it is to spend.

    When you’re shelling out cold, hard cash, you’re looking at money. And it’s easy to look at every $20 bill and say “I worked for x hours to get that; I’m trading that piece of my life for this; is this really worth it?” If you aren’t saying this to yourself when you spend cash, try it sometime. When you realize you’re trading a piece of your lifetime (which you can’t refund / get back) for some ugly sweater, you’re much less likely to buy the ugly sweater.

    Checks are further from money, but they still require you to write the amount (and spell it out), so that is “almost” as good as using cash, if you’re trying to curb the urge to spend.

    Credit / debit cards? You see the amount once. You usually don’t even need to write it. Much easier to spend that way.

    Running a tab? Billing it to your room, when staying at a hotel? Much easier to spend that way. That’s why bars / hotels are willing to do that. The further you are from seeing actual cash (at least, until it’s too late), the easier it is to spend. And they profit from getting you to spend.

    Yes, carrying significant cash is risky. But I still buy groceries, every week, paying cash. When the cash runs out, the spending stops; no choice. And that goes a long way toward helping me stay within my budget.