Survey: Most Americans Are Feeling Anxious About Their Money

Photo illustration to accompany article covering a national survey on coronavirus financial anxiety Image courtesy of Gabriella and Tyler Braddock

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Gabriella Braddock and her husband Tyler are young entrepreneurs who spent the past three years building a music studio and recording business in their New Jersey hometown. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic derailed every financial plan they had in place for 2020. 

“We have dealt with loss of income, taken on more debt, and used our savings to make our usual payments,” Gabriella, 25, says. “The economic effects have completely wiped out our financial goals and our priority is to essentially survive without going under.”

The Braddocks are among the more than half of all Americans feeling increased levels of anxiety regarding their personal financial situations in the months since the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared in the U.S.

According to a recent survey from NextAdvisor, 51% of Americans feel at least somewhat anxious about their financial situation following the coronavirus outbreak. Nearly three in 10 Americans’ financial situation (29%) has been negatively impacted since the pandemic began.

While some face new challenges resulting from loss of income or uncertainty for the future, for many the current economic crisis only exacerbates already present stressors related to monthly bill payments, consumer debt balances, lack of emergency savings, or even just putting food on the table. The survey data shows that the number of Americans whose primary financial goal is continuing to pay for housing and basic necessities has jumped 11 percentage points, from 21% when reflecting on their priorities as of January 2020 to 32% in June.  

“Anxiety can really become like a snowball,” says Jennifer Dunkle, LPC, a financial therapist and founder of New Awareness Therapy Services based in Colorado. “It can build and build and build unless we take steps to try and take care of ourselves so that we can better handle the uncertainties and fears.”

How anxious do you feel about your financial situation?

COVID-19’s Impact

For weeks, the spread of this novel coronavirus forced the country, and the globe, to grind to a halt as stay-at-home orders and state of emergency declarations left millions of workers out of jobs and without the ability to make regular payments or achieve financial goals.

“We’ve been growing the business very rapidly,” Gabriella says. “This year was going to be our six-figure year. Our numbers predicted it; we were consistently hitting our goals.”

But New Jersey’s stay-at-home order forced the Braddocks to close their studio’s doors and move business to limited services they could offer virtually. Through March and April, Gabriella says their income dropped to 20% its usual rate, and May’s totals are expected to fall even lower.

“Now, we’re going to be lucky to make the same amount that we did last year,” she says. “Any financial goals that we had are out the door. We’re simply trying to survive from month to month without accruing any more debt than we already have.” 

Braddock and her husband aren’t alone. 

Among those whose financial situations have been negatively impacted since the outbreak began, over one in three say they or someone in their household experienced layoffs or furlough (36%). Many have also experienced reduced pay (21%), fewer hours (33%); or otherwise had their financial situation negatively affected (13%).

“These people are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Danetha Doe, personal finance expert and creator of Money & Mimosas, a personal finance blog focused on financial well-being and equity. “They’re stressed about their current situation, but then there’s no clear path as to how to get out of it, because we don’t know where the economy’s going to go or when jobs will return.”

Young baby boomers approaching retirement (ages 56–65) as well as members of Generation Z (the youngest adults, ranging from ages 18–23) are the age groups most likely to report their personal financial situation as negatively impacted (36% and 33%, respectively).

But millennials are most likely to feel anxiety about their financial situation, particularly younger members of the cohort. Sixty-one percent of younger millennials (ages 24–30) report feeling somewhat or very anxious about their finances, compared to 51% of respondents overall.

Even for those people whose wallets have not been directly impacted, who are able to work from home and retain their same income, the anxiety can be just as present. “There’s a level of uncertainty now, because we don’t know where the economy is headed,” Doe says. “Even though they’re in a position where everything is OK on paper, they don’t feel financially secure.”

Debt, Savings Anxieties Grow

While many Americans are feeling more anxious regarding the overall state of their finances, specific worries don’t just involve employment loss, but also lack of savings and mounting debts as well. 

According to survey respondents, the top three causes for anxiety since the outbreak began include:

  • Debt: 37% overall; 21% say credit card debt while 24% report other debts such as mortgage, student loans, or personal loans
  • Lack of savings: 35% 
  • Loss of employment or income: 31%

Gen Z and millennials are most likely to face anxiety caused by job or income loss (40%), while Gen X are worried by their lack of savings (42%). Baby boomers are the cohort most likely to face anxiety involving planning for retirement (27%).

Which of the following aspects of your personal finances are among your top three biggest causes for anxiety following the coronavirus outbreak?

Among Americans who say debt, lack of savings, loss of employment or income, saving for retirement, and additional childcare costs have caused anxiety following the pandemic, here’s how responses break down by generation:

Note: Respondents could select up to three options. In addition to these options, 14% of total respondents chose “Other” and 30% chose “None of these.”

The Most Vulnerable Are the Most Affected

For a population already under-saved and holding record amounts of debt, the difficulties of the pandemic have only magnified an existing problem, especially for the most vulnerable communities.

According to the survey, 21% of those who report an annual income of $30,000 or less are “very anxious” about their current financial situation, compared to an average 14% of those reporting higher income levels. 

Lower-income respondents are also less likely than respondents in other income brackets to know where to turn for financial assistance or counseling (21% say “not confident at all” about where to get help, compared to a 12% average of other respondents).

“There is a great question of equity and value that’s coming up right now,” says Amanda Clayman, financial therapist and financial wellness advocate for Prudential. “I think what we’re seeing with both the health and economic effects of the pandemic is that the consequences are not evenly distributed. We’re also seeing the strengths and limitations in our system in being able to respond to collective problems.”

Money Anxieties Affect Mental Health

Financial anxiety isn’t an isolated condition; increased feelings of stress and anxiety can impact your overall physical and mental health and well-being. 

“Stress and anxiety in our financial lives has a direct impact on our physical and mental health,” Doe says. “When we look at how any kind of anxiety and stress impacts the body, it can lead to things like heart disease, inability to sleep, and lowered immunity, which during a pandemic is incredibly harmful.”

The effects can be just as dangerous, but anxiety stemming from financial issues directly can also present a more tangible path to resolution in some cases, because money has such a visible impact on our decisions and goals.

“There’s nothing unique about the anxiety we feel around money that’s different from anxiety in other parts of our lives,” Clayman says. “But we have a different opportunity because money is this concrete thing that we can work on; we can access both pieces, that concrete part and the psychological part with more facility when it comes to money.”

And while lender assistance and relief programs have provided help in the short term, questions about long-term, sustainable solutions remain.

“There are measures which are enabling people to hold it together now, but people in those situations are desperately worried about what’s going to happen in the future: when unemployment runs out, when evictions start again, when the lights are going to get shut off,” says Annie Harper, an instructor at the Yale School of Medicine who researches the relationship between financial health and mental health. 

“Even if that’s not a worry today, the anxiety about that happening next month or the month after is just as profound as for someone who doesn’t have money now. This uncertainty around what will happen with those relief measures is very significant and causing lots of anxiety.” 

Beginning the Recovery Process

The economy, and its workers, will take time to bounce back from the economic recession caused by the coronavirus, which officially began in February. But many economists are optimistic with the beginnings of recovery across the country as businesses reopen and economic activity returns, even predicting we could already be moving into stages of economic expansion. 

But the sectors of the economy that were hit the hardest, such as entertainment and travel, are expected to recover much more slowly. “Those parts of the economy will be challenged until people feel really safe again,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said in an interview with “60 Minutes” in May.

Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents predict that it will take at least six months for the economy to return to normal, and another 13% expect that the normal we knew before the outbreak occurred will never return.

“For everyone, it’s important to have that awareness of what you can control and what you cannot control,” Dunkle says. “Take the steps to do things that are under one’s control and then realize there’s many factors that aren’t under our control. Nobody really knows the future course of this virus and when things will feel more normal again and when the economy will feel as though it’s recovered significantly.”

How soon do you expect the economy to return to normal (i.e. similar to before the pandemic)?

Note: Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding. “Never” indicates respondents who do not expect the economy will return to normal.

Long-Term Impact

This moment in time and the uncertainty it brings is a turning point, both personally and systemically, experts say. 

“There’s some authors in the financial therapy realm who talk about financial flash points,” Dunkle says. “That is something related to money that happens to us and really sticks with us, affecting us for years to come. I think this is going to be a financial flash point for many people, especially the ones who have had the trauma of suddenly losing their job and feeling very insecure.”

Dunkle recommends regularly practicing self-care and other healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, social interactions, and other things that you find enjoyable, to build resilience to face lasting uncertainties. She also suggests talking to your doctor if your anxiety becomes debilitating. 

“This is all still happening,” Clayman says. “The reverberations to our society and our economy are going to be felt for a long time. We should be gentle with ourselves in terms of holding space to just be in the discomfort of not knowing, which is really hard for a lot of us to do.”

For Gabriella Braddock, not knowing what the future holds remains stressful, but she’s hopeful for recovery. 

Everything 2020 has thrown the couple’s way has only shown what they’re capable of, “but we need to be resourceful and we need to plan,” she says. “That’s what’s going to help me more in the long run. We can overcome any challenge, but we need to prepare a lot more than we ever thought we would have to financially.”

Study Methodology

NextAdvisor commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,562 U.S. adults (age 18+). Fieldwork was undertaken June 1–3. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas up front during collection, then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.