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Most of Us Live Paycheck-to-Paycheck. This Is What It Does to Your Health.

As many as 78 percent of American full time workers are living paycheck-to-paycheck and it is taking its toll on our health.

by Vivian Manning-Schaffel /
US DollarsPhotothek via Getty Images

If you’re working like crazy and still just squeaking by, you might be relieved to learn you are far from alone. A couple of months ago, CareerBuilder released a report claiming as many as 78 percent of American full time workers are living from paycheck-to-paycheck — three percent more of us than last year. What’s more, 71 percent of us are in debt — again, three percent more of us than last year.

Though the parameters of what constitutes a livable wage varies greatly according to where you live, these staggering statistics show just how few of us have the means to make ends meet. Depending on where they live, even people who earn $100k per year say they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, and 59 percent of people making that kind of money admitted to carrying debt. Of those 59 percent, 56 percent say they’re heavily in debt.

And that emergency stash of six month’s pay that experts keep saying we should put away? For more than half of us, it’s just not feasible. According to this survey, 56 percent of us can barely save $100 per month. All things considered, when you break it all down, most of us are just one misfortune away from financial oblivion.

They say money can’t buy happiness — but it can buy you better physical and emotional health. Why? Living paycheck-to-paycheck is incredibly stressful. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), financial stress is the top cause of stress for Americans. And it’s a well-known, scientific fact that stress has many negative ramifications on your health.

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Often, Proper Medical Care is the First "Luxury" to Go

One way living paycheck-to-paycheck can affect your health is the tendency to blow off medical care. A 2014 survey of over 3000 people conducted for the APA by Harris Poll revealed that one in five Americans put their health care needs on hold because they can’t pay the bill. In fact, more than 12 percent admitted to skipping doctor’s visits and letting health issues go because of financial concerns.

One Australian study even found that financial stress can drive people to smoke which boosts your risk of heart problems, considerably.

Stress itself does plenty to raise your blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease among middle-aged women. What’s more, younger adults are in no way immune. Elizabeth Sweet, assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, conducted a study of stress and young adults and found those in debt — even if they’re as young as 24 — to be more likely to have a higher diastolic blood pressure and worse physical and mental health than those who were financially secure.

“Because we have solid evidence for the impact of debt on stress and emotional health (like depression and anxiety), it is particularly reasonable to think debt can impact aspects of physical health that are sensitive to stress, like cardiovascular disease and risk factors, obesity and metabolic function,” explains Sweet. “It’s also important to think about how debt, or the stress associated with debt, can impact health behaviors or coping behaviors, such as diet, exercise, substance use, medical care seeking or avoidance, which could all impact physical health outcomes,” she says, adding she’s currently conducting more research on how living paycheck-to-paycheck or carrying debt impacts health.

Financial Insecurity Threatens Our Mental Health, Too

Aside from the constant worry about having enough money, financial security is also incredibly conducive to your psychological health. One study even found a connection between financial security to the ability to find meaning in life.

Author of the study, Andrew Abeyta, assistant professor, department of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, found there to be an "existential cost" to financial insecurity, as well.

Abeyta explains: “An important component of psychological health involves maintaining a sense of purpose and personal significance, what psychologists refer to as meaning in life. Part of being a psychologically healthy person is feeling like you are important and that what you do matters. People who feel like their lives are purposeful and significant tend lead happier more satisfied lives and are better able to maintain a positive disposition in the face of stressful life events. Financial stress is associated with a reduced sense of purpose and significance. Relentless stress about money can undermine a person’s sense of self-worth and personal meaning, making them feel worthless and like their lives are pointless — a pattern of thinking that can lead to clinical depression, even suicidal thoughts and behaviors. It’s more difficult for them to enjoy life and they’re less able to psychologically adjust to stressful life events, potentially setting them on the path to persistent anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and poor health.”

Relentless stress about money can undermine a person’s sense of self-worth and personal meaning — a pattern of thinking that can lead to clinical depression, even suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Relentless stress about money can undermine a person’s sense of self-worth and personal meaning — a pattern of thinking that can lead to clinical depression, even suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Moreover, constant stress from financial strain can lead to persistent anxiety and interfere with a person’s ability to enjoy life and connect with others. “People who are made to feel worthless from not having the financial means to meet their and their family’s needs may engage in unhealthful behaviors like drinking alcohol to cope,” says Abeyta.

Predictably, a Princeton researcher found happiness wasn’t so much about money as it was financial security. When you don’t have to worry about money, your stress related health issues dissolve and your psychological health markedly improves.

Another way that financial stress compounds is the tendency we have as humans to assign shame or blame to it. However, being able to open up about your financial stress can make you feel better — both physically and emotionally. A Swedish study found people with high financial stress and little emotional support were more likely to experience psychological difficulties and even experienced more psychosomatic symptoms than those who had tangible emotional support — meaning a few solid friends to talk to. In fact, that support had the greatest effect on alleviating that financial stress.

De-Stigmatizing Indebtedness May Help

Sweet says, for things to change beyond all of us making a living wage, are broader interventions that level out the economic playing field and alleviate circumstances that lead to financial strain and chronic debt in the first place.

“We need societal or cultural shifts that destigmatize indebtedness, and resources to help people get out of debt or manage the long-term experience and stress,” she says.

FOUR SIMPLE MONEY HACKS THAT'LL HELP YOU SAVE MORE

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