Matt Beatty didn’t see his spending habit for the slippery slope to misery that it was. Not until much later. By then he couldn’t sleep more than an hour or two a night. He recalls lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for hours—chest tight, heart pounding, seized by dread and fear. “I would lie there and catalog the things I had bought over the years that now made absolutely no sense to me: that luxury car lease, that tech gadget, that suit, that watch, that ridiculously expensive bottle of wine.” (And all that fancy coffee: over $1,000 worth of it per year, in retrospect.)
Eyeball-deep in debt and on the verge of disaster, all Beatty (not his real name) could think about was money. “It was eating me alive. As far as everyone could see, I had this great job, a perfect family and a beautiful home. I was the only one who saw my life for the teetering structure that it really was.”
It even baffles him. Beatty was—and is—the picture of all-American success. Hailing from humble beginnings, he grew up in a loving family. He worked hard, attended a prestigious college and caught some lucky breaks. After a decade of increasingly senior posts, he is now a well-paid New York City executive at the top of his game—which is why his financial struggles are even harder to grasp.
Money and Stress in America
Beatty is hardly alone. For years money has been a leading cause of stress for most Americans. Since 2007 the American Psychological Association has conducted an annual survey called “Stress in America.” The survey, released in October 2021, reported that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impede decision-making ability, which includes financial decisions.
Debt plays an overwhelming role in this stress. “For me, it started with one less-than-ideal job transition,” Beatty recalls. “I got into debt but didn’t reduce my spending. It snowballed to the point where I had to continue to service the debt because I couldn’t find a path to establish stability.” It became a toxic cycle of stress that tainted everything, including his marriage.
Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, calls debt “one of the most potent joy killers.” Dunn continues that debt can invade every aspect of life: work, home, personal relationships, even your hopes for the future. Research shows that people who suffer from high levels of debt stress have health risks ranging from ulcers and migraines to heart attacks.
And yet the economic recovery we are reportedly experiencing comes courtesy of debt (and along with it, stress). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that roughly two-thirds of our economy is fueled by consumer spending, much of it in the form of credit card debt. One recent survey by the credit card comparison website CardHub observed that consumers added a total of $87.3 billion in new credit card debt to their tab during 2021, capped off by a $74.1 billion increase during the fourth quarter alone. For context, the average annual increase in credit card debt over the past 10 years is just $48.5 billion.
Sustainable or Not?
Anyone who says money does not matter is either delusional or a trust-fund baby. Research tightly links money with well-being. And poverty is commonly known to be a potent and toxic stressor. “More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain,” says Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in a study he co-authored. For millions living in the grips of financial strain, however, the issue is less about living below poverty lines and far more to do with habits and practices that are not sustainable economically, socially, environmentally or spiritually.
Modern stress is, in some ways, a cautionary tale of personal sustainability. Because for far too many of us, spending and accumulating have become stand-ins for happiness—automatic, thoughtless and, when we fall into debt, the fast track to misery. Media, marketing, advertising and other cultural messages that constantly bombard us don’t help. They serve as a gaggle of bad influencers egging us on to turn to purchases for happiness: You know you want it! You deserve it!
Our predicament becomes even more tightly knotted when outer markers of wealth and affluence—and the unsustainable consumption that comes with it—become the metrics by which we measure success, accomplishment and self-esteem, leading us to neglect our most vital protective factors during times of adversity: family, friends, community, purpose and service. And this is where the house, car, schools, fancy weddings and enviable vacations strangle people with debt.
So how much is enough?
A pretty solid number is $75,000 a year. Based on their extensive study of health and well-being data collected from almost 500,00 Americans, Kahneman and Princeton colleague Angus Deaton found that’s about where a person reaches a comfortable standard of living as well as where the benefits of money peak and its beneficial effects taper off dramatically. Ultimately, though, sustainability requires a personal calculation that takes into account many factors, including hard numbers and deeply introspective decisions.
What is your history when it comes to money? What are your core beliefs? Your attachments? Your patterns? Journaling can help unearth unhealthy triggers:
- Write down every belief you have about money, no matter how small or inconsequential. Think deeply and cast a wide net. Examples may include: “There is never enough money,” or “I am great with money.”
- Draw a timeline on a sheet of paper, beginning with the year you were born and ending with today. Starting with your earliest memories, recall and jot down life decisions that you consider to have been pivotal. Next to each event, write down the beliefs about money that might have been at play.
- Make a note of patterns in your timeline and beliefs as well as your triggers, reactions and emotions, including how you feel physically (and where you feel it; for example, in your stomach or chest) as you recall the events.
- Divide your list of beliefs about money in two: those that have served you well and those that cause stress and anxiety. Some beliefs may have done both; note them, too.
Many purchases are wants, not needs. So before you hand over the credit card, pause to consider whether the purchase will contribute to more stress and dysfunction later.
Getting into the Flow
Before you make the decision to lock down all your money, consider this from Ryan Rigoli, co-founder of Soulful Brands, a company that helps entrepreneurs and leaders integrate purpose and meaning into their companies and brands: “Money can become a stress point for many of our clients. It’s very easy to get into a scarcity mentality, and that can create a feeling that you don’t have a lot of money even when you do. I think of it in terms of flow and abundance. There’s a certain level of ease when you experience a flow of receiving and giving.” Rigoli teaches clients to be more expansive in their definitions of abundance. It’s a form of gratitude and mindfulness, he says. Aim to spend more time in the present appreciating the abundance of good things already in your life.
Gratitude and mindfulness figure heavily in Beatty’s journey back from the edge as well. Turning to friends and family for support, he discovered many of them were in the same boat. The social support helped dissipate his shame. Beatty began seeing a counselor who helped him unearth subconscious and deeply entrenched family beliefs and patterns about money that had led to his downfall.
Beatty took stock of his lifestyle and made hard choices. In some of those choices, he finds himself to be a lone voice of dissent in a culture that equates prestige, power and privilege with success and true value.
And he’s fine with that.
This article appears in the October 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by @Olesyaklyots/Twenty20