Financial stress can affect your health, but even a small...

Financial stress can affect your health, but even a small amount of savings can make a difference. Credit: Getty Images / Martin Dimitrov

Writer Neal Gabler broke the don’t-talk-about-money taboo this spring with an Atlantic article, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Now he wants everyone to start talking.

“The idea of not being successful financially in America is such a stigma,” says Gabler, who revealed in the article that he was among the millions of adults who didn’t have savings to cover a $400 emergency. “That’s the reason people don’t talk about it, because they take their failure personally.”

Some takeaways about financial stress:

Financial stress can be deadly

Studies have shown that financial stress can be lethal.

  • Money worries have been linked to higher mortality rates among cancer patients and those with heart disease.
  • A study for the Australian government found prolonged financial stress was a strong predictor of subsequent obesity, which is associated with higher death rates.
  • Adding insult to injury, financial stress also seems to make people look older, according to a study published in Research on Aging.

Simple step: Just talking about it

Research by James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin and others found that talking or writing about traumatic events can alleviate distress, improve immune function and lead to better health.

Gabler, for one, is glad he opened up.

“I’m an extremely private person. I never write about myself,” Gabler says. “I broke my own taboo because I thought there are other people out there who are in a similar predicament and it would help them to know that they are not alone.”

Gabler wrote that despite outward appearances of success, he had juggled creditors, had his bank account levied and been down to his last $5 while waiting for a paycheck.

He has company: The Federal Reserve said in May that 46 percent of U.S. adults either couldn’t cover a $400 emergency expense or would have to borrow or sell something to do so.

Stagnant incomes

Americans aren’t strapped because they’re spending too much on lattes and iPhones. Despite a much-needed surge in 2015, the median income for U.S. households is still below its 1999 peak, according to the Census Bureau.

Despite economic headwinds, people often believe they are solely responsible for their financial stress, Gabler says.

“We think it’s all us, that we did something wrong,” Gabler says. “We’ve got to change that or we’re going to drive ourselves crazy.”

Even a small amount of savings can help people weather financial shocks. A study by the Urban Institute found that savings in the $250 to $749 range were enough to dramatically lower the chances a low-income family would be evicted or suffer other serious hardships after an income drop. The researchers estimated middle-income families need at least $2,000 and higher-income families $5,000, but a starter emergency fund of $400 or $500 can cover many minor emergencies and enhance financial stability.

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