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Tough Times

Secrets to Relieving Financial Stress

As the economy continues to spiral downward, more consumers might be tempted to cut expenses, such as health-club memberships, therapy sessions or even weekly trips to the movie theater, from their budgets. But eliminating those kinds of services and activities might do more harm than good.

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As millions of Americans cope with the misery of trying to make ends meet, they’re also coming to the uncomfortable realization that making hard decisions during tough economic times can increase the amount of stress in their lives. Experts say that even middle-class people cutting back on small luxuries, such as going to a movie theater or eating at a restaurant, are likely to experience potentially harmful tides of mental and emotional turmoil.

Face it: If you’re not among those who believe we’re already in a recession, know that plenty of economic experts believe we’re on the brink of one. And understand that cutting or reducing recreational spending in an attempt to make your monthly budget more manageable can create a real catch-22. This actually can increase your stress, no matter what your financial situation is.

Whether you realize it, spending money on things that make us happy and healthy can help us deal more effectively with emotional fears associated with tough economic times. Those expenses can range from health-club memberships, healthy food purchases or therapy sessions with a mental health professional, to playing golf, having drinks with friends or taking a vacation. For many, eliminating these things can exacerbate stress, and stress, of course, can lead to unhealthy behavior and poor decisions, which—particularly during tough economic times—can be crippling for some.

“Cutting back is a very difficult process, because you’re giving up things you’re used to,” says Rand Conger, a psychology professor at University of California-Davis, who has studied the effects of economic difficulty on families and children. Increased feelings of depression, anxiety or irritability certainly can come from income loss, the inability to pay your bills and, yes, just being forced to cut back on discretionary spending, he notes.

“The reality is, there’s no avoiding it,” Conger says. “You’re going to face difficult psychological adjustments when you’re faced with these kinds of things.”

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It presents a real conundrum for consumers. What kind of spending decisions are best for you to avoid added stress, or at least minimize it? If cutting out your daily $3 latte at the local coffee shop can heighten feelings of anxiety, what kinds of things really are safe to eliminate? Unfortunately, the answers aren’t clear. Each person deals with stress differently, so for some, dropping a $20 weekly trip to the movie theater (that’s $80 to $100 a month) won’t be a big deal. But for others, that eliminates an activity that might be the perfect antidote to a stressful week.

Honestly, Consumers Digest doesn’t feel comfortable offering too much advice about how to handle this stress-related spending dilemma. But we think it’s beneficial to help you realize what’s going on with your mental health during these tough times. With high prices for gasoline and groceries, investment accounts performing poorly, real estate foreclosures increasing and a rash of other economic factors continuing to squeeze most Americans, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. So, in short, consider this story to be a sort of emotional mirror. Just being aware of how tough spending decisions can affect your stress levels and behavior can help you deal with the issue, experts say.

EXERCISE CAUTION. It would be only human nature for you these days to cancel your $100-a-month health-club membership or for you to sell the $1,000 treadmill you bought for your home 2 years ago. Likewise, the cost of all groceries has increased by around 5 percent since last year, according to the Consumer Price Index. So, the rising cost for buying fruits, vegetables and the best sources of protein might tempt you to cut back on more-expensive whole foods and switch to buying less expensive (and less healthy) processed foods instead.

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