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."
Yet financial stress is epidemic. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults admitted feeling stressed about money, and 22 percent reported extreme stress in a 2015 study commissioned by the American Psychological Association, "Stress in America: Paying With Our Health ."
A third of the respondents said lack of money prevented them from living a healthy lifestyle, and 12 percent skipped going to the doctor when they needed health care because of financial concerns.
FINANCIAL STRESS CAN BE DEADLY
Other 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. Obesity is associated with higher death rates. In fact, one study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that obese adults were 20 percent more likely to die during the 14-year study period than normal-weight adults.
— Adding insult to injury, financial stress also seems to make people look older, according to a study published in Research on Aging.
Despite its pervasiveness, most people don't disclose the financial pressures they face. In a study commissioned by Umpqua Bank, 77 percent of respondents said they didn't talk about their money stress, often because they were embarrassed or ashamed or thought no one would understand.
"Yet, of that 23 percent of folks who did talk about it, 70 percent of them felt better after doing so," says Eve Callahan, Umpqua's executive vice president of corporate communications. "They felt less stressed out, they felt like they had more, a better ability to make financial decisions and live their lives in a way that would be healthy for them."
The survey prompted the bank to launch a podcast series, "Open Account with SuChin Pak," to explore personal stories about money, including Gabler's. The bank also set up a website, MadeToGrow.com, to offer people resources for starting their own conversations.
A SIMPLE STEP: JUST TALKING ABOUT IT
The idea that talking can help with stress isn't new. 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 to arrive. He has plenty of 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.
That's terrifying, since 60 percent of families experience some kind of financial shock in a given year that can make it hard to make ends meet, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Even a small amount of savings can help people weather those 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.
STAGNANT INCOMES MAKE MATTERS WORSE
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.
Constrained incomes helped erode Americans' wealth. Median net worth for people in the middle quintile of incomes — those with 2013 incomes of $40,500 to $63,100 — dropped 19 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1998 and 2013, according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. People one economic rung down lost even more. Median net worth for those in the second-lowest quintile of incomes — which in 2013 meant incomes from $23,300 to $40,499 — dropped by 53 percent.
Despite these massive economic trends, 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."
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.
NerdWallet: How to Build an Emergency Fund
The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans
Americans got raise last year for first time since 2007