Warning: This Information could save Your Life

I recently applied for a fellowship and scholarship award for some of the work I have coming down the pipeline. It feels like a complete “long-shot” and the likelihood I’ll receive anything seems pretty low, but hey, it’s always worth a shot. After I submitted the work–on the topic of minimalist philosophy bridged with financial independence strategy– I let my husband know just that, along with my pessimistic acceptance that nothing will likely come of the application. 

“It’s not like I’m saving the world,” I said. “It’s not like I have a solution for clean water in Africa or a cure for cancer. I’m sure my application is competing with actual life-saving work out there.”

He looked at me incredulously. 

“But you are saving the world,” he replied, matter of factly. 

I screwed my face up quizzically and raised an eyebrow to challenge such an audacious statement. 

“What could me more life-saving than showing others how to live a life with significantly less stress?” he answered my gaze.

And he had a good point—a point that I wish I had thought to include in that application that I hurriedly submitted. 
Stress is the number-one killer. It is the root of most diseases and physical ailments. Despite our innovations in technology and healthcare, our life-expectancy is actually going down as our stress levels rise. The number one cause of divorce is financial stress, which in turn leaves each partner in stress and/or depression and often with stressed and traumatized children in their wake. The majority of those in the traditional workforce are suffering from stress and unhappiness.

If we can take away these stressors, we are relieving a population from high cortisol levels that are wrecking their bodies, relationships and overall happiness. 

Let’s examine some of the depressive stats and research around the stress that stems from financial instability, paycheck dependency, and deep debt.

Stress Kills Us

Studies have shown that short-term stress boosted the immune system, but chronic stress has a significant effect on the immune system that ultimately manifest an illness. 

Here are some alarming stats from the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI):

There is a growing concern about the increasing cost and prevalence of stress-related disorders; especially in relation to work place. “Worked to death, drop death, work until you drop” are highlighted “work-related death” in the 21st century. Countries renowned for their long working hours know this well enough; Japan and China each have a word for death by overwork – karoshi and guolaosi respectively. Both Japan and Korea recognize suicide as an official and compensatable work-related condition. The estimated prevalence of stress and stress-related conditions in the United Kingdom rose from 829 cases per 100,000 workers in 1990 to 1,700 per 100,000 in 2001/2002. In that year, 13.4 million lost working days were attributed to stress, anxiety or depression, with an estimate 265,000 new cases of stress. The latest HSE (Health and Safety Executive) analysis of self-reported illnesses rate revealed that stress, depression or anxiety affects 1.3% of the workforce. It is estimated that 80% to 90% of all industrial accidents are related to personal problem and employees’ inability to handle stress. The European Agency for Safety and Health at work reported that about 50% of job absenteeism is caused by stress.

The morbidity and mortality due to stress-related illness is alarming. Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. According to statistics from Meridian Stress Management Consultancy in the U.K, almost 180,000 people in the U.K die each year from some form of stress-related illness. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States estimates that stress accounts for about 75% of all doctors visit. This involves an extremely wide span of physical complaints including, but not limited to headache, back pain, heart problems, upset stomach, stomach ulcer, sleep problems, tiredness and accidents. According to Occupational Health and Safety news and the National Council on compensation of insurance, up to 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints.

We know stress is killing us…but the source of most of this stress? Finances.

73% of Americans rank their finances as the number one source of stress in life. How heartbreaking is that?! Finances cause more health-debilitating stress than than politics (59%), work (49%) and family (46%). (Source)

Life Expectancy Dropping

According to a new Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report, life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population declined from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years for January through June 2020. During that same time period, life expectancy for non-Hispanic Black people decreased by 2.7 years (74.7 to 72); for Hispanic individuals, 1.9 years (81.8 to 79.9); and for non-Hispanic white people, 0.8 years (78.8 to 78). Among males, life expectancy at birth fell 1.2 years, from 76.3 years in 2019 to 75.1 during the first half of 2020. For females, it dropped 0.9 years, from 81.4 years to 80.5. The gap in life expectancy between sexes increased from 5.1 years in 2019 to 5.4 in 2020.

In this article at Statnews, José Manuel Aburto, a demographer at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford said that, at the same time, life expectancy in the U.S. has not significantly increased in the last decade, which is already a deviation from much of the world and particularly unusual for a high-income country like the U.S. A decline of a full year, Aburto said, is even more unheard of. Aburto and others attribute part of this because of the high death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic and other indirect stressors from the pandemic, such as drug overdose. One might posit that stress from the pandemic and job losses could add to this as well. I’m no scientist, but I’d wager that many factors that contributed to someone being more high-risk during the pandemic such as being overweight or a smoker, could very well have stemmed from stress as well.

Divorce Rates Rooted in Financial Woes

Not only is stress killing us, but it’s wrecking our families. Data released in 2020 by financial firm TD Ameritrade found that 41% of divorced Gen Xers and 29% of Boomers say they ended their marriage due to disagreements about money. Money problems are also the number one cause for divorce in America. Money causes the most stress in relationships, whether it’s because of an overextended budget, an unexpected financial emergency, or financial infidelity–such as the discovery of your spouse’s secret credit card or other hidden debts or purchases. These financial issues are not a class problem, either. They unravel marriages for the ultra wealthy, the comfortable median and those in major debt alike.

In this 2018 article by the Independent, a poll of over 2,000 British adults by legal firm Slater and Gordon found that money worries top the list of reasons why married couples split up, with one in five saying it was the biggest cause of marital strife. Over a third of those questioned said that financial pressures were the biggest challenge to their marriage, while a fifth said that most of their arguments were about money. One in five of those polled blamed their partner for their money worries, accusing them of overspending or failing to budget properly.

Because the majority of my readers are Millennials, I did want to add this interesting bit of information regarding our generation:

Millennial adults ages 25 to 39 averaged 24 divorces per 1,000 married couples. For contrast, in 1990, the rate for this age cohort was 30 per 1,000. Millennials are the only age group to see a reduction in both divorce and marriage rates. However, Boomers are by far the most likely demographic to get a divorce right now. According to a 2018 report by the Fertility and Family Statistics branch of the Census Board, in 2013, 26% of adults ages 18 to 32 (Millennials) were married in 2018. The reports posits that events such as the Great Recession of 2008, increasing home prices and the high financial burden of student loan debt that millennials incur create barriers to marriage and creating a family. (Source)

In short, for Millennials, not as many of us are even married in the first place, because of the strain of finances. And those of us who are married, are sticking it out longer than other generations. But for those of us calling it quits, the stress from finances is likely to be a contributing factor.

Unhappy in our Careers

Many of us are on a hamster wheel with our careers. We’re either bored to death or stressed to death. Very few have found a happy medium.

In 2020, stats revealed that 33% of employees state that their reason for dissatisfaction at work is boredom, while 81% of the people in legal jobs state that their work is boring. Only 20% of Americans are very passionate about their jobs.

A Forbes article published in 2019 said, “The mood, for a lot of people in the country, appears angry, discouraged and resentful. There are claims of income inequality and unfairness. Many people feel underemployed, stuck in their dead-end jobs and not earning close to what they’re worth. These issues raise the question over how many people are actually in “good” jobs.” A massive study revealed that “less than 50% of U.S. workers feel that they are in good jobs. There is a nexus between the quality of one’s job and the overall quality of a person’s life. While a number of workers in good, mediocre jobs rate their overall quality of life as “high,” most of those in bad jobs feel the contrary.”

In this current economy with a dramatic job shortage, one can only nod in agreement with this two-year old statement. Many workers are refusing to return until their jobs reflect a living wage. As a nation, we’re dissatisfied with our work cultures, the work itself and with the amount being paid. There’s a lot to dig into there…but on to the next topic:

Drowning in Debt

So we’re stressed, feeling the health ramification from that, unhappy in marriages and unhappy in jobs, and part of the stress causing us to run as fast as we can on the hamster wheel is due to debt.

Total U.S. consumer debt is at $14.9 trillion. That includes mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and student loans. We already had jaw-dropping statistics for debt over the years, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the many job losses incurred during this period has only made the debt issue larger, with the total U.S. consumer debt balance growing $800 billion, according to Experian. That was an increase of 6% over 2019, the highest annual growth jump in over a decade. Student loan debt increased the most (12%), followed by mortgage debt (7%) and personal loan debt (6%). (Source).

The average American has $90,460 in debt, according to a 2021 CNBC report. That included all types of consumer debt products, from credit cards to personal loans, mortgages and student debt.

The average amount of debt by generation in 2020:

  • Gen Z (ages 18 to 23): $16,043
  • Millennials (ages 24 to 39): $87,448
  • Gen X (ages 40 to 55): $140,643
  • Baby boomers (ages 56 to 74): $97,290
  • Silent generation (ages 75 and above): $41,281

To compare numbers, in 2020, a person who only had a high school degree makes on average $38,792 a year. Even with a bachelor’s degree, the average graduate makes $64,896 a year. Glance back up at the debt numbers above. As one of my readers, you’re most likely a Millennials, who has an average of over $87,000 debt. Personally, most of my college-educated friends have confided in me that they are somewhere between $100,000 to $300,000 in debt. There is so much disparity between these numbers—debt and income–and it’s no wonder everyone is walking around in such a heightened state of stress and feeling permanently shackled.

Let’s Save The World

So you see, myself and the many other minimalist or personal finance bloggers, authors and content creators are actually all on a crusade to package up and spread this wealth of information to the masses so they can see that there is a way out of this seemingly never-ending fight-or-flight mode. 

Our bodies were only built to experience that surge of cortisol and adrenaline in moments of extreme physical emergency–when we encounter a bear or a tiger, and need all of our energetic resources in order to high-tail it through the field and climb a tree with super-human strength. We still are walking around with the same programming, and yet our hard-drive is stuck on cortisol-mode. We are broken as a society and need to be rebooted. We can’t process with this much cortisol running through our bloodstream and brains. This life-saving facet of survival is not intended to be our baseline level. 

And yet too many of us have accepted this feeling as the norm, and live as if we are fighting for our survival…except instead of fighting bears or tigers, we are fighting debt collectors. We’re not scared of losing a limb; we’re scared of losing our house. We aren’t scared of losing our lives; we are scared of losing our jobs. 

And this fear is deep and real, but we shouldn’t have to continue fearing these things every moment of every day. We shouldn’t be hurrying to a job, after too little sleep, holding our breath as our “scary” boss passes by our cubicle, wincing as we check on our bank balance, and developing phobias around checking our mailboxes or feeling panic when we see a phone number appear without Caller ID. 

What too many don’t realize is that society told us we were supposed to have or want all of these things and to project a certain image to be accepted or deemed successful. We followed the cultural norms blindly and discovered we were buried in deep debt at surprisingly young ages. We climbed corporate ladders thinking that would get us out of this deep trench, only to discover we have become more trapped than before. 

So I’m here to tell you that there is absolutely a way to dig yourself out. There are mindset changes you can make to began desiring different things and less things. There are ways that you can get out of debt, if you are willing to try something different. There are strategic things you can do to save your money and a variety of ways to invest that money so that you can grow your money on auto-pilot. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means. It’s not overnight. It could be a decade or more of focused work to get here, but a decade is a heck of a lot better than a lifetime of this feeling. And your lifetime will be a heck of a lot longer, if you can nip this stress-cycle in the bud. 

This “Journey to Freedom” that I’m exploring is life-changing. It’s life-saving. If you can achieve freedom, and get out of this stress rat race, you’ll not only have a higher chance of achieving longevity, but enjoy that long life with plentiful smiles and laughs and contented sighs. That’s the “freedom” part. The journey is your own path and there are so many different types of paths you can take. But many of them are well-tread and there are so many people we can learn from to figure out which route we want to take. 

So now I do feel comfortable saying, the work I’m doing with the “Journey to Freedom” podcast and my upcoming book on the FIRE Movement, is indeed going to save lives. 

Thanks for listening and if you agree that this type of information should reach the masses, then please share with a few friends who could use a nudge and some strategic information on how to hop off the stressful, seemingly never-ending hamster wheel that society has us running on.