When you think about your money, what comes to mind?
Is it all the financial goals you imagine yourself achieving—a new home, a happy retirement—or is it anxiety over bills coming due and debt that never seems to shrink?
If you’re like most Americans, unfortunately, the answer is likely to be the latter: According to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America: Paying With Our Health survey, money was named as the top source of significant stress—and has held the number-one spot since 2007.
While you can’t melt away the money tension with mere wishful thinking, there are ways to lessen its impact—namely, by coming up with a plan that transforms your sources of stress into goals that can be achieved, step by step.
So we asked Natalie Taylor, CFP®, with LearnVest Planning Services, to offer up tips on how to get started—and stay on track—when it comes to tackling three common sources of financial anxiety.
Stressor #1: Debt
According to a 2015 NerdWallet study, the average American household carries more than $130,000 in cumulative debt, including nearly $16,000 in credit card balances and over $48,000 in student loans.
With five- and six-figure numbers like that, who wouldn’t be stressed about paying it all back?
“The thing about debt is that it feels like a hole,” says Taylor. “It’s dealing with the past when you want to move forward.” So the key to maintaining your debt-payoff motivation, she adds, is to give yourself the freedom to start fresh and move forward—rather than dwelling on the guilt that you associate with your past expenditures.
For one, check your credit report for free on a site like annualcreditreport.comto get a bird’s-eye view of all the outstanding debt you have, and to make sure there aren’t any errors or instances of identity theft that could be blemishing your credit history. (The more marks you have on your report, the less likely you’ll be to nab good terms on future loans or lines of credit.)
Then make a list of all your outstanding debt, including key stats like how much you owe, your minimum-payment amounts, and the interest rates you’re being charged. Set the minimum payments on autopay so you’re never late on a bill, and if you have room in your budget to throw extra at any debt, focus on one loan or line of credit at a time, starting with the one that charges the highest interest rate.
And here’s one extra hint: If the debt you’re trying to pay down is a student loan, it may be worth checking out the government’s repayment estimator. This will show you repayment options that may help lower your monthly payment—though “you’ll want to consider not only your monthly payment but also the amount of interest you’ll pay over time” if you’re planning to refinance or consolidate loans, adds Taylor.
Staying on Track
Set some intermediate milestones you can reach within time periods that feel motivating—and not overwhelming—to you. For example, if you owe $50,000 in student loans, set your first milestone at getting your debt down to, say, $40,000 within three years.
Then, when you reach it, celebrate the moment in a small way, such as by having a nice meal with a friend—as long as the reward doesn’t throw your debt goals off track. Then it’s time to work toward your next milestone. “Breaking your goal up into smaller pieces enables you to feel more successful along the way… instead of waiting for it to feel good 10 years from now,” says Taylor.
In addition, “if you get extra money, like a windfall or a bonus, decide before the money hits your account on a percentage that will go toward that debt, so you can have little sprints of progress,” she adds.
Stressor #2: Financial Emergencies
Car breakdowns and leaky roofs happen when you least expect them—and if you don’t have a cushion of cash to cover them, you can feel particularly vulnerable. And yet some people may find the whole idea of building up a rainy-day fund just as stressful as any of those Murphy’s Law moments because it’s yet another goal you have to commit your money toward.
But think of it this way: “What I’ve found to be powerful is understanding that an emergency fund can not only provide cash for when you really need it, but it’s one of the keys to helping you stay out of credit card debt for good,” says Taylor.
Taylor advises opening a high-yield savings account that’s not connected to your primary bank to serve as your emergency fund, because it’ll make it harder for you to tap into that cash unless a real emergency strikes.
Then set up weekly automated transfers to that account, even if it’s as little as $10 a month. Your initial goal should be to save one month’s worth of your take-home pay. “It’s a good basic level so someone feels they can weather some curveballs—a roof repair, a broken water heater, and so on—without having to use their credit card,” Taylor says.
Staying on Track
If you need an extra motivational kick to save, make a list of the reasons you think you’d have to access your emergency fund: car repairs, trips to the ER or even getting the pink slip. (What’s not included on this list, by the way, are things like last-minute weekend getaways and wedding gifts.) Seeing the types of emergencies that could strike can help you understand more clearly what you’re working toward and help you experience more peace of mind should a disaster occur.
Then review your progress every six months to see how your emergency fund has grown. Ideally, you’ll want to work toward saving about six months of your net income, although it could be slightly more or less than that, depending on whether you have a financial safety net (like family or friends who could help out in a pinch) and how steady your income is.
“Although this account should stay largely out of sight and out of mind, it’s important to check in periodically to see how it’s growing,” Taylor adds.
Stressor #3: Retirement
Retirement is probably one of the biggest things that any of us will save for. And if you’ve ever run your target retirement number, the sheer size of it may be enough to make you want to put your head in the sand.
But keep in mind that the sooner you start, the more time you have to take advantage of compound growth. “Markets go up and down… but over longer periods of time they tend to trend upward, and that growth is critical to your retirement,” Taylor says. “Without investment growth you’d have to save hundreds, if not thousands, more per month to be on track.”
(Of course, while we believe that investing early is a great way to help you meet your retirement goal, it’s important to note that all investments carry some degree of risk—so don’t assume you’ll experience a return or be protected from a loss.)
First, check with your company to see if they offer a retirement plan, and whether that plan includes an employer match (for example, matching 50% of your contributions up to the first 6% of your salary). If possible, try to maximize the match.
If you’re not offered a plan, start researching your other options, such as a Traditional or Roth IRA, making sure to take into consideration how each type of account treats taxes and what might be best for your situation. (In a nutshell, Traditional IRA contributions help lower your taxable income now, but you pay taxes when you make withdrawals in retirement. Roth IRA contributions are post-tax, but you don’t pay taxes on your retirement withdrawals. And note that no matter what type of retirement account you choose, you could face IRS penalties for making withdrawals before retirement age.)
Related: I Want to Save for Retirement
Then, make a commitment to set aside a specific portion of each paycheck into that retirement account—even if it’s as little as 1%. Plus, “many employers offer the option of increasing your savings percentage automatically each year, so if you have that option, consider taking advantage of it,” Taylor suggests.
Staying on Track
Keep in mind that even “if you aren’t able to save as much as you need to, given your current circumstances, make a plan for how that will change over time,” Taylor says. “For example, you can say, ‘When I get a raise, I’m going to put X percentage of that raise into retirement.’”
One other note: In order to take advantage of the aforementioned potential investment growth, it’s important to take a look at your investment mix periodically to make sure your money is working as hard as possible for you and reflects your tolerance for risk and intended time to retirement. And try not to be too swayed by the financial headlines, which can lead to impulsive decision making.
“Focus on the activities and not on the outcomes. Focus on what you can control,” Taylor adds. “And what you can control is the amount that you’re saving and how it’s invested, and that it’s in an appropriate allocation in relation to your risk tolerance.”
Photo of stressed person courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.