How to improve financial wellness

September is self-improvement month, and many Ohioans feel they could stand to improve their financial wellness.

In an Ohio Credit Union League 2018 consumer survey, respondents were asked to rate their financial wellness on a scale from one (lowest) to five (highest). The average response was 3.48. And a majority of respondents, 88.08 percent, admitted to having financial weak spots.

Ohio isn’t far from national trends. According to the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection’s “Financial Well-Being in America” survey, U.S. adults on average rate their financial well-being as a 54 on a scale from zero to 100.

The study found Americans with less income reported lower levels of financial wellness. Scores of 50 or less tended to come from respondents with a high probability of experiencing material hardship, meaning they struggle to afford basic food and shelter. On the other hand, respondents who could easily afford the basics tended to give themselves financial wellness scores of 61 or more.

Experiences with credit also contribute to a person’s sense of financial wellness, according to the same study. Someone who has been denied credit or who had been contacted by a debt collector will likely score themselves as having a lower level of financial well-being.

Unfortunately, feeling financially unwell can affect more than consumers’ wallets. In a study from the American Psychological Association, nearly 72 percent of American adults reported feeling stressed about money at least some of the time and nearly a quarter said they experienced “extreme stress” about their financial situation in the past month.

Stress at that level isn’t healthy. Chronic stress can cause headaches, weight gain, and even heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. The American Psychological Association also pointed out research that shows stress associated with financial problems strains cognitive abilities, meaning the person feeling financially unwell is more likely to make decisions that continue to lead them into unfavorable financial situations.

But there’s a silver lining. Regardless of income or credit score, the Bureau Consumer Financial Protection’s study found people who seek training and become financially literate tend to give themselves higher financial well-being scores. Here are some tips to help improve your financial wellness score.

  • Create a plan. Decide where you want your finances to take you and compare that to your current financial situation. Write down all the steps to reach your financial goal and assign a time period to achieve each one. Reward yourself periodically as you come closer to your goal.
  • Automate savings. It’s a lot easier to resist spending money if you never see it hit your checking account. Set up an automatic transfer each paycheck from your checking account to savings. Experts suggest aiming to set away six months’ worth of income for emergencies. It’s also wise to put about 10 percent of your income toward retirement.
  • Carry cash. Swiping a credit or debit card can make spending money feel a little too easy. Pulling out dollars for each purchase forces you to be more aware of how much you’re spending. Take out only a set amount of money each week to help stay within your budget and cut down on impulsive spending.
  • Improve your credit score. A poor credit score will hold you back financially, even if you’ve cultivated healthy budgeting and spending skills. Pay off lingering debts and be sure to pay off all new expenses promptly to improve your credit score. You may want to consider setting up automated bill pay, so you don’t accidentally miss payment dates.
  • Build financial literacy. You can’t be financially well if you don’t know how to be. Consider utilizing podcasts, books, articles, and shows that teach financial concepts. For a more hands-on approach, research financial literacy events or classes hosted by credit unions or other financial institutions in your area. Several credit unions in Ohio have certified financial counselors who are trained specifically to help improve financial wellness.

Credit unions exist to help their members reach financial wellness. For more information and to find a credit union near you, visit asmarterchoice.org.

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