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America’s Epidemic of Financial Avoidance

We all worry about money. No matter how much of it we have, money often causes anxiety at every stage of our lives. In fact, finances have ranked as the top stressor among Americans, according to the American Psychological Association, since the survey began in 2007. In 2014, 72% of U.S. adults reported feeling stressed about money at least some of the time and in some cases were not addressing health care needs because of financial issues. And just like avoiding the doctor when you have a nagging cough, seemingly benign financial problems left untreated can become much more significant, causing immeasurable heartache down the line. 

So, naturally, we’re all working to fix the most common and often most significant issue in our lives, right? Wrong. In 2015, just 38 percent of investors reported having a plan to reach investment and retirement goals, according to a Gallup survey. Of those that had a financial plan, only half closely followed the strategy. Many Americans might argue that their financial situations do not necessitate a full-blown financial plan. While that may sometimes be the case, most Americans don’t practice basic financial principles like keeping a budget. Two-thirds of Americans don’t track their monthly spending, according to Gallup. 

So why do most of us miss our chance to alleviate the biggest stressor in life? The answer, for the most part, goes back to psychology. We seek safety in our daily pattern, and we tend to avoid rather than face the things that most affect our wellbeing. Avoidance coping, or the practice of keeping away from particular situations because of anticipated negative consequences or feelings, hinders us from resolving these problems. Comedian Brian Regan hilariously articulates this phenomenon in a stand-up act, in which he says he waited six years to get new contact lenses. With his new contacts, he realizes, “Man, I could have been seeing things! How can instantly improved vision not be at the top of your to-do list?” What had been his ongoing, albeit facetious, excuse? “I’ll see tomorrow.” (For related reading, see: Behavioral Finance: How Bias Can Hurt Investing.) 

This pattern of avoidance and procrastination has fed an epidemic of financial illiteracy in the U.S. In 2014, 81% of survey respondents scored a 60 or lower on financial questions and just 19% received a passing grade, according to the American College of Financial Services. Meanwhile, 75% of American adults agree they would benefit from advice from a professional, according to the 2015 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. While the data proves that these issues disrupt happiness and that many Americans need help, most still don’t take action.

Effective financial advisors bridge this divide by refocusing their outreach on education. In addition to the psychology of avoidance, advisors must contend with another deep-rooted human trait: pride. Despite clear data that proves otherwise, many people claim to have strong financial knowledge, allowing a desire for self-sufficiency to impede progress. As a result, advisors often must make the first, most difficult, and most essential step to break through that wall by delicately yet effectively telling people they’re wrong. In doing so, advisors begin to provide valuable financial education, which ultimately breeds transparency and trust. (For related reading, see: The 8 Deadly Sins of Financial Advice.)

We know that money can’t buy happiness, but we also know that our financial anxieties can deeply burden our families. Seeking professional help and allowing an advisor to coach us to live a life by design can allow for a brighter, less stressful, and more enjoyable future. Just like ending the excuses and finally seeing the eye doctor to get those contact lenses, addressing our money problems with professional guidance can allow us to instantly see things more clearly. (For related reading, see: How to Budget and Spend to Maximize Your Happiness.)