The Big Money Struggle


During the Great Recession, Kelly Cunningham’s home value dropped from $220,000 to $45,000. Today, Cunningham is a program manager at a utility company, but back then, she was just trying to get through grad school. Her husband had a college teaching position, but carried a great deal of his own student debt.

“At the time, we could only afford a tiny house in a troubled neighborhood. We thought it was our last chance to buy in Sacramento. When the bubble burst, we realized we could spend the rest of our lives in that home and never recover its value. What was supposed to be a key investment was suddenly a life sentence,” says Cunningham. All they could do was look on as the recession ravaged the area. “Break-ins were happening all around us. Homes got foreclosed and boarded up. After a while, people would post ‘No copper’ signs outside—you know, for scavengers, letting them know there was nothing inside left to loot.”

The young couple wondered how this could happen to them. With master’s degrees and promising careers ahead of them, they felt crushed by their debt and lost investment. The stress of their situation turned into a daily grind of mental fatigue.

“Every little expenditure was scrutinized. ‘Can’t you pack a lunch instead of buying one?’ ‘Did we really need to get that mocha?’ ‘Should we skip buying holiday gifts this year?’ I didn’t feel good physically. I gained 25 or 30 pounds. The stress just went up and up,” says Cunningham.

Ultimately, when their marriage dissolved, they realized neither could afford to stay in the house. “It was an epic mess to sort out,” says Cunningham. “It took us both years to get back on our feet.”

HEARTBREAKING WOES—In 2007, graphic designer Joshua Lurie-Terrell and his wife were in the process of adopting a child when they got hit with a double threat. First, the market crash destroyed half of their retirement savings. The adoption, being a long and expensive process, left the couple wondering how they’d make ends meet and still save enough for all their future needs. “I would just lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling. I barely slept.” Soon after, he got hit with the second punch. Without any warning signs or obvious health risks, the 37-year-old suffered a heart attack.

His doctors pointed to stress as a major contributing factor.

ALL IN THE FAMILY—Gioia Fonda’s father was a small town lawyer with bad business sense and a wildly unpredictable income. She grew up not knowing when they would be celebrating a windfall or lamenting a shortfall. When she reached college age, she financed her two degrees with student loans. That’s when the panic attacks started. “The debt used to hang over me like a depression cloud,” says Fonda. “The pressures I put on myself…. I would think about it constantly. At night, I’d just lay in bed spinning.”

Today, while Fonda stills lives with heavy student debt, her anxiety is greatly reduced thanks to having landed a position as an art instructor at Sacramento City College. But many in the local art community suffer money-related health issues.

“I know artists who have dental problems they keep putting off. I have a friend who teaches art in Burlingame. It was her hometown growing up, but it’s much more expensive to live there now, and the stress wears her down. She literally loses hair every time her teaching contract comes up for renewal,” says Fonda, who observes it’s especially hard to talk about money problems as an artist.

“People are inclined to think we ought to know better. ‘You asked for it; you chose this path,’ they think. Which is not unfair, but it’s also more complicated than that,” says Fonda. “When people with money get stressed out, they can take the occasional vacation, reset, see a doctor. Without that advantage, it’s not surprising some turn to self-medication and TV.”

Even though Fonda has managed to stay healthy, her parents have not fared so well. Now completely broke, they suffer from health problems that go unaddressed.

“When my dad has health issues, he’ll ‘tough it out’ or deny the problem rather than go to a doctor,” says Fonda. “My mom has strange sores in her mouth and other health nuisances. She’s had financial stress and high blood pressure so long, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. Maybe these are just ‘80-year-old-people ailments’ but I have to believe their stress is making things worse,” Fonda says.

AMERICA’S SHAMEFUL SECRET—As a nation, we fret about money. A lot. Regardless of economic booms and busts, money has consistently topped Americans’ list of worries since the American Psychological Association first began its annual “Stress in America” survey 10 years ago. However, back in 2007, there was virtually no difference in reported stress levels between those who earned more than $50,000 and those who earned less. By 2014, a clear gap had emerged. People who struggle with money are reporting increasingly higher stress levels, and it is affecting their health.

It wasn’t that long ago in human history that people were more concerned about being eaten than paying down credit cards. Why is the worry over money so prevalent and so pernicious? Chris Olson, M.D., a family physician with Mercy Medical Group, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation, explains that our bodies don’t respond well to such constant stimuli.

“In prehistoric times, a charging tiger would trigger a ‘fight-or-flight’ response that floods the body with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which is valuable for immediate situations. Your muscles are tense, your heart and breathing rate peak. You’re in survival mode,” says Olson. “But when stress prompts these hormones to be continuously released, it can lead to a wide variety of issues.”

Of course, there are many stressors in modern life—not just money. What makes “money stress” unique?

“There is a lot of shame associated with money problems,” says psychotherapist and Buddhism teacher Stephen Walker, LMFT, founder of Middle Way Health. “In our society, most people would rather talk about their sex life than their bank accounts. If you’re the victim of an accident or crime, you may receive empathy, but if you struggle financially, people often judge your choices, or worse, suspect you’ll ask them for a handout.”

HOW DEBT STRESS IS BAD FOR YOU: A SAMPLER—Numerous recent studies indicate a correlation between money stress and a wide range of physical and mental ailments. Consider:
• A 2013 study from Northwestern University found adults aged 24 to 32 with a high debt-to-asset ratio also tended to report poorer health in general.
• In a 2014 Rutgers University study, adults aged 51 and older were more likely to report depressive symptoms when they owed a high amount of debt.
• People with high credit card or medical debt are less likely to visit a doctor or dentist for regular checkups or even when they’re sick, according to a 2013 study from the University of Michigan.
• A 2008 Associated Press/AOL Health poll survey found that 44 percent of people with high levels of debt stress had frequent migraines or other headaches.
• In a 2012 study published in Family Relations, newlywed couples who disagreed about financial issues at least once a week were more likely to divorce within five years than were those who argued about other issues, such as chores, in-laws, time spent together and sex.

HOW STRESS GETS IN YOUR HEAD—Brain research conducted at UC Berkeley in 2014 revealed new insight into why stress can be so detrimental. It looked at how neural stem cells behave under stress. Prior to the study, the general belief was that these neural stem cells would only become “gray matter” cells, which are essentially designed to process and store information. However, under stress, researchers found these stem cells could instead produce “white matter” cells whose primary purpose is to transmit information. This disrupts the balance, causing communication in the brain cells to lose its normal timing.

This phenomenon might lead to a stronger connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala (the area that processes the fight-or-flight response) and weaker connectivity with the prefrontal cortex (the area that moderates those responses). In other words, in a stressful situation, a person with this imbalance will have a stronger fight-or-flight response with a weakened ability to shut it down.

BEATING STRESS THROUGH FINANCIAL PLANNING—Certified financial planner (and occasional Sacramento Magazine contributing writer) Greg Sabin spends a lot of time talking to people who aren’t saving for retirement, know they should, and worry endlessly about it. “The easiest way to ease that burden is to have a plan. Any plan. Ideally, something that runs in the background automatically, like a 401K if that’s available,” says Sabin. He also sees a lot of people with multiple credit cards and loans who are unaware of their respective interest rates.

“The key is to know how expensive each debt is and work at paying off the priciest one first,” says Sabin. “If I promised a 19 percent return on an investment, most people would dig through the sofa for loose change. If you are paying 19 percent on a credit card debt, you should be just as eager to save yourself from it.”

BEATING STRESS THROUGH SELF-CARE—When their patients complain of stress, both Olson and Walker recommend a combination of exercise and stillness. Olson sometimes recommends a 1976 book “The Relaxation Response”— revolutionary for its time—that showed meditation to have benefits from lowered blood pressure to a reduction in heart disease. Walker notes that a network of friends can be excellent medicine for getting through difficult times and also observes that a pet is a great source of unconditional love. “Caring for an animal is a reward in itself that doesn’t take much.”

THIS, TOO, SHALL PASS—It’s been 10 years since Joshua Lurie-Terrell had that heart attack at age 37, and he’s feeling much better now. He’s getting better rest. He got a second job as a writer for, a seller of digital type, which allows him to work in his free time after the kids have gone to bed. Rather than a chore, he finds it enjoyable and fulfilling. He and his wife also changed their spending habits.

“We’ve learned to bargain shop more now,” says Lurie-Terrell. “We scaled back. We don’t have HBO or the sports package or high speed internet. We buy nonspoilable things at Costco with our friend’s membership. We eat out once a month instead of once a week, and we go to the local pho shop instead of Ella. We spend more time with friends with kids, which compared to going out is cheaper, easier and more sociable.”

But he’ll tell you that the greatest turning point for him was an interaction he had with a monk while on trip to Thailand with his wife.

“At the temple, I realized I couldn’t find my passport and got very upset. My mind raced. It could be back at the hotel . . . or it could be lost or stolen,” recalls Lurie-Terrell. “The monk saw I was upset and asked why I would worry about something I have no control over. He was right, of course. It was this ‘aha’ moment that has just stuck with me ever since. It really helped put things back in perspective.”

Kelly Cunningham, the young professional who lost her home and marriage after the housing crash, was able to regain her wellness through a combination of exercise, perspective and foreclosure.

“Finally, it was done and I was out on my own and I eventually got a job where I could put money aside,” says Cunningham. “I put together a budget that made room for a gym membership, healthy food and time for biking. I lost the extra weight.”

She feels lucky to be able to afford her own place to live—as a renter for now, but she’s planning to change that eventually.

“Because of my credit rating, I won’t be able to buy anything without at least 30 percent in cash,” says Cunningham. “If I try really hard, I might be able to save enough in six or seven years. If something bad happens, it’ll take longer. But all you can do is try, right?”