Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but one thing is certain, money can cause a great deal of stress for people worried about managing it. In a study published in October by the American Psychological Association (APA), about 80 percent of Americans reported that the money and the economy caused them significant stress. More than half were also stressed by job stability or housing costs.
For college students, the situation can be even worse. Many have to worry about paying off student loans or paying their tuition if their parents become unemployed. Those who are graduating in May also have to worry about finding their first job in a tough economic environment.
[money]Most universities still treat stress and money problems as separate issues, said Dennis Martell, health education services coordinator at Olin Health Center. Change is coming, though. Olin has launched a financial wellness program aimed at stopping students’ heartache when they check their account balances.
The pilot program, which began earlier this semester, allows students to schedule free appointments to learn about managing common financial concerns. These concerns include issues with credit cards, budgeting, student loans, health insurance and even identity theft. The difference between traditional financial planning and this program is that the goal is to reduce stress. A similar program is already in place at The Ohio State University.
Brian Winters, a health education staff member who heads the program, said people in human services have realized the link between balanced finances and overall health, especially since the economic downturn.
“[Even] social workers are bringing a financial component to what they do,” Winters said. “Finance has become an integral part of being successful in our society.”
[Martell]Rising layoffs and foreclosures have recently made the economy an dire issue for many people. Martell and Winters started looking into the effects of finances on stress a year ago by reading the results of the National College Health Assessment. According to the assessment, based on students’ responses to a survey, nearly 30 percent of MSU students reported that they got a lower grade or couldn’t complete a course last year because of stress. Martell said he also heard students talking about financial stress and saw an increase in clients at the MSU Student Food Bank.
“I don’t think that most people recognize that financial matters have a huge impact on stress, which in turn impacts sleep and daily activities,” Martell said. “When it impacts their stress, it impacts their health.”
When students first go to Olin for financial wellness counseling, they fill out a survey that gauges their level of stress. The survey identifies a student’s mental, academic and physical stress levels, Winters said. He can handle a maximum of 10 appointments per week. However, he only sees about half that number because the program is just getting started.
Aside from fliers on bulletin boards and in residence halls, the program isn’t advertised. “We don’t want to drum up more demand than we can handle,” Winters said. “But for a program that’s just out there [without advertising], we’re definitely seeing a response. It’s tough out there and we’re here to help.”
Many students who call for appointments have simple questions that can be answered over the phone, Winters said, or need to be directed to other offices for things like loans.
The students who do get counseling attend an hour-long session where Winters teaches them the basics about dealing with financial problems. Additional sessions are possible for students who need them. He follows up with the students a month later to see if they feel less stressed and more confident in dealing with finances.
Winters said one of the most important things he wants to teach students is to “live within their means and be realistic about credit card debt and even student loan debt, knowing that it has to be paid back.”
If student responses indicate that the program is successful, it may expand the partners it works with, including referring students with very high levels of stress to the Counseling Center. For now, Winters said, his main partner is Spartan Smart Statements, a student group that gives presentations about basic financial literacy.
[Becker]Counseling Center visits are up about 40 percent from last year, Associate Director Scott Becker said. The rise in visits can be attributed to the extended hours set by the Counseling Center. Though the center doesn’t divulge patient records, Becker said most counselors at universities around the country have noticed more anxiety and depression as the economy worsens.
“I think often it exacerbates pre-existing conditions like depression and anxiety,” Becker said. “What we try to do is help students sort out the causes.”
Often, Becker said, people with anxiety or depression exaggerate or make problems seem worse than they are. For those students, counselors work on relaxation exercises and breathing to “help people get past losses and look at the long term,” Becker said. While Becker works on the anxiety or depression financial fears cause, Winters works on the concrete problem of financial worries in and of itself. The center is also working on a partnership with the Office of Financial Aid, Becker said.
The Office of Financial Aid is helping to create new partners and resources for students. One such resource is Spartan Smart Statements, a student group that gives presentations about basic financial literacy. The group’s adviser, Kevin Schwemmin, senior student services coordinator at the Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, said he started it last year because of a request from the Office of Financial Aid.
Spartan Smart Statements President Cody Taylor described financial literacy as “knowing what you have to deal with and how to deal with it.” This includes understanding basic financial terms and techniques like budgeting and making transitions to different housing or to work. Winters found the group and asked Taylor to refer students whose questions they couldn’t answer.
“He sort of functions as our financial expert,” Taylor said.
[card]Taylor said the group doesn’t discuss stress and wellness in its presentations, but hopes giving students tools for managing money will “lead to better financial health.”
The group’s adviser, Kevin Schwemmin, senior student services coordinator at the Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, said he started it last year because of a request from the Office of Financial Aid.
“What we do is mostly a nuts and bolts piece, but we know it fits into that more holistic [approach],” Schwemmin said.
The group had about 10 students last year and seven this year, with Taylor as the last original member who hasn’t yet graduated. Last year, the group presented on residence hall floors and at several conferences. The goal of the presentations was to help students become knowledgeable of financial processes and terminology.
“There were [responses] ranging from ‘This really opened my eyes,’ to people saying ‘This is common knowledge,'” said Taylor, a senior accounting major.
Many of the students are finance or accounting majors, but the group provides basic financial training to anyone who wants to join. The group is working on holding a Financial Awareness Week later this semester. Taylor hopes that as the group recruits more members it will be able to hold more workshops and offer peer counseling in its own office space.
Schwemmin said he expects it to continue even after the economic situation improves. “It’s not a quick fix. There are always going to be students who need assistance with budgeting,” Schwemmin said.
Taylor said the group and the financial wellness program need to continue to work on finding ways to reach students. “I know there’s a need out there,” Taylor said, “but you don’t know what you don’t know, so you might not know you’re in the dark.”
Resources for students dealing with stress caused by financial insecurities are taking shape all over campus. Students seeking guidance are not limited to just one place. What’s more, it’s all free. The Counseling Center offers help on managing stress, anxiety and depression. The Office of Financial Aid and Spartan Smart Statements give out information on techniques for managing finances, and the Financial Wellness program tries to combine both approaches. “It’s tough out there and we’re here to help,” Winters said. Stress a little less. Financial wellness is in reach.