Is Mental Burnout Ruining Your Finances?

September 24, 2021

“I am so burned out.” 

If you’ve recently uttered this phrase, unfortunately, you’re in good company. Even before the pandemic entered the picture, toxic productivity, a systemic lack of access to affordable healthcare, and global issues like climate change meant burnout was already a serious issue for many Americans. 

Prolonged burnout, or mental exhaustion, can not only affect your physical health but almost every aspect of your life, including the financial decisions you make. Recognizing and addressing the signs of burnout before it takes over your personal and financial life can help protect your personal well-being—and keep you from making money choices you may later regret.

What Is Burnout?

Until recently, burnout was most often associated with work—specifically, how employees feel driven into the ground by their employers. In 2019, the World Health Organization defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” But now, two years and one pandemic later, it’s become increasingly clear that burnout is much more than simply a problem confined to the workplace alone. 

Redefining Burnout

Many healthcare experts believe it’s time to redefine burnout as a syndrome that affects every sphere of life, including relationships, family, physical and mental health, and finances. And the pandemic only exacerbated the problem, calling to light cultural issues both old and new.

1. Disruption in work-life balance

Working from home has blurred the lines that used to separate work life from home life. Stuck at home and worried about job security, American workers are putting in longer hours without access to the emotional benefits of real-life interactions and workday breaks. Add a kid or two into the mix, and suddenly you’re juggling work and life with no end in sight. 

2. Job insecurity 

In addition to on-the-job stress and long hours, fear of getting laid off has compounded workers’ anxieties. COVID-related downsizing has left many people unemployed and unsure of where their next paycheck is coming from. In particular, industries that thrive on in-person services—e.g., transportation, hospitality, dining, and cleaning—have seen significant losses. Stimulus payments have helped a bit, but for many, they’ve served only as a temporary solution to a much bigger problem. 

3. Pandemic parenting 

Remote learning and lack of childcare have put immense strain on parents, with more than one in four mothers reporting greater mental health issues as a result of COVID-19. 

4. Caring for elderly parents

Many children of aging and/or ill parents have taken on the role of full-time caregiver on top of their normal day jobs due to quarantine restrictions and lack of access to an overburdened healthcare system. 

5. Lack of access to travel 

Visiting loved ones who live out of town or state, and vacationing in different parts of the world have long provided relief from the stressors of everyday life. Now, our ability to escape has been disrupted by lockdowns and other pandemic-related restrictions, often to the detriment of our mental health.

6. Too much together time (or not enough)

COVID-19 has strained the limits of many of our core relationships. The inability to get time away from a partner or, conversely, spend time with a good friend, has led to new problems and exacerbated old ones. 

7. Financial instability 

Financial instability brought about by COVID has affected both employers and employees alike, worsening people’s financial fears and sometimes leading to poor financial decisions and outcomes. 

8. Living with the unpredictable

The yo-yo effect of pandemic rules and regulations, the good news/bad news cycle, and the ever-changing nature of COVID-19 has left many feeling confused and perpetually exhausted. 

How To Know If You’re Experiencing Burnout

According to a number of recent studies, burnout symptoms can include anxiety, irritability, insomnia, depression, and/or feeling withdrawn and disconnected from the world. Recently, cognitive dysfunction and confusion have been added to the list. Many people experiencing burnout also report feeling exhausted and unmotivated to perform even simple daily tasks. This means your burnout doesn’t just affect your job performance. It can trickle into all aspects of your life—from how you interact with loved ones and your ability to manage money. 

How Burnout Impacts Your Financial Well-Being

Burnout can cause you to make poor decisions in an attempt to cope with your stress—particularly when it comes to managing your money. Recognizing the signs before they become a pattern can help keep your finances in check. 

1. Avoiding your finances 

Are you reluctant to open your banking app or check in on your savings account? Money can be a major source of stress. And if you’re worried about your finances, ignoring the situation can be incredibly tempting. But ignoring your financial reality will likely make things worse over time. 

2. Overspending on convenience

During normal times, most of us try to balance the higher cost of getting things delivered to our doorstep with countermeasures like shopping for sales, buying in bulk, and cooking at home. But during quarantine, deliveries naturally skyrocketed. Though mask mandates and store policies have since loosened, what was once a safer convenience might now be a habit. 

3. Overusing retail therapy

There’s a reason it’s called ‘therapy’—shopping is a common reaction to stress. But unlike a trip to your therapists, it’s a temporary coping mechanism that can throw off your budget in the short term and create unnecessary debt in the long run. If you find yourself shopping beyond your means or overspending on pricey items you don’t need, it could be another sign of burnout. 

4. Skipping bill payments 

If you’re struggling to make ends meet, it’s tempting to skip important payments and tell yourself you’ll deal with the situation later. But kicking the can down the road just makes it a problem for “future you.” Of course, it’s important to prioritize food and shelter, but if you’re unable to pay bills, look for ways to address the problem head on, instead of letting the problems pile up. 

How To Protect Your Personal Finances Against Burnout

Though many employers and healthcare providers are beginning to take burnout syndrome seriously–real, systemic change will take time. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to manage burnout when it starts to impact your financial health. 

Most importantly, commit to a budget. A workable budget can help you start to eliminate poor financial habits that lead to more money problems and more stress. Popular budget strategies like the envelope method or the zero-based method can help you regain financial control and reduce some of the stress associated with money. 

You may also want to consider automating your savings by setting up monthly transfers to a savings account or emergency fund. Small money moves like these can add up over time, especially if you’re earning interest. Just knowing you’ve started setting aside money to build a nest egg can help alleviate financial stress. 

If your employer offers flexible remote work, consider taking advantage of those options. And look for other ways to set appropriate boundaries in your work life to prioritize your own mental and physical health.

Another strategy is practicing affordable self-care. Going for a walk in one of your favorite spots, journaling, meditating, and spending time with a close friend are all great (and free) ways to take care of your mental health. Experts also recommend taking a break from social media and unplugging from your digital devices. Too much screen time can lead to low self-esteem, sleep issues, and FOMO (fear of missing out)—problems you definitely don’t need when you’re already experiencing burnout.

Plus, when you take the time to take care of yourself, you may also find you’re less inclined to make impulsive purchases to cope with stress—a win for your health and your pocketbook. 

The Bottom Line

Mental exhaustion burnout isn’t your fault. Your brain and body might feel like they’re on a seemingly never-ending rollercoaster ride of stress, making it difficult to deal with even simple tasks. Though it can feel overwhelming, knowing there are steps you can take to improve your situation can go a long way toward alleviating symptoms. 

Former First Lady Michelle Obama once said, “We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to-do’ list.” If burnout is affecting your mental, physical, and financial wellness, don’t wait for help. Start taking steps to prioritize yourself and your financial future today. 

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