Economic Stress

If you are feeling anxiety about finances and the economy, you are not alone. A 2008 survey by MTV found that financial concerns were a top stressor for college students, surpassed only by getting good grades and completing school work. You may find that you have the need to find strategies and resources to manage economic and emotional stress. In general, college is a time when economic stress can become intense. Managing living expenses, college costs, and other demands on your wallet can be a daunting juggling act. Many students struggle with financial issues in college and this page is intended to offer tips and resources to help you manage money issues and any associated stress.

What is economic stress?

Stress is a necessary and integral part of human life. Stress can help you to get up on time, to challenge yourself and to accomplish your goals. Healthy stress appears when you need it and gives you the energy and initiative to take needed actions and then lessens when the need has passed. But too much stress, particularly over prolonged periods of time, can cause disruptive behavioral and physical symptoms.

Stress can be caused by both internal pressures (our own standards and expectations) and external events. Many Brown students experience ongoing academic, social and familial stress. During difficult economic times - such as the current financial crisis – you may be experiencing additional and compounding stress and fear from the state of the economy.

Economic stress can be triggered by actual stressful experiences like the loss of a job or home, for example, or major changes to your family’s income and budget. Anticipated or possible events, however, can be just as stressful as actual happenings. The fear of your family losing their home or no longer being able afford college costs can be just as stressful, and sometimes more so, than the actual events. Even when your own or your family's assets and security are not in immediate danger, the constant negative news reports and experiences of others can have a cumulative stressful impact.

Brown students can also experience ongoing economic stress when they feel that they have fewer financial resources than most Brown students. The perception that “all Brown students are wealthy” can create stress and isolation. While this perception might not be accurate, it can sometimes be difficult to find students with the same financial concerns that you have.

What are symptoms of economic stress?

Symptoms of economic stress can include many of the common symptoms of stress: trouble sleeping, digestive problems, unexplained weight gain or loss, inability to enjoy regular activities, severe anxiety or even panic attacks. You may also find yourself experiencing economic-specific symptoms such as hyper-focusing on financial issues or avoidance behaviors (e.g., letting unopened bills pile up).

Sometimes differences or anxieties that are of little consequence when there is a sense of hope and financial stability emerge under economic stress as flash points. These flash points may become more frequent and burdensome as struggles to cover living costs or college costs become more difficult or overwhelming. These tensions may lead to discord in family and other relationships and mounting stress can also lead to or intensify issues of depression and anxiety.

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What are strategies to manage economic stress?

Because so many of the factors impacting many families’ financial health are beyond our control, you may feel helpless. However, there are things you can do to manage your stress level and to work towards increased control and choices in your financial situation.

Here are some basic strategies to combat economic stress:

  • Prioritize and plan. Difficult economic times are scary, but they are also a good time to look at the state of your finances. Discuss financial concerns and plans with your parents or other family members and work together to identify resources and options. You might decide to track your day-to-day spending and make changes where you can or, if your family’s financial situation has changed significantly, you might choose to consult with the Office of Financial Aid, who can work with you and your family to identify options available to assist in paying your student account. If you are worried about how the financial market is affecting job prospects, the Career Development Center can assist with your planning. Having a plan in place and identifying resources which can support that plan will help you to feel more secure and in control.
  • Communicate. Talk to your family about finances—this can help you to know whether your fears are realistic and to understand if and how your family is impacted by the economic crisis. Frequent communication about financial issues can help everyone to feel more secure and reduce family tensions about money. Seek out friends and campus staff and faculty as well. Learning that others also worry about these issues and learning about their coping strategies can be helpful in gaining perspective on your own situation.
  • Do what you can, then move on. Some of the most stressful situations are those in which you have no control. You cannot individually control the state of the economy, and even your own personal finances will take time to change. Constant worrying about finances, especially when all reasonable actions have been taken, will only increase stress; this "extra worry" will not improve the situation. Limit worrying time to one or two specific times each week, and then practice letting it go.
  • Change the focus. One important way to stop worrying about the financial situation is to change the focus to other important parts of life. Spend time doing things you love, particularly things that are inexpensive or free. You can take advantage of the many free activities and events on campus, throw yourself into the work for your favorite class, or spend time with friends who help you to take your mind off your worries.
  • Think positive. Your thoughts are powerful. They impact the way you behave and feel. By focusing your thoughts on positive ideas and outcomes, you can decrease your stress level and improve your outlook on life. Focus on your strengths rather than the difficulties, on possibilities rather than fears. Spend time each day affirming that you will be able to handle each of the challenges you face, and reminding yourself of the good times that lie ahead.

What are some warning signs that I need help coping with my stress?

Signs that you are experiencing an overload of stress can range from a general feeling of the "blahs" to serious physical pain. Although most stress can be managed, it is important to obtain professional help before the situation is completely out of control. If you experience the following situations or feelings, you should seek out one of the many professional support resources on campus.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Overreacting to minor problems
  • Inappropriate anger or impatience
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
  • Inability to relax
  • Constantly feeling anxious
  • Experiencing long periods of boredom
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Problems with sexual activity
  • Decreased school or work performance
  • Diminished ability to set priorities and make decisions
  • Being prone to make errors or being accident prone

Physical symptoms:

  • Increased headaches
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Indigestion
  • Aching neck or back
  • Ulcers
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Teeth grinding
  • Muscle spasms
  • Skin conditions like acne and psoriasis

Stress can be a factor in a variety of physical and emotional illnesses, which should be professionally treated. You should consult your medical provider if you experience physical symptoms in the above list. Brown students can make an appointment with Health Services by calling 401.863-3953. You should also consult a therapist from Counseling and Psychological Services (401.863-3476) for unmanageable acute stress, high levels of anxiety, or depression.

You can also read more about stress in general here.

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What are smart money management strategies for college students?

Establishing a pattern of smart money management and developing your financial literacy now will serve you well during college and in the future. These skills and strategies can also help you to manage economic stress and to gain a sense of control over your financial situation.

Managing family resources

Your family may be providing you with a little or a lot of financial support during college. In college, you may find that your relationship with your family and your discussions and agreements about money may be changing. Some good ways to handle your family relationships and resources include:

  • Explaining and talking regularly about what you need: If you haven’t lived on your own before, you may underestimate your initial expenses or you may have an unexpected expense like a car repair.
  • Clarifying who is responsible for what expense: Knowing what your family is able and prepared to pay for and what you will need to pay for will allow everyone to make informed financial choices. Discuss who will be responsible for expenses like tuition, books, housing, food, spending money, and fees for extracurricular activities.
  • Establishing good money management habits: Read through the budgeting, credit card and employment tips below and work to manage the resources your family provides as carefully and responsibly as possible.


It is smart to begin budgeting your money now. Even if your parents are paying for your college entirely, it is a good idea to have a budget outlined and stick to it. A budget can help you keep track of your expenses, analyze your income and set financial goals for yourself. By setting limits on your spending categories and sticking to them, you can form spending habits which will help you throughout college and beyond.

A budget should be used as a guideline, not as a contract set in stone. It also shouldn’t be a chore. A budget will simply help you figure out what you really want to spend your money on. Be honest with yourself about where you can allow yourself to spend and where you should save so you have money for the things you want and need.

You can create your budget using an online tool or software program. and are two free sites which allow you to create a budget and track spending and bank account activity. You can also create your budget the old fashioned way with pen and paper, writing out a column of income and assets and a column of expense categories and amounts for each of these categories.

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Credit cards

A 2008 study released by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows that 76% of students say credit cards have been marketed to them through tables set up on or near their college campus, and nearly a third of these students have been offered a free gift to sign up. T-shirts were the most common gift given, but students also received Frisbees, candy, pizza — even iPods — to fill out a credit card application, according to the group's research.

Many students find out the hard way how easy it is to run up a credit card account balance from inexpensive purchases made occasionally. In 2004, the average undergraduate owed $2,169 on credit cards, while the average graduate student owed $8,612 in 2006, according to data from the student loan company, Nellie Mae. The interest and fees charged by credit card companies can add up quickly and, when you don't pay your balance in full and on time, this means that there are hidden costs for each purchase you make on your credit card. For example, if you have a balance of $1000 (a plane ticket, a semester's worth of books, and a few other miscellaneous items could get you to this amount quickly) on a credit card with a 17% interest rate and only make a minimum payment of $25 each month, it will take you 57 months to pay off the balance and you will pay a total of $452 in interest charges. You can type "credit card calculator" into your browser's search window to access online tools to analyze your own credit card balance, interest, fees, and payoff timeline.

To avoid falling into this trap, if you are using a credit card, keep track of all the purchases you make. Use an empty check register or a small notebook to track your purchases or keep a list on your computer. When your credit card bill arrives, take a few minutes to compare your list to what you've been billed for. Occasionally you may find that you were overcharged or charged twice for an item. Keeping track of your spending will also allow you to recognize quickly if there are any unauthorized charges to your card or other fraudulent activity on your account.

You can also take steps to reduce or eliminate your ability to pile up credit card debt. Some banks offer credit cards with low limits so that you can get used to using it and paying it off, without the ability to go thousands of dollars in debt. You might also want to look into secured credit cards, which let you make charges against an amount of money which you have deposited. You can also limit yourself to using the debit card linked to your checking account. Most debit cards function like credit cards and can be used anywhere that accepts major credit cards. Remember, the temptation of credit cards can be very real, and although the card is plastic, you are spending real money that has to be repaid, and, if you don’t pay your balance in full each month, repaid with interest.

Employment during college

Many students find that working during college is a necessity and, chosen carefully, work can be tremendous complement to your college education. Ideally, work can help you to meet your expenses and build your resume at the same time. However, it is important to balance it as best you can with your need to commit time and energy to your studies. You will want to choose your college job(s) thoughtfully, and think carefully about how you will make school and employment work together. 

You may be wondering whether and how much you should work during the semester, and if an on or off-campus job would make more sense. One way to think about the issue is to make sure that you only work as much as you have to in order to earn the money you will need. A lot of things happen at Brown besides going to class, studying, and earning your degree. You will want to have time to devote to involvement in campus groups and activities, building friendships, taking advantage of volunteer opportunities and attending special events and lectures.

Remember that the transition to college can be overwhelming, and be sure to take that into consideration when you make decisions about employment during the first year, semester, or weeks at Brown. You will need to allot time and effort to getting your bearings, figuring out just how much time must be spent studying, and adjusting to your new living arrangements, the university’s culture, and your course schedule. 

Once you are settled in, you will likely find that the most important issue is communication—between you and your employer and you and your family. Your course schedule will change every semester, and your other commitments (student groups, volunteer hours, course requirements) may change your availability for work as well. Communicating with your employer ahead of time will make it much more likely that they can accommodate these changes. Although sometimes they don’t pay as well, an on-campus job is also more likely to be flexible enough to allow you to make changes to your schedule and hours each semester or during exam time. It is also important to let your family know if you are having trouble working as much as you had planned to, particularly if this means that they will need to contribute more money towards your expenses than you originally thought.

Click here for information about student employment at Brown and to search on and off campus job opportunities. The Center for Careers and Life After Brown supports individual Brown students at any and all stages of the career development process and offers one-on-one counseling appointments, walk in hours, employer information sessions and numerous programs and workshops. 

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Campus Resources

Financial Aid Office 401.863-2721
The Office of Financial Aid can assist you and your family in identifying options available to assist in paying your student account. The Financial Aid Office is located on the 2nd floor of J. Walter Wilson on the corner of Brown and Waterman Streets.

Center for Careers and Life After Brown 401.863-3326
The Careers Center supports individual Brown students at all stages of the career development process and offers one-on-one counseling appointments, walk in hours, employer information sessions and programs and workshops. The Center is located in the Hemisphere Building at 167 Angell Stree.

Student Employment Office 401.863-9922
The Student Employment Office maintains job listings and offers information on federal work study. The office is located on the 2nd floor of J. Walter Wilson on the corner of Brown and Waterman Streets.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476     
If you are experiencing acute stress, high levels of anxiety, or depression you should consult a therapist from Psychological Services. Psychological Services is is located on the 2nd floor of J. Walter Wilson on the corner of Brown and Waterman Streets.

Health Services 401.863-3953
Make an appointment with a provider at Health Services if you are experiencing physical symptoms of stress. Health Services is located in Andrews House at 13 Brown Street, on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets.

Links you can use

Budget Hero Game
Feel like you could benefit from a lighter look at the United States economy? Have some fun and games with the federal budget and come up with your own solutions to the financial crisis. Play the Marketplace (American Public Radio) Budget Hero game!

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Disclaimer: BWell Health Promotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.