Economic Stress

Concerns about personal finances are a source of everyday stress among many college students. A 2020 national study by the Ohio State University on college students and financial wellness, found that 74% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were stressed out about their personal finances in general. 

What is economic stress?

Economic stress is the feeling of stress due to the current state of one's personal finances and/or due to fear about the economy. Although some stress can be healthy, in the way that it can give you the energy and initiative to take needed actions or encourages you to challenge yourself, economic stress can have harmful impacts, especially for college students.

Research demonstrates that economic stress can be triggered by a number of factors:

  • experiences of a job loss or home

  • major changes to your family's income and budget

  • the feeling of not having enough financial resources compared to others

  • balancing the need to work while in college

Specifically for Brown students, the feeling of having fewer financial resources than other Brown students can cause a significant amount of financial stress. The perception that "all Brown students are wealthy" can create stress and isolation for those who do not come from affluent backgrounds. While this perception might not be accurate, it can sometimes be difficult to find students with the same financial concerns that you have.

If you believe you are suffering from economic stress, you are not alone. Over 33% of college students nationwide feel that their academic progress is negatively impacted by financial stressors. 

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.

Economic-specific symptoms can include hyper-focusing on financial issues and avoidance behaviors (e.g., letting unopened bills pile up).

Sometimes symptoms may emerge during times of economic stress as flash points. These flashpoints may become more frequent and burdensome as struggles to cover living costs or college costs become more overwhelming. These tensions can lead to discord among family and friends, as well as cause or intensify feelings of depression and anxiety.

What are strategies to manage economic stress?

You may feel helpless because many of the factors contributing to the economic stress you face are beyond your control, but there are ways to reduce these negative feelings. There are simple steps you can take to manage your stress level and work towards increased control and choices in your financial situation.

According to a national study the resources listed below have been ranked the most helpful by college students:

  • One-on-one financial counseling

  • Seminar on money management

  • Seminar on managing student loans

  • Online financial education

Here are some other basic strategies to reduce levels of economic stress:

Prioritize and plan-- having a plan in place and identifying resources which can support that plan will help you to feel more secure and in control.

  • Discuss financial concerns and plans with your parents or other family members and work together to identify resources and options.

  • Track your day-to-day spending and make changes where you can.

  • Consult with the Office of Financial Aid if your family's financial situation has changed significantly. They 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 Lab can assist with your planning.

Communicate-- Regular communication about financial issues can help everyone to feel more secure and reduce tensions about money.

  • Talk to your family about finances-- this can help you to know whether your fears and concerns are realistic.

  • 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.

  • Your personal finances will take time to change, be patient.

  • Limit worrying time to one or two specific times each week, and then practice letting it go. Constant worrying, especially when you've done all you can to improve the situation, will only make your levels of stress higher.

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.

  • Take advantage of the many free activities and events on campus. Check here to see what's happening on campus!

  • Throw yourself into the work for your favorite class.

  • Spend time with friends who help you to take your mind off your worries.

Think positive-- Your thoughts are powerful.

  • Focus your thoughts on positive ideas and outcomes

  • 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.

There are many resources out there with tips and guidelines for dealing with economic stress; a few are posted below.

How to Reduce Your Financial Stress in College

Financial Literacy at Brown

3 Smart Ways to Reduce Stress and Cut Costs

Managing Your Stress 

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, the warning signs below can mean it would be wise to seek help before you reach a crisis point. 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

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 lost or broken phone or laptop.

  • 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 any resources your family provides as carefully and responsibly as possible. 


It is smart to begin budgeting your money now. 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. 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 most want and need.

Creating a budget doesn't have to be hard. You can create your budget using an online tool or software program (links below) or the old fashioned way with a pen and paper.

Paper and Pen Budget

Credit cards

According to a 2019 nation-wide survey by Sallie Mae, 57% of college students report having credit cards. On average, students with credit cards report having 5 different cards. This is an increase over 2016, when the average number of cards was 3. Many students quickly find out how easy it is to run up credit card debt. In 2019, according to the Sallie Mae survey, the average undergraduate owed $1,183 on credit cards, an increase of 31% over 2016. 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.

To avoid falling into this trap when using a credit card:

  • Keep track of all the purchases you make through an empty check register, small notebook, or 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.

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.

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.

When considering working while in college, it is important to consider how many hours you will be able to work. Remember that there are a lot of other things happening outside of class at Brown that you will want to devote time to, such as campus groups and activities, building friendships, volunteer opportunities, and special events. Research suggests that working 20 hours or less is manageable for students across the country, but every student has a unique situation and finding the balance between work and classes may take time.

In general, on-campus jobs tends to be more flexible and allow you to make necessary changes to your schedule based on your classes each semester and/or during exam time.  It is also important to let your family, and your employer, know if you are having trouble working as much as you had planned to.

To find a job on campus at Brown, check out the following resources:

Student Employment at Brown

Federal Work Study and Campus Employment

Career Lab and Life After Brown

Related Links

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 Page-Robinson Hall 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 Street.

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 Page-Robinson Hall 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 can consult a therapist from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS is located in the Health and Wellness building at 450 Brook Street.

Undocumented, First Generation College and Low-Income Student Center (U-Fli Center) 401.863-5675    
The Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center (U-FLiCenter) is a communal academic and social space for members of the Brown community who identify with the undocumented, first-generation college and/or low-income student experience. By providing students, faculty, and staff with a dedicated space that affirms their intersectional identities, the U-FLiCenter aims to contribute to the endurance and success of the first-generation college and low-income communities at Brown

Health Services 401.863-3953 
You can make an appointment with a provider at Health Services if you are experiencing physical symptoms of stress. 

  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111