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Worrying about Money

When you are worried about you next paycheck, it disrupts your ability to focus

I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck. I’ve waited to buy food, worried about rent, delayed bills, and been unable to fill my gas tank. Living without enough money is stressful. You think and worry about money all the time. And worrying about money disrupts cognitive performance.

When you don’t have enough money, you probably find yourself frequently thinking about money. You worry about how you’re going to manage the bills, the food, the new shoes that your kid needs. I’ve found money thoughts in my head when driving home from work. They can occupy my mind when I try to go to sleep. Money worries are always lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for an opening to move into the center of my awareness. When times are tight, worry about money is constant and exhausting. Maybe you’ve had these types of experiences too.

Money thoughts are also distracting. Being worried about money disrupts your ability to think effectively. In a recent set of lab and field studies, Anandi Mani and colleagues provided powerful support for this claim. In the lab studies, they gave people personal financial problems – such as thinking about how they would manage a car repair. The researchers varied whether the problems were small (say $150.00 to fix) or large (maybe $1500.00 to fix). I don’t know about you, but coming up with $150 for a car repair will be easier to manage and solve than trying to find $1500. Afterwards, they gave them some straightforward cognitive and attention tasks. After considering small financial problems, rich and poor adults performed similarly. But after considering the large problems, the poor people performed substantially worse. Worrying about large financial problems, even in hypothetical terms, disrupted performance on the next task.

In the field version, Mani and colleagues actually went into the field. They asked small farmers to take similar cognitive and attention tasks. Here the manipulation was the time in the planting cycle. Some farmers did the task before harvest – when they might be worried about their crops and haven’t yet been paid. Others performed the tasks after harvest, when the crops were in and they’d been paid. The farmers who did the tasks after harvest performed better than those who did them before harvest.

When you have money concerns on your mind, performing routine attention, cognitive, and thinking tasks becomes more difficult.

I’ve been thinking about these findings in two contexts this week. I’ve often been concerned because many of my students are stressed financially. How will they pay tuition? How can they buy the textbook? How much are they taking out in student loans? Are there money problems for their families? These concerns, many of them financial, probably disrupt their ability to learn. I’m always impressed with how many of my students overcome these types of challenges. As a former scholarship student, I remember the money worries. These nagging worries about money most likely compound the existing differences in opportunities between students from wealthy and poor backgrounds.

But I’ve also been worried about how the current partial shutdown of the federal government is affecting those government workers and their families. Many of these people are still working, but they are missing their paychecks. Of course they’re worried about money. The bills are due, but the paycheck is missing. I imagine those financial concerns are constantly lingering in their thoughts, ready to move into awareness. Those money concerns may also disrupt their cognitive performance, even when they try their hardest. Of course, the people working without pay are those considered essential – air traffic controllers, TSA agents, the Coast Guard, the border patrol. Unfortunately, mistakes may be more likely when financial concerns are serious.

Money is a problem. Worrying about money is also a problem. Mani and colleagues noted that the problems people in poverty experience are often attributed to something about those people – maybe the environment, maybe less education, maybe less of a work ethic. Their point is really interesting. The problem isn’t something about those people in poverty. The problem is worrying about money. Those worries take some of the limited cognitive capacity that all of us have. When distracted by money concerns, people display a variety of cognitive limits.

I would rather not have people who are performing life critical tasks be worried about paying their bills on time. I would rather they weren’t worried about whether or not they will be paid. I would rather that my students were able to focus on their education without having the constant, nagging concern of how their will pay their tuition bill.


Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341, 976-980.

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