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What is money dysmorphia? How this financial feeling hurts your wallet

Gen Z and millennials are obsessed with being rich, but a distorted view of their financial reality is causing them to make even worse decisions.
What is money dysmorphia? How this financial feeling hurts your wallet
Posted at 7:33 PM, Feb 21, 2024

Whether it's the bachelorette trips that have become dream vacations, the cross-country flights that end in front-row seats for Taylor Swift or just the social media users who keep up with every weekly fashion trend (looking at you, "mob-wife" aesthetic), it can seem like everyone online these days has loads of expendable money to spend on whatever they please … but do they?

Enter "money dysmorphia": a phenomenon that occurs when someone has a distorted or insecure view of their financial standing no matter what it truly is, leading them to make poor monetary decisions.

A recent study from Qualtrics and Intuit Credit Karma found 29% of Americans experience money dysmorphia, and although a form of it has been around since the Great Depression, the current era is hitting some people particularly hard.

So what do we do about it? Here's what we know. 

Who's most affected by money dysmorphia?

To put it plainly, per Credit Karma: "Gen Z and millennials are obsessed with the idea of being rich," and that obsession is precisely what can lead a younger person to make worse financial decisions — a symptom of money dysmorphia.

The Qualtrics study found 43% of Gen Z and 41% of millennials said they experience money dysmorphia, compared to 25% of Gen X and just 14% aged 59 or above.

It's no surprise these younger age groups are most affected by it, as the trend really started to emerge with social media use. 

But Ted Jenkins, the owner and CEO of oXYGen Financial, told Scripps News what you're viewing is likely not a full, honest picture of someone's finances, but it's still pushing some to change their habits and ideals to match what they see.

"What they see in front of them, it feels like everybody is leading the life of Riley — going on vacations to Italy, sitting front row for a Taylor Swift concert, having a brand new Rolex watch — and this is just not reality," Jenkins said. "It's just not reality, but people think it is, and this causes this money dysmorphia."

And the money dysmorphia runs deep, becoming further distorted by the study's other responses.

SEE MORE: US credit card debt now over $1 trillion. How to cut down your debt

For example, of the people who said they did experience money dysmorphia, 82% said they felt behind on their finances, but just 29% said they don't struggle with financial insecurity. Going further, 48% of Gen Z and 59% of millennial participants said they felt behind money-wise, but 59% also reported feeling financially stable. 

The uneven perception versus reality is also more prominent for those who might not understand how much the average person has in savings.

Of those who reported experiencing money dysmorphia, 37% said they had more than $10,000 in savings and 23% of those had more than $30,000. Compared to the median savings balance for Americans, which is around $5,300, that seems like a pretty good number!

Those who didn't report experiencing money dysmorphia did average more in savings though, with 52% having more than $10,000 and 32% of those having more than $50,000 saved.

But still, it's likely the money dysphorics aren't comparing themselves to the average; instead, they compare themselves to those who aren't anywhere close — or, at least, to those online who pretend they're not.

"No matter what [a person with money dysphoria's] money situation is, they feel like they don't have enough," Jenkins said. "It's like somebody with body dysmorphia looking in the mirror and saying, 'I should be thinner,' even though they may be thin already … What it makes them do is have behaviors like spending money that they don't have, creating more credit card debt, not saving enough really, so to speak, to try to keep up with the Joneses in today's world."

How can you avoid money dysmorphia?

The bottom line to avoiding this phenomenon is to be realistic and to stop comparing.

The study pointed out that although nearly half of Gen Z and millennial respondents are obsessed with the idea of being rich, most don't think they ever will be. 

While it's important to have financial goals, it's also important to have a plan to get there; anyone can want to be rich, but it would take some big steps to truly build that wealth. One of those steps is overcoming money dysmorphia.

The study found that 95% of Americans with money dysmorphia say it negatively impacts their finances, either by holding them back from building savings or leading them to overspend and increase their debt. 

Getting past that feeling can't work without taking an honest look at your finances. Courtney Alev, a consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma, recommends setting clear goals and making a plan after taking that look.

"If your goal is to build up your savings, start by doing an audit of your finances to see where in your budget you can make room for savings," Alev said. "From there, you can schedule automatic payments from each paycheck to help hold you accountable and incrementally increase your savings."

Jenkins, who has more than 22 years of experience as a financial adviser, echoes that sentiment, saying the top three things a person can do to avoid or get over money dysmorphia are to have your own personal finance plan, never get into credit card debt and — most importantly — "don't believe all the hype" you compare yourself to on social media.

"Not everybody that's doing all this fun stuff is worth millions of dollars. In fact, in many cases, they are underwater in debt," he told Scripps News.

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