First came the pandemic, then came inflation.
Americans already feel anxiety caused by rising prices. However, experts say that women are feeling it more acutely. A mix of factors — including a gender imbalance in household duties and pandemic-induced financial insecurity exacerbated by an increase in childcare costs — are all impacting women’s mental wellbeing.
“There is a clear link between people experiencing financial stress and having poor mental health,” said Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician at One Medical based in Phoenix, Ariz. Bhuyan often works with lower-income communities. Among her clients, mental health is the No. 1 issue, she said.
The worsening mental health crisis she’s seeing in her own line of work could be caused by a multitude of factors, she added, including social isolation and pressures at work. Financial insecurity, not helped by 40-year-high inflation, is adding another layer of difficulty.
“I’ve had patients who feel angry, depressed, anxious, or fearful about their finances,” Bhuyan said. “It’s often triggered when they have to pay their rent, when they get a bill, when they are thinking about their groceries, when they are thinking about gas prices, or even when they open and look at their bank account.”
The consumer price index rose 9.1% on the year in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest jump in 41 years. But workers’ wages have not kept pace: They have risen by just 5.1% in June over the past year.
Groceries have also gotten more expensive; bacon now costs more than $7 a pound, almost a $1 increase compared to a year ago. Food prices jumped 1.2% last month, and have shot up 12.2% in the past year, the biggest annual increase since 1979. For the first time since 1952, grocery prices have risen by 1% or more for six straight months.
“Inflation hits all people, but women may feel it disproportionately in part because they take the lion’s share of domestic obligations, including shopping for groceries.”
Indeed, groceries have overtaken gas prices as the top inflation concern, according to a Harris Poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted May 6 through May 8. The poll also found that nine in 10 people are worried about food prices. This is one major factor impacting how women deal with inflation.
Married women shoulder more of the responsibility for grocery shopping and cooking than their husbands, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. More than three-quarters of women take on the regular role of preparing meals, and the same percentage of mothers take on the responsibility of shopping for groceries for their children.
Inflation-induced anxiety has the potential to affect all people, but because women do most of the grocery shopping for their households, they are more likely to perceive prices to be higher, according to a research paper published last year by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal.
The authors concluded: “The gender expectations gap disappears if grocery chores are distributed equally within households.”
“Now that schools are open and companies are calling employees back into the office, working mothers are facing difficulties finding affordable childcare facilities.”
Grocery price hikes are not the only hurdles that disproportionately impact women. An infant-formula shortage has led to parents driving long distances to find the formula, with lower-income mothers struggling the most. For decades, the U.S. infant formula market has been controlled by just a few major players.
A tampon shortage has also added to women’s burdens. The prices of menstrual products have surged over the last year. Between July 2021 and July 2022, the average unit price for tampons rose by 10.8% on the year. Pads increased by 8.9%, according to market insight company NielsenIQ.
Childcare also adds to the hassles of working mothers. When coronavirus spread in March 2020, school closures forced working mothers to divide their time between the workplace and childcare.
Now that schools are open and companies are calling employees back into the office, working mothers are also facing difficulties finding affordable childcare facilities, many of which closed during the pandemic or face a shortage of workers.
One mother told MarketWatch that she switched jobs rather than leave her young infant. Amy Faust Liggayu, 32, a market-research project manager based in Tinley Park, Ill., said, “The quality of life is so much better when you can cut out that commute or spend your lunch break with your family.”
Being responsible for everything from grocery shopping to childcare and elder care takes its toll on women, especially working mothers, said Dr. Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college that is part of Columbia University in New York City.
“‘I just paid double for gas compared to a couple of years ago. That’s scary. What does this mean for how I manage the personal finances of my family?’”
— Some of the concerns financial therapist Ashley Agnew has heard from her female clients
“It could play into their ability to manage those situations,” she said. “These sorts of responsibilities tend to disproportionately fall on women, so they may acutely experience the impact of higher inflation.”
Ashley Agnew, a financial therapist and director of Relationship Development at Centerpoint Advisors in Needham, Mass., said her male clients tend to handle big investment decisions like life insurance, while tasks such as buying groceries and signing up for kids’ camp tend to be handled by women.
“When they see the inflation number hit in a way that impacts their day-to-day, that’s a bit hard to avoid,” Agnew said. Investments, on the other hand, can be easier to avoid thinking about, especially if you don’t have to sell. “In the long term, you can say this might fix itself,” she said.
Some of the questions she has heard from clients include: “I just paid double for gas compared to a couple of years ago. That’s scary. What does this mean for how I manage the personal finances of my family? What does this mean for how far our income goes and the goals that we have for our kids, ourselves, and our retirement?”
At the same time, Agnew said she has seen more young female professionals turning to her for help about how inflation and a volatile stock market could impact their 401(k) and investments, whereas some of her more risk-taking young male professional clients are buying everything they can lay their hands on.
“In addition to a lack of paid leave and rising childcare expenses, numerous pandemic-era government relief programs are expiring, including enhanced child-tax credits.”
It could be a confidence issue, as suggested by a recent Bank of America survey. The study found that while both women and men have equal influence over daily finances and determining daily bills (68% vs. 67% and 63% vs. 63%), less than half of women feel they have influence over decisions on investments.
Among the top hurdles holding them back: Not having savings to invest in the stock market, feeling like they have a lack of knowledge, and believing investing is too risky for them.
Beilock from Barnard College said a lack of confidence hinder people’s ability to make decisions. She said that “math anxiety” is more common in women than men, and because of this women are usually not at the table for the crucial money-related decisions.
Several women testified in a recent Senate hearing that they are not getting enough paid leave while having to cope with childcare costs, rent increases and rising prices at the grocery store. At the same time, numerous pandemic-era government relief programs are expiring, including enhanced child-tax credits.
In fact, women’s participation in the labor force dropped early in the pandemic and still hasn’t returned to the pre-pandemic level — even after schools opened. Some 656,000 fewer women were working in May 2022 compared to February 2020, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“Women get paid 80 cents on the dollar compared to men and one-third of mothers return to lower-paying jobs after taking a career break to raise a child, research shows.”
Women get paid less on the dollar compared to men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the past 20 years, the median salary for women has been hovering around 80% of their male coworkers.
Adding to this gender pay gap: One-third of women said they returned to lower-paying jobs after taking a career break to raise a child, according to the Bank of America
Beilock said women should be more upfront in salary negotiations, and take all of these factors into consideration.
It’s OK and, in fact, common for women to feel stressed about their finances, said Sarah Foster, an analyst with the personal-finance website Bankrate.com. She recommends talking with friends and family about money, as sharing experiences can normalize taboos and concerns around finances.
“Limiting your worry starts by acknowledging what is bothering you and recognizing what’s within your own control — and what isn’t,” Foster said.
Agnew recommends women look into financial therapy resources, as it helps people with financial decisions and the mental struggles related to them.
Bhuyan from One Medical said people can also reach out to their family physicians for referrals, especially if they feel awkward about finding a specialist in mental-health issues.
“If you are feeling stress, depression, if you’re feeling a lot of worries, and you just can’t shake it, don’t hesitate to reach out to your family physician,” said Bhuyan.