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We're finally starting to look beyond dollars and cents in computing the cost of the past five years of financial and economic instability.

Money stress has been unavoidable for most of us since 2007, but it's mainly been talked about in terms of how much our investments have lost or how little they've made. Now, a more generalized sense of financial angst is starting to emerge. Expect to hear more about it in the future.

For now, consider a recent health-related survey by Sun Life Financial in which 72 per cent of participants said they were experiencing ''excessive" levels of anxiety. The insurer said four years of weak economic growth have driven stress levels higher – particularly among young adults who are having trouble finding jobs where they aren't underemployed, or finding jobs, period.

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The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants issued a survey last week in which 61 per cent of respondents admitted to being worried about money. When the survey narrowed the field to people who occasionally buy things they can't afford, 82 per cent said they had money worries.

At the Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada, executive director Jeff Schwartz hasn't seen an increase in money stress per se among clients, but then, financial anxieties come with the territory. "We're where worried people go," he said. "When they come to us with respect to managing their finances, they're already stressed and pressured."

But here's what Mr. Schwartz has noticed: The number of people coming through the door is up 20 per cent over levels a year earlier, and increasing use is being made of payday loans, basically a last resort source of cash.

There's actually a certain amount of good news in the economy right now. The unemployment rate is low by historical standards at 7.4 per cent, the latest tally of bankruptcies showed a year-over-year decline of 10.8 per cent and inflation is tame at 1.2 per cent.

More broadly, interest rates are low and there's little immediate pressure for them to rise. Also, the growth rate at which households have been adding new debt has slowed. Other positives include the recent decline in gasoline prices and rock-bottom costs for natural gas to heat our homes.

Unfortunately, all of these indicators are offset by a weak economy. Unable to surmount a global slowdown, the Canadian economy shrank in August by a small amount. That's one reason why money stress will become more of a problem. Another is the kind of complacency that Mr. Schwartz, the credit counsellor, sees in the population.

He cites a recent Canadian Payroll Association survey that found 47 per cent of people are living paycheque to paycheque. In other words, they lack the financial resources to get by for as little as a week without being paid. The same survey a year ago found 57 per cent of people were living precariously, but Mr. Schwartz said too many people are still winging it financially.

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"They're ignoring the fact that things could change," he said. "Interest rates could rise, employment could change. They're not doing anything to plan for it."

A reduction in our national level of money stress will depend to a large extent on the economy, which is influenced by global events and therefore hard to read. But there's a lot people can do individually. A first step is to fight the all-too-powerful urge to ignore your financial situation. The more disengaged you are, the more potential there is for a nasty shock. Next, compare the amount of money you have coming in every month and the amount being spent. Ideally, spending should be far enough below income that you're able to save or invest at least 10 per cent of your take-home pay.

So much of money stress is caused by overspending, which is the toughest financial challenge in Canadian society today. It's a drag to live within your means, but it has to be done if you want any degree of financial independence.

Act now because, regardless of where the economy goes, money stress can easily get worse. If growth returns, then rising interest rates will make it more expensive to carry debt. If the economy falters, then job security may become an issue. And if we keep slouching along like we have been, you won't be able to count on raises or promotions to bail you out financially.

Here's something to be grateful for: The money stress we're feeling in Canada doesn't compare to the situation in the United States or some European countries. That could change, mind you. If it does, you'll wonder why you didn't dial down your financial stress level while you had the chance.

For more personal finance coverage, follow me on Twitter (rcarrick) and Facebook (Rob Carrick).

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