The Effects of Financial Hardship on Families and Relationships

By Relationships Australia

For a country that is often called lucky, a surprising proportion of the population is living below the poverty line. A new report has found that one million people – including one in seven children – are now living below the poverty line in NSW. In the 12 months prior to October 2022, two million Australian households also experienced severe food insecurity – where family members went hungry, skipped meals or lost weight because they couldn’t afford food.  

The impacts on families going through financial hardship are wide-reaching and varied, from insufficient nutrition to insecure housing. Unfortunately, with all the stress which accompanies financial hardships, family relationships are not immune. 

The impact of financial stress on relationships 

Finances are often a big point of contention in relationships, with research from Relationships Australia finding that money problems have recently put pressure on 20% of couples.

Dealing with serious financial stress and the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds, while worrying about paying the bills, can lead to close relationships being put under even more strain than usual. If one or both people in the relationship lose their jobs or struggles to find enough work, feelings of grief, loss, sadness, anger, anxiety, helplessness and guilt can all spill over into the relationship.

How do children experience financial stress? 

Financial stress can be felt by every member of a family, not just parents. Stress related to finding work, working long hours, putting food on the table or paying bills are grownup problems, but children can also carry the weight of this burden. 

Material deprivation, or a lack of access to items which are deemed essential to fully participate in society – like warm clothing, internet, dental care, medicine and hobbies – is one aspect of financial hardship that greatly effects children. In addition to the shame that comes with material deprivation, children without access to three or more essential items had lower levels of overall well-being. Children’s social inclusion was particularly impacted by material deprivation, as they felt they couldn’t participate fully in their social circle. 

Food insecurity also carries with it a stigma and leads to feelings of shame in children. It can also directly impact their health and learning outcomes. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that children experiencing food insecurity are more likely to experience obesity, which can lead to weight-related chronic illnesses in adulthood. Academic performance and behaviour also suffer when children skip meals, as they simply lack the energy required to learn and excel in a schooling environment. 

Even if children aren’t experiencing food insecurity or material deprivation, they can still feel the impacts of financial hardship. Their schedules and homelives can be disrupted by their parents working longer hours or they can be negatively affected by their parent’s stress. 

How to cope with financial stress in a relationship or as a family

Since we know that financial problems can place a huge strain on our relationships, it’s important to be proactive and implement strategies to help protect ourselves and our families from the impact. 

Conflict and children 

If you have children and are under a lot of financial pressure, be aware that escalating or ongoing verbal conflict between partners (or exes) can impact on your children’s mental health and wellbeing. Make a decision not to argue in front of the children and stick to it.  

Depending on the child’s age, it may be helpful to discuss the situation with them. Don’t tell them more than they can handle – primary school aged children can be told money is being saved to pay for bills, whilst teenagers can know more details and you can use the opportunity to teach them about the value of money.  

Communicate and work together 

For couples, clear communication becomes even more important during stressful times, to keep the relationship balanced and supportive. Lean on each other for support, and always be ready to lend a non-critical ear.  

Though it may be hard, and at times seem like a big ask, it’s important not to withdraw from those you are closest to and continue to keep lines of communication open. Similarly, resist the temptation to deal with or resolve problems without your partner’s help, or assume you are doing them a favour by keeping them at arm’s length. 

Keep a healthy mind and body 

It can be especially helpful for every family member to maintain healthier choices during times of financial stress. This can include exercising, eating nutritious meals as a family at the dinner table and planning outdoor activities together like a walk to the park or kicking a ball in the backyard. If you are struggling to put food on the table, there is absolutely no shame in seeking help from organisations such as Foodbank.  

Although it can seem much harder than usual to gain balance and perspective, take time to reflect and remember the people who are dearest to you are at this time and try to cherish them – even in small ways.

Reach out for help 

As time goes on you can start to lose self-confidence, doubt your skills and abilities and begin to feel beaten down by the job search. Talk to former workmates, bosses, contacts, industry bodies, recruitment agencies and job services about what jobs are available and ask for support and guidance. 

Remember that unexpected and sudden change in our financial situations can leave us floundering, and it is critical to remember to reach out for professional help if your relationship is suffering or you are consistently feeling upset, sad or anxious about your situation. 

If you need urgent financial support for services like food, housing and bills, we encourage you to contact the free National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can call the free Mob Strong Debt Helpline on 1800 808 488.

Relationships Australia NSW offers one-on-one counselling services, as well as Couples Counselling and Family Counselling. We pride ourselves on making our services accessible and have a sliding fee scale, based on your income. Fees may be waived in cases of financial hardship.

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