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How life events affect financial well-being

Exercise has a surprising impact on your ability to weather stressful life events.

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Key takeaways

  • When it comes to your well-being, some events have a mostly positive impact on your work, money, health, and personal life—among them, starting to exercise and paying off debt.
  • Other events, like a reorganization at work, taking on debt, and caregiving, have a mostly negative impact on all 4 domains.
  • Exercising is one secret to mitigating the negative impact of life events.

You may be surprised by how much influence some life events can have on your overall well-being. Events in your life, like paying off debt or starting to exercise, can make your life better. And not just in your financial or personal life—many life events are also positively or negatively associated with well-being across 4 major areas: work, money, health, and your personal life.

That's according to a Fidelity survey of more than 9,000 people that evaluated 46 different life events and identified 14 of the most common and significant events. The study also analyzed the impact of these events across multiple domains of life.*

"What struck us about this research is the most significant life events really impact all 4 domains of well-being. Having an understanding of how interconnected your work, health, finances, and life are to your overall well-being can really help you to weather some of the unexpected or negative events you may experience," says Jeanne Thompson, senior vice president of retirement insights at Fidelity.

For instance, your feelings about your job can be colored by events happening inside and outside of work. According to the study, starting a new job or getting a promotion was linked to increased motivation and commitment at work (see infographic). Other events seemingly unrelated to work, like starting to exercise consistently, getting divorced, or buying a house, were also correlated with higher levels of motivation, loyalty, and commitment at work. Among the most negative events for work: getting a new boss or experiencing a reorganization.

Overall, events beyond your control can hit the hardest—things like losing a parent, or caring for a sick or elderly family member. But one powerful way to combat the emotional, physical, and financial stress is to start (or continue) a regular exercise routine.

A powerful way to boost well-being: exercise

According to the study, starting to exercise consistently may be one of the best things you can do to improve your overall well-being; it can have wide-ranging effects across multiple aspects of your life.

Nearly 8 in 10 people indicated they were eating better as a result of starting an exercise program; 56% reported lower stress; 60% said they were sleeping better; 71% said they were happier; and 29% simply said "life is better."

And while those health benefits may be somewhat intuitive, people reported benefits in other areas of their lives as well. For example, about one third reported they were more motivated and performing better at work after starting to exercise consistently.

Additionally, exercise also seems to help moderate the impact of other, more difficult events. For instance, becoming a caregiver to a sick or elderly relative affected 1 in 4 boomer women in the last year. Among people who said it was one of the most significant life events: 73% are more stressed as a result of caregiving, half are less happy and less satisfied with life, 42% have higher expenses, and 33% are saving less. The overall impact of caregiving is nearly 3 times worse for people who stopped exercising, compared to people who started. Those who did exercise reported that their sleep, weight, and eating habits were less adversely affected by caregiving.

If you aren't exercising today, make a commitment to yourself to become more physically active. Look into programs that may be offered at work that can help you get started, such as an onsite gym or a fitness reimbursement program.

If you are weathering other, more difficult events in your life, such as caregiving, it is particularly important to take care of your physical health. It's also important to make sure you are taking care of your financial health.

Read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: How to take care of aging parents and yourself

Life events and your finances

Getting a promotion at work ranked as one of the most positive financial events (just behind paying off debt): 37% of people said their debt was lower, and 2 in 3 said they were saving more as a result of the promotion.

But other life events can be hard on your wallet. For instance, 87% of people who experienced the birth or adoption of a child said their expenses were higher, more than half were saving less, and just slightly less than half (46%), said they felt worse about their finances, even though they were happier in other respects. While it's intuitive that new parents are happier when they welcome a new child, having a baby can be stressful, and planning ahead can help manage the increased financial burden.

Buying a house was another financial event with a bittersweet impact. For most people, debt increased, expenses went up, and savings went down—but nearly 3 of 4 people who bought a house still said they were more satisfied with life, and nearly 7 in 10 said they were happier overall.

People who got married or moved in with a partner experienced a mix of positive and negative effects as well: 40% said that their expenses were higher, while nearly half said that they felt better about their finances.

Having adult children move in is a significantly negative financial event for many baby boomers and Gen Xers. Of the people who reported this as the most significant recent event, 3 out of 4 said expenses went up, 2 out of 5 said debt increased, and more than half said they were saving less. Over half also said they were less happy, less satisfied, and had less leisure time.

Taking on debt was reported to be the most negative financial event by all groups.

Read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com:

Debt and your well-being

Paying off debt ranked as one of the most positive life events with respect to overall well-being—in fact, it was rated just as impactful as starting to exercise.

Half of those surveyed said they were happier and more satisfied with their lives after paying off debt, and 40% said that their stress was reduced. Plus, paying off debt helped 3 out of 4 people feel better about their finances.

Taking on debt had just as significant a negative impact, as 44% of women and 19% of men stopped saving as a result of taking on debt. About half of women said they were less happy and less satisfied with their lives after taking on debt. Men were less affected: Just 40% said they felt less happy and 31% said their satisfaction with life was lower.

One in 3 people reported higher levels of commitment at work as a result of taking on debt, potentially feeling more motivated to do well to meet their debt obligation.

Read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: How to pay off debt—and save too

What you can do

The good news is that there are ways to take care of yourself even when things seem beyond your control.

Exercising and taking control of your financial wellness, like paying off debt, can also relieve stress from other things going on in your life. Taking positive action in one area of your life can have a profound impact on everything else, and just may make you feel better overall.

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