Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Spending Behaviors, Cultural Identity, and Mindfulness of African American College Students

Implications for Financial Stress and Depression

Increasing numbers of students pursuing college and graduate degrees may face financial challenges, with 85% of students in higher education receiving some form of financial aid through grants and student loans (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015), and many graduating with a minimum of $25,250 in debt (Javine, 2013). As traditional college students are typically in young and middle adulthood, they are likely to encounter varying degrees of stressors, such as financial stress, which can result in negative health conditions (Catalano et al., 2011; Wrosch, Heckhausen, & Lachman, 2000). African American college students are particularly vulnerable to these outcomes due to overrepresentation of low income students, discrimination in applying and using credit cards, and lack of financial knowledge to practice skillful financial planning (Javine, 2013; Lyons, 2004; Mimura, Koonce, Plunkett, & Pleskus, 2015). Thus, there is a need to investigate the impact of the variables mentioned above on the financial stress and adverse psychological well-being of African American college students.

Spending Behaviors of African Americans

As the United States economy remains in a state of flux, there are ramifications for the consumption behaviors of minorities. According to Robb and Pinto (2010), 84% of undergraduate students have credit cards and, although findings from several studies show the majority of the students pay their full credit card balances, this does not account for students already at risk of accruing credit card debt, including African American students and others from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Lyons, 2004). Given that credit card debt is related to school dropout and heightened risk for suicide (Roberts & Jones, 2001), it imperative to investigate the impact of African American students’ spending behaviors in an effort to combat adverse psychological health outcomes for members of this group.

Cultural Identity of African American College Students

As behavior is often guided by the racial background of an individual, it is important to take one’s identity into account. According to Lukwago, Kreuter, Bucholtz, Holt, and Clark (2001), cultural identity refers to the positive regard, involvement, commitment, and social integration one has achieved in association with one’s own racial group. In addition, cultural identity is inclusive of racial attitudes and values that are congruent with the ethnicity of the individual. It also describes the different cultural values and strengths of racial groups. The current study primarily uses the materialism subscale of the Cultural Misorientation Scale (Kambon, 1997), which shows a significant positive correlation with mental illnesses and has the highest internal consistency among the subscales (Rowe, Robinson, & Li, 2018). The present study utilizes the term “materialism” rather than “cultural identity” in subsequent sections to be representative of this aspect of cultural identity.

Mindfulness among African American College Students

Mindfulness has gained popularity as an intervention strategy for stress-related issues affecting physical and psychological health. There is a plethora of studies that support mindfulness-based interventions as a strategy for well-being for experiences of chronic pain, generalized anxiety, panic disorders, and depression, among other mental and medical disorders (Baer, 2003). However, the racial demographics of previous studies are either largely neglected (Baer, 2003) or typically consist of White participants (Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Rosenzweig, 2001; Teasdale et al, 2000). Despite the few mindfulness studies with African American participants showing improvements in anxiety and psychological health, as well as lower self-concealment behaviors and blood pressure (Graham, West, & Roemer, 2013), the literature inclusive of African American participants has been sparse.

Stress and Psychological Well-Being among African American College Students

There is evidence that spending behaviors have a significant impact on financial stress and depression (Åslund, Larm, Starrin, & Nilsson, 2014; Jessop, Herberts, & Solomon, 2005; Wichianson, Bughi, Unger, Spruijt-Metz & Nguyen-Rodriguez, 2009). According to Åslund and colleagues (2014), financial stress is the persistent inability to afford the basic necessities of life, which is related to a variety of factors that can include debt accumulation and credit card usage. The persistent lack of stable finances and financial stress contributes to poor physiological and psychological well-being, with research suggesting that these factors have implications for poor sleep patterns, poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption (Dooley, Fielding, & Levi, 1996; Hudd et al., 2000; Lee, Crombie, Smith, & Tunstall-Pedoe, 1991; Pierce, Frone, Russell, & Cooper, 1996; Wichianson et al., 2009). Furthermore, there is a well-established relationship between general stress and the onset of depression (Moreno et al., 2011). Overall, college students are at a higher risk of developing depression which makes it especially important that African American students be assessed for their risk and coping capabilities.



The participants included a convenience sample of 217 African American college students. There were 182 (83.9%) women and 35 (16.1%) men from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), which is located in the southeastern region of the United States.


Demographic Questionnaire. The demographic questionnaire included questions on classification, age, ethnicity, gender, major, grade point average, parents’ educational background, and annual family income.
Spending Behavior Questionnaire. The spending behavior questionnaire is an 8-item, self-report of money management.

Materialism Orientation Subscale (from the Cultural Misorientation Scale, Kambon, 1997). The Materialism Orientation contains statements that indicate participants’ value of material things.

Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) (Brown & Ryan, 2003). The MAAS allows participants to respond to statements regarding their everyday experience of mindfulness.

Financial Strain Survey. The Financial Strain Survey requires participants to indicate the statements that describe them (Aldana & Liljenquist,1998).

Beck Depression Inventory-II. The Beck Depression Inventory-II contains statements that indicate participants’ particular characteristics and the severity of depressive symptoms (Beck, Steer, & Brown, 1996).

Data Analyses

Pearson Product-Moment correlation analysis was used to evaluate the relationship between spending behavior, materialism, mindfulness, and financial stress and depression. A median-split was done to separate materialism and mindfulness into high and low categories to examine the effects of each level on financial stress and depression. General linear univariate analyses were conducted to examine the moderating effects of materialism and mindfulness on financial stress and depression.

Results and Discussion

Financial stress and depression were found to have a moderate positive correlation. The positive correlation between financial stress and depression but not with spending behavior suggests that students may not see an issue with their spending habits. It also suggests that students may not yet have experienced tangible consequences of their spending behavior that would manifest as symptoms of depression. Yet, they are likely to view their financial capability negatively, which is associated with their depressed mood. It is likely that one way students cope with the daily stressors of college such as school performance, peer relationship, and potential overt or implicit racial discrimination is to spend money regularly.

There was a positive relationship between materialism and financial stress, especially given that those who reported higher levels of materialism also endorsed higher levels of financial stress, not depression. Therefore, financial stress may be more problematic for students who overemphasize the possession of material things such as nicer (or more expensive) clothing, jewelry, technology, and so forth.

Based on previous literature, materialism is negatively associated with individual well-being (Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Richins, 2004). When a person is preoccupied with acquiring superficial things, it is difficult to set limits on spending, leading to living above one’s means and causing undue stress. Moreover, materialism may have undergone a shift in operationalization given that college students, many of whom are part of the Millennial generation, may be absorbed in a culture of evolving technology in which social media provides access to vast ideas, people, and products.

Additionally, individuals who reported higher levels of mindfulness also reported lower financial stress and depression. These results imply that students who are able to experience a heightened sense of awareness from moment-to-moment are at less risk for financial strain and mental illness.

Practical Implications and Future Directions

Materialism may serve as a risk factor for financial stress among African American college students. Given that college students are likely to accrue large amounts of debt (Greer & Brown, 2011) and experience adverse health outcomes related to financial strain (Azibo & Dixon, 1998). Bewick, Gill, Muhlhearn, Barkham, & Hill, 2008; Westefeld et al., 2005), college campuses and universities should consider requiring all incoming students to attend financial education courses or seminars (providing this option to parents should be considered as well). Developing culturally sensitive approaches to promoting financial literacy and managing financial stress will be critical to enhancing emotional well-being among African American college students.

Results also indicate that elevated levels of depression are related to poor spending behaviors, high levels of materialism, and increased financial stress. Colleges and universities should actively promote students’ use of university counseling centers. Increased financial support of university counseling centers in general to better serve African American student populations (especially at HBCU) to enhance knowledge about psychological wellbeing and reduce stigma is recommended. Additionally, mental health professionals should continue to make their presence known to the community and college campuses in an effort to educate others about mental health and offer resources geared toward these populations.

The results show mindfulness to be a promising coping mechanism in addition to its relationship with reduced materialism. It is posited that social psychological variables relevant to money management decision-making can be influenced by mindfulness training, which may increase self-awareness about financial management and result in lower rates of materialism. Therefore, additional research with African American participants may be helpful to explore ways of improving and maintaining the cultural relevance of mindfulness as an intervention strategy. Additionally, anti-materialism campaigns designed to help current college students in general to avoid succumbing to focused advertising could be helpful to reframe individuals’ thinking about their finances.

Cite This Article

Hinton, T., Bogan, Y., & Li, H. (2018). Spending behaviors, cultural identity, and mindfulness of African American college students: Implications for financial stress and depression. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(3), 36-41.


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