No Money, More Problems
August 3, 2009 1:56 PM   Subscribe

How can I talk myself out of spending my unhappiness away?

Apparently the fear of debt does not phase me at all, because I spend shloads of money whenever I feel down about something (usually about work). Sometimes it's clothes, mostly it's very expensive art books and restaurants. It's a pretty vicious cycle, and when an opportunity came up to move someplace I know would make me happy, I couldn't take it because I didn't have enough money saved, though I knew about this a year ago.
How can I envision something that would make any other thing less desirable (thereby overcome the desire for fancy art books, expensive restaurants, and nice clothes)?
posted by eskers to Work & Money (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
When's the last time you cleaned out your place? The trash & donate piles might be a good reminder that you only keep (and therefore truly want or need) only a fraction of what you buy.
posted by katemcd at 2:05 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

While you work on breaking the habit, you can pre-empt the crazy spending by changing where you shop. Dollar stores, used bookstores, and thrift shops are places you can browse but not break the bank if you do buy things. Or shop at stores that have no-questions-asked return policies and make a point to return things (I sometimes go overboard browsing in H&M, for instance, but they have a great return policy so I manage to return most of what I buy, still unworn, a couple days later when the guilt sets in). Also, when you get the urge to shop, standing in drugstore or bookstore and reading a magazine for 20 minutes or so can sometimes turn off the juice for me by satisfying my craving to forget my troubles in a haze of brightly-coloured shiny "choices". The choices are free and on paper if I read a magazine, and after 20 minutes or so, my urge to shop passes.

You can also curb spending with the old trick of leaving your bank cards and credit cards at home, setting a cash budget for the week, and doling it out into your wallet (or maybe putting some "disposable cash allowance" into a separate envelope). Once the week's cash is gone, no more money for the week. If you spend cash-only, and make it inconvenient to get more cash by leaving your cards at home, you can probably cut down on spending pretty fast.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:06 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you sat down and typed up a budget for yourself with monthly expenses and planned savings? Obviously, long-term savings plans are important, but I'm actually thinking of shorter-term goals--as in, you could have started a "moving fund" column in your budget when you found out about the possible opportunity a year ago.

I have an easier time passing up on things I don't need if I think "Skipping this means $50 more to put toward a nice vacation this winter." I may later decide that the vacation fund would actually be better spent on something else, but in the mean time the reason I'm not buying things I don't need is in anticipation of this nice little reward.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:24 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

eskers, I've been in your (cute! new!) shoes. I found that if I set small goals towards savings once I see it working, it prompts me to WANT to save more. I almost get the reverse thing going on; a "save, save save" mind-set.

Also, everything I buy (including a pack of gum) I ask myself if I really need it.

I indulge to this day in some things, but am FAR more consistent with saving my money.

Oh and really enjoy what you already have!
posted by kiwi-epitome at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2009

Best answer: My ideas:

*Carry a picture of a place you've always wanted to go in your wallet. Keep it visible, as a reminder to save up your money for a long-term goal.

*Keep a notepad and pen with you all the time. Every time you make a purchase--even a little one--record it. Note how much you're spending every month, and find areas where you could cut down.

*Recognize that shopping isn't really making you happy--not long-term. You know this, since this is why you've posted. Now you just need to act on this knowledge.

Good luck!
posted by elder18 at 2:47 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do these things actually make you happy?
posted by kldickson at 2:49 PM on August 3, 2009

heh, are you me? Maybe try having a clear out the hard way, meaning, sell items on eBay, on craigslist, at consignment shops, whatever is saleable. Because it co$t lot$ of ca$h money to buy those things and you don't want to just GIVE them away, do you?

Then go in a store and think before you buy something, about how much of a royal pain in the ass it is to have that thing own you, since sooner or later you'll feel like it's too valuable to get rid of, but you'll want to get rid of it, and then it'll take ages to figure out how to sell it and get that done.
posted by citron at 2:51 PM on August 3, 2009

Best answer: Make yourself "pay yourself first" by setting up direct deposit into a savings account, to be automaticall transferred from your checking account the day you get paid so that you never have the chance to blow it in the first place. Take at least 10% off the top of every check to go into savings, and make it hard to get to, so that you can't empty it out on a whim. Then set aside all the money you need for your necessary expenses (rent, utilities, insurance, groceries). Then and only then, set aside a lump sum for for non-necessities (which can be anything you want -- clothes or manicures or lavish dinners or whatever -- up to your self-allotted limit). Check out the book All Your Worth for more about this basic technique.

Of course, the above scenario assumes that you have a regular paycheck; if you don't get a regular paycheck (e.g., if you freelance, work at a restaurant, etc.) then without the convenience of direct deposit/auto-transfers, you will have to develop the discipline to pay yourself first on your own. Which is, frankly, what this comes down to in any case: discipline. You have to make the decision to act like a grown-up financially. It's hard; I spent most of my 20s NOT acting like a grown-up when it came to money, and I spent a good chunk of my 30s undoing the damage. The trick is to see that being a financial grown-up is its own reward -- to understand that the freedom and satisfaction and peace of mind it will give you is ultimately far more enjoyable than a closet full of clothes you don't even wear. After all, you may very well have another opportunity in the future to move someplace great; wouldn't you like to be able to take it?

That said, direct deposit itself won't address the underlying issues of spending when you "feel bad." What, specifically, are the bad feelings you're talking about? Loneliness? Insecurity? Sadness? I know that buying stuff can be a distraction from those feelings, so that you can seemingly put them aside for an afternoon. But as you no doubt have already learned, those feelings don't really go away, and all the shoes in the world won't make you feel better in a lasting, meaningful way. Honestly, if you find you're spending a lot of money in the service of feeling bad, I'd suggest that those funds would be better invested in therapy, so that you can learn how to get through the lows of life without dragging your bank account with you (again, I speak with experience on this score).
posted by scody at 2:56 PM on August 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've come to believe that it's nearly impossible to stop impulsive behavior like this without having a viable substitute. If it's meeting some sort of an emotionally need for you at the time, you can't just stop having that need. But there is a chance that you can channel it to more productive (or non-harmful) ends.

I've also come to believe that most of the "sins" that we commit, or bad habits that we internalize, are deep down good and healthy things that we tend to distort. For example, I think that it's good to appreciate good food, but I do tend to distort that and overeat when I shouldn't. We also have emotional responses that are good indicators of our true needs, but they are often times distorted or focused inappropriately when those needs aren't being met.

So the first question I would ask is this: deep down, why do you do this? And then secondly, are things that help assuage that emotional need that don't cost tons of money? If so, then your #1 priority is to seek those things out.

One example for me, as I tend to overspend also when I'm feeling inadequate in my social or professional life, was that I learned to love the "newness" of getting library books in the same way I used to enjoy buying a new book. I discovered that the sense of discovery and reward was similar, and just about the time that I'd be regretting spending too much at the bookstore, instead I'd be ready to return them to the library. Additionally, I've learned to enjoy making coffee at home in a way that would replace the rush of spending money on coffee in the store.

These things don't necessarily replace my true emotional need (fixing my social or professional environment), but in a messed up world where there isn't always a good resolution for those things, it helps to have some healthy and fun ways to assuage some of those emotional responses while we work towards a solution.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:57 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

When you want to spend $60 on a book, think about your goal: having enough savings to move for a job, or put a down payment on a condo, or whatever. Tell yourself that if you really want it, the book will be available tomorrow, and sleep on it. Every time you choose savings and goals over spending, reward yourself with praise. Imagine yourself one step closer to financial freedom. Focus on your successes; reminding yourself of your flaws hasn't been working. A gaol thermometer showing progress can be a help.

I have small scale financial freedom - mortgage debt only, and small at that. A friend just asked me how I could afford to be fixing my kitchen in this crappy economy, and my answer was savings, planning, budgeting. I have always been really frugal, and I can tell you that I'm glad I have. I wish I'd gone to a few more concerts, but I don't miss the clothes I didn't buy, or the new cars I didn't buy.
posted by theora55 at 2:59 PM on August 3, 2009

Don't go to the mall, browse shopping sites, or read glossy magazines. I like reading People and Vanity Fair in waiting rooms, but ten minutes and I find myself wanting the stuff in the ads, or it reminds me of something else I need want. Don't even grocery shop more than you absolutely have to. Same goes for window shopping, and if you find yourself in a store with a friend treat it like a museum where you're allowed to touch everything, but the exhibits aren't for sale.

It's hard. I make great coffee at home, and don't even like coffee shop coffee much in comparison, but I still feel better when I buy one from a shop. That feeling isn't due to better quality, service, or value, all it is is the actual buying. I get the inch-thick magazines from travel agencies and keep a couple in the magazine rack to page through sometimes; it's sort of a way of keeping track of how much things you really desire cost, and keeps me motivated to save. I keep an Excel sheet charting what I've spent every day against my budget, seeing the numbers stay under the line is encouraging. It takes willpower, and trying to see things with a long eye; the payoff for discipline is often further off, but usually worth it.
posted by variella at 3:42 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

This thread has a lot of good advice.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:43 PM on August 3, 2009

Go to the library and take home as much as you want! Bring it back by the due date and get new stuff. Most libraries have DVDs and CDs now, too.

Bonus points, if you like shopping on
1. Open in one browser tab
2. Open your library's search page in another browser tab
3. Open your library's interlibrary loan request form in another browser tab

"Shop" on Amazon but actually request the books from your library's collection or via interlibrary loan. Go to the library once or twice a week to pick up your requests and drop off old stuff.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:53 PM on August 3, 2009

A friend of mine has a good trick for clothes. When she sees something she likes, she puts it on hold for a couple of days. If she's still thinking about it days later, then she goes back and buys it, but usually the impulse has passed by then. I agree with scody though that tips and tricks may help in the short term, but it's more worth your time and money to get to the root of the problem.
posted by easy_being_green at 4:09 PM on August 3, 2009

One of the most profound but simple statements that I use to remind myself of the fleeting happiness that comes from consumerism is this:

"No amount of something you don't need can substitute for something you DO need." This is from Bernard Poduska, who is a professor in my field of study (Family Resource Management/Consumer Economics). This quote is one of many things found in one of my favorite books, Till Debt Do Us Part, which is about relationships, feelings, and money.

Although I'm an (associate) professor of family financial management myself, I have always been an emotional spender. I am married to an emotional spender. We have managed to get out of (a large amount of) credit card debt by a variety of means in the past two years, with the most powerful piece being our written and well-documented budget.

You can have a budget in your head, but that is proven in the literature just not to work out well. With a written budget, you can earmark some money for fun stuff, for necessities, for saving for goals. Treat the budget as an empowerment tool and good recordkeeping as a way to test, refine, and follow the budget.
posted by lleachie at 4:25 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

You mentioned the opportunity to move. Having just moved for the second time in two years, I've done a lot of paring down lately. Until just recently I'd continue with impulse purchasing even as I pared down in other areas of the house, but now I've stopped impulsive buying and won't start again.

Initially this was due to lack of funds. But the reason I won't buy impulsively again is that, after a decade and a half of married life, I've finally started taking full ownership of the things we have. By that I mean, finding a place for every item in the house, and clearing out stuff to make room for the things we really want to keep. And after being very bloody-minded about this process, I've almost finished ot, and have added up the true cost of keeping so much stuff: A HUGE amount of time and energy. (Scary amounts of time were needed to set things right.)

So now when I'm looking at something in the store, I first visualize:
- where it will go,
- what's there now,
- what does it need (care, washing, maintenance perhaps),
- how long will it last,
- how will I get rid of it

and all of this I try to do before the obvious questions (do I need it, does something else fill this gap, is it affordable etc.) By doing this visualization first the obvious questions take on somewhat different (and more realistic) answers. (If I get tired just thinking about what the thing needs, that's my first big hint that it's not a good idea.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:52 PM on August 3, 2009

Shiny is its own kind of crazy.

A woman I've known for a long time is an inveterate impulse/emotional shopper, who has gotten herself, repeatedly, in financial trouble by overspending. Yet, as long as I've known her, she has demonstrated a keen eye for value, a knowledge of retail merchandising, a pretty good head for numbers, and an uncanny ability to make new acquaintances and friends. I told her 10+ years ago that she was missing every boat leaving the Personal Shopper pier, but she had to go through another husband's credit ratings, before my free advice was worth what she didn't pay for it. 2 years ago, she finally took my oft repeated advice seriously, and in a down economy, is finally having a ball, making lots of new acquaintances, and buying all the shiny she wants, for Other People, on Other People's Money, and they are happy about it, and paying her to do it!

If you are wired to buy, you can try to damp it (as others upthread are suggesting), or amp it, I say. Have you considered a career as a personal purchasing professional?
posted by paulsc at 9:28 PM on August 3, 2009

Some excellent advice here, but from someone who is fighting the same battle - if you're not afraid of debt, are you afraid of poor?

Because let me tell you, if you're unhappy now - unhappy and broke is a whole different kind of misery. Don't do it to yourself, it's not worth the temporary shiny.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:27 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

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