Too much, yet never enough: residual anxiety over spending
May 15, 2014 5:54 PM   Subscribe

There was a time in my childhood when my family was poor. Our situation improved as I grew up. But I must've somehow picked up this anxiety about things such as food and clothing. It doesn't exactly interfere with my life, but it can be a waste of mental energy and makes things a bit less enjoyable. Do you have any suggestions for me?

I used to be extremely, painfully cheap. I would scour the grocery stores for sales and clip coupons until I whittled my food budget down to $90 or $100 a month; I wouldn't buy an article of clothing unless it was less than $10 for bottoms or $5 for tops.

I think I've since gotten better about this. I keep a budget, but am not obsessive about it. I understand that staying alive costs money, so I'm fine with buying what I need, eating out with friends in moderation, paying for experiences and entertainment. That's all fine. Overall, I'm quite pleased with the improvement.

However, I think clothes shopping or personal care item-shopping is an area where this anxiety still crops up. When I look at the things I have (particularly clothing, which I know my mother always made me feel guilty about wanting when I was younger), I get this feeling of having too much clothing and not enough at the same time. It's a sort of hunger.

I 'enjoy' online window shopping, but the overwhelming feeling I get when I'm about to purchase something is, "... but I don't need this." And then I never buy it, even after having slept on it for up to one or two weeks, having looked at the item online daily within that time period. Back when online shopping wasn't so ubiquitous, I would often go to the store and return empty handed. On the rare occasions that I buy something, it'll be a single item off the clearance rack. The whole process was, and still is, exhausting. I used to, and occasionally still do the same thing for food: I would think to myself, "Hmm, I'd really like to bake chocolate chip cookies this week," and then, after thinking about-- nay, fantasizing about-- said cookies for an entire week, decide that the cost of buying chocolate chips wasn't worth it, and return it to the shelf at the check-out counter. I know that sounds neurotic.

By normal standards, I don't think I have "too many" clothes or things, even though it feels that way to me sometimes. Objective details: My food budget is around $150 a month, my clothes budget is around $20-$30 a month (so I do end up purchasing things!), and all of the clothing I own, excluding jackets, coats, suits, and shoes, fits into one large suitcase. I wear articles of clothing for anywhere from 2 to 7 years, but I do have some items that have gone largely unworn. (That also makes me feel guilty.) I am a student who is essentially living off loans for living expenses, but I'm also on scholarship, and have a minor job that earns enough such that it could technically cover my "fun" expenses such as clothing and entertainment.

If you've had a similar experience with excessive cheapness or spending anxiety, how did you overcome this? Any suggestions would be appreciated!
posted by gemutlichkeit to Work & Money (18 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I know what you're going to think when I link you to a Cracked article but take a minute and read The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:04 PM on May 15, 2014 [15 favorites]

The only solution that has really worked for me is taking care of the saving/loan repayment/whatever first every month. Then try to waste less time worrying about controlling your spending. Not spending money is actually a good habit to be in, in my opinion, but you've got better things to do than worry about it.
posted by BibiRose at 6:07 PM on May 15, 2014

I had a similar upbringing and my "gateway drug" to spending more reasonable amounts was starting to invest in a few higher quality items that are more expensive up-front but last a long time so end up being cheaper in the long run (ex: boots, backpacks, most things that suffer a lot of wear and tear). Or high quality, moderately expensive clothes that will help you in your career and pay for themselves many times over (research required here).

Once you see how nice it is to use high quality things, it makes it a lot easier to spend money on nicer things that will bring you more happiness than the uber-cheap version will. There are diminishing returns to this, of course, so I wouldn't worry too much about swinging too far in the opposite direction as long as you're always conscious about how much you're paying and whether it's buying enough value to be worth it for you. Sounds like that comes naturally to you already.
posted by randomnity at 6:11 PM on May 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

oh man, i know this feeling so well! but, today i managed to buy 2 $30 bras, which is a pretty big step for me (ok, they were on sale - they were actually $50 bras, which i would have had a big problem with, but i'm working on it). sometimes i think the answer is just biting the bullet and buying the thing. if it goes unworn, donate it or put it up on a site like swapdom. keep a mental or for real list of things you don't end up wearing and the reasons why the item didn't work out to avoid making that same shopping blip in the future. but occasionally try not obsessing over it, and just buying the thing when you think of it. or, save up a bit longer and spend on a schedule - "ok, my favorite store is having its summer sale in two months, so i'm going to set aside $50-100 that will get spent." that way, it's more about picking the right items, not about the amount they cost.

strangely, even though the big purchases are still difficult for me, i did notice a shift when i started considering longevity in items - i stopped buying clothes at walmart because for a few bucks more i could go to target and the clothes last much longer than the ones from walmart - and then i realized that all of target's bras get weird and misshapen, even with not drying them, and so even though they're 17ish bucks, they last less than half as long as a more expensive bra. same goes for denim - you really get what you pay for, and in the long run you save money by spending more up front.

another thing to consider is - what is your time worth? you're a student keeping up with a scholarship and you're working - how much more could you get done in your day if you cut out some of the bargain hunting that saves you just a couple bucks? i get really obsessed with deals, especially with food, and used to make these absurd shopping lists that involved going to 3 different stores so i got the best price on everything...except, it cost money in gas, and it took hours to put together and to execute. in the end it just wasn't worth it. now i pick the store i'm going to shop at, make a list based on their sales/coupons i have, and just let that be enough.

i don't know if i'll ever feel not poor or comfortable spending money, but obsessing over it doesn't actually save that much in the scheme of things and wastes a lot of energy.
posted by nadawi at 6:11 PM on May 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I feel better spending on clothes at thrift stores and consignment. Even when I'm paying the same amount for a shirt as I would at the mall, it will tend to be a more expensive brand so I'll feel better about it.

In general, I have crept from as painfully cheap as you are now to just everyday cheap, and I assume the trend will continue. I think it's natural that as your disposable income grows, your nueroticism about sending money fades and you spend more and more money gradually over time as you start buying nice soaps, then nicer foods, then nicer shoes... not necessarily a process you need to hurry, I don't think.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:15 PM on May 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Set yourself a budget for clothes spending buy what you want as long as you stick to it. Then you know you can afford what you are buying. This is a tremendous relief to me, in fact at first I made myself spend my budget each month for the first few months as I got used to spending money on myself I then tried to buy items slightly outside my comfort range price wise but up a notch or three quality wise. Once I got used to having better quality items say underpants that last more than a couple of months. Bras that don't snap underwires, tshirts that hold their shape it made buying nice things for myself so much easier.
posted by wwax at 6:17 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going to take a slightly different tack. Instead of trying to change the habit, change how you feel about it.

I used to shop exactly the same way, and still do, more or less. I rarely pay more for nicer simply because nice is good enough, use coupons, etc. While my friends drop $80 at Sephora, I don't buy anything.

We share a shopping style that some people pick up from being poor, but plenty of poor people don't shop this way -- and here's the key -- shopping this way doesn't mean that you're poor. (There's also nothing wrong with being poor, though it is inconvenient and society ascribes all sorts of moral failings to it.)

I made a friend who is in the subculture of high income young people who are trying to be retirement-ready very early, and suddenly felt extravagant in comparison to him.

Here's one strategy: invest in your skin. Get samples of moisturizer from a cosmetics store, and buy the most effective one. It will probably be very expensive per ounce, have lots of utility, and be a gateway purchase. Then you can say, "I do pay more when it's exactly right and very useful" and feel less like your other behaviors are neurotic or unreasonable.
posted by batter_my_heart at 6:37 PM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

My husband grew up poor and has some similar tendencies. For example, in college, I was moving out of an apartment at the end of the year and we'd been dating for about a month. I took all the food I'd picked up but never eaten and - since he was staying in town for the summer and I wasn't - packed it in a garbage bag and gave it to him. I learned later that that was the most amount of food he'd ever owned at one point in his life and that it was the food he ate all summer.

Everyone has their own triggers. If it helps, a lot of people have similar invisible anxieties to you; it's been a process to him to work through and it's still ongoing. He had a terrible fear of eating "too much" food per day, dollar-wise, and had a dollar figure that he considered his limit for the day.

What he eventually realized was that the cheapest possible food (clothing, shampoo, hygiene products) usually had shit ingredients (sewing, fabric quality) and he could get a lot more energy/utility out of more "expensive" food.

And, also, that he was spending way more time/energy on trying to find the cheapest food/deals than the difference in price warranted, like the people who drive miles to save 1-2 cents per gallon on gas.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:41 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

You know, I don't think this is the worst habit to have. It sucks that your upbringing led you to feel bad about getting what you need, but at the same time so many people have problems with impulse spending that I would be hesitant to tell a student to talk themselves out of having trouble spending money. Do you have enough clothes to feel professional and competent, at work and at school? If so, I think you should accept that shopping isn't something you enjoy and concentrate on what you do enjoy. If not, reframe it as one of those necessary expenses you mentioned, because that's what it is.

I also have a hard time talking myself into big ticket clothing buys sometimes, but I see that as a good thing. I have enough clothes. When I give away enough old, ratty stuff that I don't have a week's worth of nice outfits, then it's very easy to spend the money.. Too easy.
posted by bleep at 7:16 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I too lived through this. What's worked best at shaking me out of this is something one of my best friends got me started on - the "I'm Worth It Fund." She got me into the habit of setting a portion of every paycheck aside expressly for the purpose of frivolous spending. And it's been kind of a genius idea - the frugal side of me still is in control over how much of a portion of each paycheck I set aside, and it's also in control of how I define "frivolous spending", but - the fact that I've already defined this money as "money to have fun with and blow on things" makes me comfortable using it that way. Do I feel like getting some fancy bath gel? Sure, go ahead, there's about $75 in the IWI fund, I can afford it! Feel like seeing a movie? Sure, that's only $10 out of the fund! Wanna save it towards a vacation? That works too!

My frugal side is also appeased by the fact that even though it technically is only for "fun", I could use it for responsible things if I really needed it in an emergency. But I'm more inclined to use it for things like shoes or clothes or an occasional brunch. I'm still pretty conservative spending-wise, but I have nowhere near the anxiety I used to have.

And the name she used for it is also a big reminder that dammit, I am worth spending money on - that was a large part of the anxiety I felt, as one of the messages I internalized from how my parents fretted over money was that my own pleasure or comfort wasn't as important as their saving money. (I remember once when I was about seven and I spit out a nasty-tasting cough drop after trying to suffer with it for a good 15 minutes, and my mother lectured me about that "because that's like you just spit out a dime into the trash".) Learning that I am worth spending money on was a big step for me, and naming that fund that way is a reminder of my own worth.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

I hate to be that guy, but you're a student living on loans. Of course you're frugal and worry about money, you're not just poor, you're going further into debt every day. It's just being more responsible than most people are.

If it helps, my own poverty neuroticisms mostly evaporated with my first real paycheck, despite being deep in the student loan hole.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 7:29 PM on May 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

One thing that may help is spending more time thinking about who you are, and what you want life.

My mum was similar to yours with clothing ("You have your school uniform and you need two weekend outfits and a dress to wear to Nanna's house and anything beyond that is a waste of money" and then when I started working "surely you just need one suit for winter and one suit for summer and three shirts?"). The same went for personal care - moisturiser, make-up, perfume were all needless indulgences. Similarly with travel - my parents think hotels are extravagent when you have the option of taking a tent and finding a campground.

I broke out of this by figuring out what was important to me about my clothing and my personal care and how I spend my life. It took a while, but I got to a place where I was comfortable spending money on the clothes and products and experiences that mattered to me, and I didn't feel I had to defend that to anyone.

So my advice would be to spend a bit of time thinking about not "what clothes do I need to be warm and decent", but "who am I and how do I want to project that to the world?". Get comfortable with that, and it will help reframe your spending anxiety away from "oh this is terrible" and towards "does item X reinforce who I am?". You can still be frugal under this model, if frugal is part of how you see yourself. But you can be frugal without the guilt.
posted by girlgenius at 9:25 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

A thing that helps me is thinking about my needs vs. spending as a problem to be solved like it's my job. So I make a list of facts as if I'm someone else's personal assistant. Does the client need shirts? Maybe. The current shirts are OK, but two have mends and the third is getting worn beyond a reasonable ability to repair. What is the client's priority? Nice, good quality, collared work shirts. What vendor can supply this and what are the pros and cons of these choices? Given this info, what do I advise the client to buy and why?

This works for me because it looks at the facts (budget range is this, need is that much of a priority, solutions are available in these options) rather than judging me for being greedy. Sometimes you just need a shirt, and the fact is it'll cost a certain amount. Just like tax cuts/spending, you know?
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:35 PM on May 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

As a longtime tightwad, I feel less anxiety around clothes shopping when I'm responding to particular needs. I need a new T-shirt because an old one has a stain on it. I need a new sweater because the old one has gone all pilly. I need a new pair of black pants because the old ones no longer fit properly. I need two blazers because I've started a new job and need a more professional wardrobe. You don't have to buy clothes just to buy clothes. Identify a need and fill it.

As others have said, I've also made the shift from "What's the cheapest thing I can find on clearance that will cover my body parts?" to, "Where can I find a good quality piece for a reasonable price that I can wear for years?" Good quality clothes feel better and look better on you, and are worth the expense of tailoring, if they need that. And they last, which leads to less shopping. Win-win.

If you have little- or never-worn clothes in your closet that make you feel guilty when you look at them, there's probably a reason you're avoiding them—they don't fit properly, or they don't flatter your body shape or skin tone, or they don't fit in with your lifestyle. Get them out of there so you don't have to look at them anymore, and give them to Goodwill, where they have a chance of becoming a treasured item for someone else. Also, take a look around while you're there donating... you might find something you really like for cheap!
posted by BrashTech at 7:43 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never gotten over this in some areas, but with clothes-buying it really helps me to go shopping with a trusted friend who can give me some perspective.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:15 AM on May 16, 2014

For clothes, the advice to identify exactly what you need is really good (though not always easy), and to add to that, I'd try to ignore price tags while you are looking for things that will fill that need. When you get too focused on price it's easy to end up buying something that isn't really right, but is such a deal. And then it doesn't get worn and in the end it is NOT a deal, it's money down the drain. I struggle with this, it sucks to waste the money and it sucks to live with that stupid not right shirt for years.

Ideally find a couple of options that really meet that need and are good/better quality, and then look at the price and see which is within your budget (also a good idea to set aside a specific amount for these kinds of purchase) even if it's a bit of a stretch and not a steal. If none of them are, you can also try looking for the item online or waiting for a sale.
posted by pennypiper at 8:53 AM on May 16, 2014

I still struggle with this but my process is basically the same as above.

1. Budget a sufficient amount for each category, and let the budget roll over. I actually use an app for this on my phone and refer to it, "oh look, I have $X in my budget, I guess it's okay then." And then I let it go, I already decided that's how much I'm allowed, I don't need to revisit that decision in the store. I've also used a cash envelope system before. If there is money in the envelope, everything is okay. That might work better for you, or it might be more triggering, YMMV.

2. Sit down and make a master list of the things I need. Then if it's on my list, and #1 is also true, I just get the thing and don't think too much about it.

Effectively, my purchases are now split into extremely good quality items (e.g. Frye boots) and very low-cost "good enough" items (e.g. parmesan cheese rinds because the actual parmesan is too pricey and the rinds will do for soup and there's a little bit left that I can grate on pasta so whatever). So, I also own only enough clothes for one suitcase but there are some very, very nice items in there along with some "good enough" (Target undies) items.
posted by epanalepsis at 9:02 AM on May 16, 2014

I read your question and tilted my head and squinted. "Wait, is $90/mo an anomalously small food budget?"

I don't spend money. For me, it's more a few key and excruciating periods in my adult life than my childhood. But I haven't gotten over it, and I don't know whether I will ever be wealthy enough that it would even be a good idea to.

BUT. I have an awful lot of clothes. And they are good clothes. Because I am very, very good at thrift stores.

I recommend it. Dressing nicely makes one feel better about oneself. Buying oneself presents that one can justify feels great. And the whole Retail Therapy idea actually *works* when you're paying $5 for a really cool shirt and $9 for a new pair of shoes (sometimes actually new, ask me about my Clarks) which will last you for years *and* be comfortable *and* look good. I hardly buy anything. Often I get a sick sour jealous aching horrible helpless acidic feeling in my stomach when people I know talk about doing anything that costs more than $50. And the knife twists even harder when I realize that I'll probably never even *have* enough money to reasonably get over this dread and pain.

But I have damned nice clothes.

Seriously, thrift stores.
posted by Because at 5:27 AM on May 17, 2014

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