Realistically, I probably shouldn't do this
February 14, 2017 10:48 PM   Subscribe

I recently lost some money (think something like a large health bill, ticket, or emergency airfare) and now am having intrusive thoughts about eating only cabbage and oatmeal for a year to "make up" for that lost money. Can you help me get rid of these thoughts?

I generally have had problems with purchasing food and eating a full meal. Even now, going to the cafeteria and buying an entree feels like far too much of a luxury and I don't know what to do with myself whenever I am confronted with a cafeteria or grocery store or menu. I agonize and ponder and salivate and one hour later I end up buying a bag or side of beans or something stupid like that to tide me over. That's how miserly I am at baseline.

I don't have specific or clear memories of going hungry, but I know that at some point my family did not have enough money for food or heat. As an adult, I am very cheap, perhaps pathologically, and certainly achingly, so. The amount of money I'm talking about was in the thousands, so in the grand scheme of things not insurmountable, but still a very significant sum to me. I feel so guilty for having spent/lost the money. I am torturing myself by obsessing about how little I can get by on in order to make it up. I don't know that I will necessarily actually eat this way for the next year, but I need to make up for that money somehow and the only thing I really spend money on aside from rent is food, anyhow.

I don't think these thoughts are healthy, and I don't think the way I am reacting to this is reasonable, but there's this primal/basal part of me that I'm having a very hard time switching "off." My stomach hurts, I can't eat normally, I can't concentrate on anything else, and I'm preoccupied with looking for free food so that I can also make up the cost. This is really hard; I work in a community that mostly has never known poverty and is pretty uniformly very well-off, so I don't think that venting to other people in my community would help. I'm ashamed of these thoughts. ... help?
posted by fernweh to Work & Money (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you have some psychological battles that others can advise you better on in terms of the healing process.

Until then, here's a shortcut that might work with your current logic and wiring: Not eating properly could very negatively impact your health, leading not only to loss of quality of life, but also substantial health bills. You would be essentially compounding your financial mistake of losing the money.

I'm sorry that you're going through this.
posted by cacao at 11:13 PM on February 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yup! If you ate cabbage and oatmeal for a year, you'd certainly get sick. Then you'd have to pay for treatment, miss work, and lose even more money. The best way to make up those dollars is to eat right, stay healthy, and be consistent and strong in your work. Taking care of yourself increases your earning potential!

If you must cut food costs for survival, try the Eating Cheap & Healthy reddit. Here's a list of staples.

Give CBT a shot?
posted by fritillary at 11:15 PM on February 14, 2017 [14 favorites]

Do you have a history with eating disorders? I wonder if the anxiety about the money is triggering some disordered thoughts about food. Just something to consider.

No matter what happened to that money... no matter if you could have made different decisions around it, let me say it loud and clear and I want you to hear me in your heart:

YOU DESERVE TO EAT HEALTHY FOOD EVERY DAY. Please give that to yourself.

You deserve it simply because you're a human.

You also need it because if you eat trash you'll be weak and sick and it will cost you money in other ways and affect your earning potential. Always keep your machinery running so you can face your life with strength.

In terms of making back some of the money, if that will feel better, here are some possibilities and you can surely think of more:

- Pick up a short term contract job (Craigslist often has small labour gigs)
- Sell some old possessions (furniture sells pretty well on Craigslist)
- Call companies you do business with (credit card, banking fees, phone bill, etc) and see if you can negotiate a slightly better rate
- Cancel a subscription fee to something
- Consider searching Craigslist for something that's being sold at a steep discount, purchasing, and re-selling it (pick something you're knowledgeable about... camera equipment? tools? paint a nice piece of 1950s furniture? etc)
- See if you can split a utility with someone else, like wifi
- Get a roommate
- Try to pick up a few extra hours at work
- Read a frugal blog and see if any of their suggestions will help you trim expenses

But most of all-- please, just work to forgive yourself!

Lots of people lose money or make occasional unwise decisions. Oh man. I'm pretty careful about money but I've missed a flight and had to buy a new ticket, left my week-old iPhone sitting on a bench for 5 minutes and had it stolen, spilled water into my laptop, bought expensive clothing that didn't fit properly so I never wore it, bought a pricey gadget and then forgot the bag on the subway... I'm still a good person. People make mistakes. You walk around 365 days a year doing things, once in a while you're gonna mess up. You get a lot of things right. Give yourself credit for all those days when you do a great job.

You deserve healthy food no matter what. Even if you were the worst human monster I would still say you deserve healthy, nourishing food. Losing some money? Heck, you helped the economy. You definitely deserve a cookie. :) Please be kind to yourself.

Maybe take an hour and do MoodGym. It's a free online cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) workbook. It really really helps.
posted by spraypaint at 11:52 PM on February 14, 2017 [31 favorites]

You need to talk to a therapist about this because it is physically hurting you and may eventually result in significant medical bills. Food = energy and the time you spend thinking about avoiding food is time not spent working or doing happier things, so you're also losing productive time in that sense.

Pick a time when you feel protective of yourself with the same emotional strength that you had to write this askme, and make the first calls for a therapy appointment and hand the therapist a print out of this askme, it's a good summary to start from. You're being really brave and doing A LOT of hard work getting through each day with something this tough to wrestle with because money/hunger/shame are powerful things.

Short-term, I can suggest the website of the fantastic Jack Monroe who does sensible tasty budget cooking and if you follow their recipes, you will be cooking solid nutritious food that is as cheap as possible. You can trust Jack. Jack also had a tough time with food insecurity and class issues, so there's no food hyperbole crud and they're very straight forward about food costs and practicality.

I have food self-care issues too, memail me if you want to talk. Some days I just eat porridge and an apple. What's helped has been making food for other people in my life, but it's slow progress. Focusing on nutrition and reframing it as a health care necessity, not an indulgence, is very helpful for me personally.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:46 AM on February 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

Can you look at a actual budget and see how long it will take to save that money and the real measures you can take to do that?
posted by raccoon409 at 3:59 AM on February 15, 2017

Hurting your health just to save a few thousand dollars is quite detrimental. It might have been a significant amount of money to you, but since you don't spend money on anything other than the most basic of necessities, it seems to me that any amount of money is significant to you. It doesn't mean that you can't afford it or that the amount of money is significant. You don't mention, for example, whether you could *afford* to have spent the money, or whether this hurts you financially--just that you feel guilty and horrible about having spent it.

I second the recommendation of a therapist. Being unable to spend money on yourself to the point where you're willing to sabotage your own health is not something you can talk yourself out of.

There are more moderate ways to recoup your savings. Getting a second job temporarily; doing a side-hustle like freelancing or selling items on EBay. Reading books by authors like Dave Ramsey to formulate a good plan for creating a savings on a small budget. That might help alleviate the detrimental emotions you're feeling and let you come at this from a more appropriate mindset.

But still, I think professional counseling is in order. The steps you're considering taking kinda sound like the money equivalent of an eating disorder, and the fact that you recognize that your thought patterns aren't healthy or reasonable is a good indicator that you can find a better way to get these feelings into a better place.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:34 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

It probably is a terrible idea to do this overall, but if you feel like eating in the cafeteria is a waste of money by all means pack something cheap for lunch. I would throw lentils/beans and rice into the mix as well.

I once ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for three months because I bought a ton of peanut butter, jelly, and bread for a family event and then no one ate it. I supplemented with yogurt and baby carrots though, and I ate breakfast and dinner.

I like doing little experiments in extreme frugality sometimes.
posted by mskyle at 4:40 AM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

I forgot to add, though, that I have fun doing those kinds of experiments; it sounds more like you just feel really bad about money. You can be cheap and have a healthy relationship with money, but it doesn't seem like you're able to do that right now.
posted by mskyle at 4:48 AM on February 15, 2017

Do you have access to an employee assistance program at your work? They can help you (confidentially and for free) regarding counseling and budgeting assistance.

I've gone through periods of time where I struggled with spending money on myself/things I needed and it's no way to live. You don't have to live like that either.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:59 AM on February 15, 2017

A temporary second job or side-hussle would be a much better way of getting that money back. Even dog-walking.

But really, this is a question for a therapist. I understand that if you're worried about money you may be hesitant to spend it on therapy, but perhaps you could start by just figuring out what your copay would be and using the Psychology Today tool to see what therapists are nearby and in your network.

You can also decide that if you do see a therapist you'll tell them that you plan to see them for a limited amount of time (3 months maybe). You can also set up visits less frequently than once a month.

Good luck to you. We've all made financial mistakes and you don't deserve to suffer over it. The loss of the money is enough punishment.
posted by bunderful at 5:21 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

All things being equal, I'd highly recommend a Costco membership for saving money on food, particularly produce and deli items. The trick is in buying things you know you'll actually eat, but as a single person who lives alone, I find it very useful.

On an anecdotal note, in 2016 I had several months where I was so stressed and busy that I barely ate, and what I did eat wasn't very healthy. I ended up anemic and hypothyroid, and now I'm spending a bunch of money on doctor visits to get healthy again. Don't do that. You won't save money in the long run and you'll feel like shit besides.

I did also spend three years being repeatedly unemployed as a result of the Dotbomb era, and had to slice my budget to the bare minimum AND find ways to entertain myself that cost as little as possible. I cut out cable and changed from broadband to DSL; went to the cheapest cellphone plan; raised the deductible on my car insurance; started turning off lights in all rooms except the one I was in; lowered the thermostat by a couple of degrees and wore layers and cuddled in blankets instead. Doing all that saved me about $75/mo.--not a huge sum, but it adds up pretty quickly. To entertain myself, I took a lot of walks and bike rides; shopped the $1 rack at Half Price bookstores; re-read ALL the books I owned (and I own hundreds, so that took quite a while); watched ALL the movies I owned and used Netflix religiously (the DVD plan, this was before their streaming model); took a lot of naps (I like naps); went clothes shopping at Goodwill, where a surprising amount of deals and next-to-new items can be found for super cheap.

It got to a point where I could look forward to my wealth of entertaining options, most of which cost very little money, so I always felt busy and engaged--and happier. *Feeling* deprived is the shitty and stressful part, and I didn't feel deprived when I had all these things to do that I enjoyed. When I did finally regain stable employment, I continued my frugal habits and used the money to pay down debt as quickly as possible.

Moral of the story is that you can be frugal without *depriving* yourself, and I think the urge to *deprive* yourself, to make yourself unhappy and punish your body, is the unhealthy part of all this. Thinking of enjoyable low- to no-budget alternatives to spending money is great! But thinking of ways to not provide yourself with basic necessities is not. They wouldn't be basic necessities if you didn't need them. A healthy diet and sufficient clothing is as much a required expense as rent is. You're just paying yourself instead of someone else.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:29 AM on February 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

Congratulations: You obviously recognize that this is an irrational and self-destructive attitude. That's a crucial first step.

Two perspectives that might help:
1) If your annual income is, say, $50,000, then your lifetime income is somewhere around $1.5 million. In that sense, a $2,000 loss is about 0.1 percent of your lifetime income.
2) If you want, you can eat healthily and cheaply. It just will take time to shop and cook in advance. You can deprive yourself of caviar and lobster; don't deprive yourself of the fuel your body needs.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:24 AM on February 15, 2017

When I was in school taking a load of courses to program mainframe computers, I had a small sum of money, very little money coming in (a small loan from my parents), and I was tied to these classes, the earliest I was possibly going to make any income was in October. I'd learned to use spreadsheet software by making a budget for myself, and while I was frugal I was also realistic -- I was going to spend a few bucks on renting movies or whatever, and at that time in Houston there was a cool theater that showed second-round art-house flicks for a buck -- cool. (And the art museum was free on Thursdays and open til 9 PM; I know that collection by heart, and love it.)

So anyways, I plugged in how much money I had, how much coming in, what my expenses were, got it all punched in and hit enter and ZAM! here was my budget. I printed it out. It showed me, in black and white, that I was going to die of starvation sometime in late July. Scary as hell. I looked at it, and considered all of the implications of it, and then I wadded it up and threw it away. And I have no idea how this happens but I didn't miss a meal. Some sort of magic I think. I ate a *lot* of brown rice, and pinto beans, and black beans, etc and etc, it was peasant fare. But it was hearty and I made it through just fine and so will you. I promise.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:36 AM on February 15, 2017

For what it's worth, my sister is anorexic, and one of the things she really struggles with is feeling like it's okay to spend money on food. She also has a lot of obssessive and intrusive thoughts about money she feels she's "lost." What you've described sounds so much like her. Not saying that you have an eating disorder, but that worrying about spending or "wasting" money on looking after yourself, and feeling as though you *could* or should do without things that are basic necessities can be a really big and complicated problem that can tie into all sorts of issues. I think it would be a really good idea to get some kind of help. Really, feeding yourself well and staying healthy is one of the most basic things that money is *for*; that's a good, wise use of your money. You deserve to be full and healthy.
In the meantime, this is just a kind of stopgap and won't solve your underlying problem, but would it be helpful to try and focus on finding a way to make a bit of extra money on the side, rather than depriving yourself to try and save it? Is there something you could do, like selling stuff on etsy or proofreading papers or freelance audio transcribing or dogwalking or something? (You'll know better than I do what sort of thing might be feasible for you). Big caveat, though- I think if this was me, I could easily end up just as obssessed with feeling I had to do more of that than I could really manage so as not to miss a single opportunity to make an extra penny, so I would really only use this as a very short term measure to assuage a bit of your anxiety while you're finding help.
I really hope you can get to grips with this. It's an exhausting thing to have to deal with, and you deserve to feel like you can enjoy some basic pleasures.
posted by BlueNorther at 7:30 AM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Overall this is something you need to work on with a therapist and possibly also an accountant. It sounds like a tweak to one of the many challenges people who grow up in poverty have when they find themselves making enough money to live beyond subsistence levels - it'll be hard but you aren't alone.

For right now, you have to eat. Culturally in the US we have an expectation of variety and plenty that is pretty unusual and absurd, and not something you need to stick to. Also restaurants and grocery stores typically carry consistent items, or variations that are similar enough. So design yourself a meal plan and then you remove all the dithering and guilt at the time of purchase.

It will probably help you to pretend, even if you feel silly doing it, that you are making a meal plan for somebody else, because it sounds like you have a hard time believing you deserve the same things others do. Don't be ambitious about batch cooking and bulk buying - give this person you are planning for an expectation of simplicity when it comes to meal prep, and when cooking "they" can focus on things that taste satisfying, rather than freeze well or maximize pantry ingredients.

But you can plan to buy and eat the same set of things over the course of a few days over and over again and be satisfied and healthy. The easiest might be to make it for one week, but if that is too much (and seven days is a lot of thinking ahead and 21 meals and honestly is exhausting) you can totally do like, a repeat of three days. Build in room for variation in available items and restaurant menus, like "day two I have a chicken or turkey sandwich or wrap from the cafe for lunch, flip a coin if both are available" and "snacks are apples, pears, cheese, hard boiled eggs, triscuits, carrots and hummus - if I run out of any of these I will buy more of them to always have, and eat two snacks a day." But ultimately you can eat very repetitively without a problem, and the tendency of restaurants to have standard menus will help you with this.

Please feel free to memail me if you would like help figuring out a short term meal plan - I have fun doing this type of thing but know it can be absolute hell for others, and everyone has so many food preferences and different needs that it is nearly impossible to go off of other people's work like bloggers and food writers.
posted by Mizu at 7:37 AM on February 15, 2017

It sounds a lot like you are suffering from serious anxiety - maybe post-traumatic in nature, since you had a trauma that involved an unexpected expenditure - and are having intrusive/obsessive thoughts as a symptom. That's nothing to be ashamed of, and I would advise being careful with well-meaning recipes and and frugality tips because those don't treat this kind of anxiety.

You need to consider the anxiety an emergency and worry about recipes later. I know it can take time to slog through the process of getting a therapist, but urgent care or your physician (if you can get in there quickly) can get you started on a medical intervention today. And then, with the thoughts a little better corralled you can learn some techniques for managing stress and your anxiety, probably with CBT and maybe a little exercise, sunlight, and good sleep. You could start with The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, which you can get on Kindle and start right away or get quickly on paper so you can work straight on the worksheets, which is really sort of a CBT 101, and you can take the workbook with you to your first therapy appointment.

Thoughts like these can escalate quite quickly into pretty dangerous territory and they're already into the self-harm zone, and that's why you should treat them as an urgent situation. I know it may be hard because there's a dollar cost to doing these things, but it's not enormous and it is important that you do take care of yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:41 AM on February 15, 2017 [8 favorites]

I’m also pathologically cheap, and in these sorts of situations it can be helpful for me to set a weekly budget that I MUST spend. Decide what you would consider a reasonable amount of money for someone you care about to spend on food for week. (If you need a reference point, the USDA’s ”thrifty” plan is 42.20 per week for a male between 19-50; the “liberal” plan is $84.30.) And every week, actually spend that much, at minimum. If you go under, buy whatever you consider luxury items for the next week… ic cream, meat, restaurant food, organic produce, whatever. The thing is, you HAVE to spend the money. Take the choice to deprive yourself away from yourself.

If, after a few months, your stress levels decrease and you feel you want to stick to a stricter food budget than you originally chose, you can revisit it. But give it some time to go without that sort of decision-making as your mental health gets back on track.
posted by metasarah at 8:09 AM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Your thoughts sound a lot like mine did when I went through a brief period of disordered eating. The worst part of it was that the more meals I skipped, the harder it got to make myself eat the next one. I would also latch onto the amount of money it cost and convince myself that I didn't deserve to eat. It was the hunger talking. I was nowhere near starvation, but my body and brain went into 'starvation mode' where it was convinced that resources were hopelessly scarce and that they shouldn't be used.

This experience really hammered home to me that I need to eat to be able to think clearly and face my problems. Even a big meal of rice and beans improved my mindset enormously, and it only got better when I was able to add meat. My anxiety and depression receded, and I was able to tackle my problems productively.

So, please, for the good of your brain, eat really well today, as much as you can, until you are satisfied. Use whatever mental tricks you need to get yourself to do it (I would make dinner dates with friends). Think about your budget and strategy with a full belly.
posted by oryelle at 8:31 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can spend less money on food. Not buying from the cafeteria or restaurant? That's a sensible idea if you don't have much money.

But not spending any money on food? Hoping to get by on free food? That's unrealistic and dangerous.

Redirect your obsessive thoughts toward, "What's the cheapest way that I can eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with all the nutrients I need and enough calories?" Use your brain's excessive worrying energy to find recipes, read nutritional labels, and obsessively make spreadsheets that ensure you're getting the nutrition you need. Make sure you get all your amino acids and all your vitamins and minerals.
posted by clawsoon at 8:53 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

You're worth it.
posted by clawsoon at 8:54 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

You need to consider the anxiety an emergency and worry about recipes later.

Exactly. I am also cheap-to-a-problematic-perspective sometimes and the baseline issue here isn't food or money, it's anxiety and disordered thinking. Whether this is something that has to do with PTSD, OCD or something different, it it a health problem and one you should get looked at. The other "How do I manage this money problem?" questions are a smokescreen for the larger problem. It's a tough one because it's true, food costs money, and it's also true that you lost some money. However it's not true that you "owe yourself" this money and it's not true that you are solving any problems for yourself by eating poorly, in fact you are creating them.

So in the meantime before you can work on this with a professional, maybe put this payback on hold. Paying yourself back now or later isn't going to make much of a difference and the plan you have is the result of disordered think and unlikely to help.
posted by jessamyn at 9:47 AM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

A quick thought: The money that you lost is a sunk cost. It's done! You cannot un-lose it by scrimping. If you don't take care of your nutrition, you'll have thrown your health in with the lost money as well, and health doesn't get paid out every two weeks. Health above all, really.

If I read your question correctly and can shamelessly project for a moment: you have a decent savings rate. You are so far ahead of the game already - you are young, have a good job, probably some amount of social capital: you don't have to work nearly as hard as your parents for the same result, and that's why they worked so hard for you.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:06 AM on February 15, 2017

If your frugality is an obsession, and it may be, then the medications and techniques for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder may help.

Reason also helps. I have mild OCD and am frugal. I was in hyper-frugal mode for the last year because Debt. I ate lots of oatmeal, rice, beans, noodles, cabbage, as well as sweet potatoes, homemade healthy muffins, kale, veggies, sausage, beef, chicken, etc. I'm out of debt and have a nest egg again. Set a goal. Bring lunch a couple days a week, buy lunch a couple days a week. Salad is often not frugal when eaten at the cafeteria - get salad because leafy greens are so good for you, and that makes them a cost-effective choice - you are protecting your health and well-being. Set up a rewards system, usually a calendar. For every day you ate a balanced diet, regardless of cost, you get a star. For every week with, say, 6 stars, you get a sticker. For every 4 stickers, you have dinner out, even if it's takeout, just not fast food.

I can be too frugal, and when I was earning rather more, I pushed myself to be very generous with myself and others. It was kind of great.

Some Bad Thing happened. Maybe it was a result of error on your part, or maybe not. Whatever. You're a person, errors happen. Forgive yourself. Cut yourself some slack. You're doing fine.
posted by theora55 at 3:25 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

You need to eat enough food in order to think clearly. The young men im the Minnesota Starvation Experiment were chosen for their excellent physical and mental health, and they ate a starvation level diet out of altruism (so we could learn how to re-feed people who had been starved in WW2), in the best possible conditions. They started having obsessive thoughts, constant preoccupation with food, and their mental health really went downhill. Just from not eating! You need to see a therapist but you also need to heal your mind by eating enough food. Also consider seeing a physician.
posted by Hypatia at 3:40 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a little concerned that your question is vague on an obvious point: *do* you in fact actually need to adjust your budget to account for this one-time loss?

If your budget is otherwise reasonable, then I don't see why you should. When you say "I need to make up for that money somehow", I can't tell if that's something you really believe or not.

Perhaps you're just avoiding the question because it's painful to think about. But I think you really need to work out the state of your finances, and figure what would be some reasonable guidelines for your spending, hopefully with help from a third party to make sure you're being objective about it.

And of course sometimes you've got to spend money to make money, and there's no clearer case for that than keeping yourself fed!
posted by floppyroofing at 5:26 PM on February 15, 2017

*do* you in fact actually need to adjust your budget to account for this one-time loss?

No. I don't actually even need to save this money, in many senses. Like, yes, I do, because I'm a student and I don't have an income, and because I'm still reeling from the error I made to lose this money... it *is* a lot of money. But realistically, nothing is going to happen if I blow through an extra thousand-odd dollars because... well, plenty of people spend way more money than I do and make it through the world just fine. I had a scholarship for school, I continued to get other scholarships that covered other expenses, worked a side job or two, am generally frugal, and in several months after graduation, I'm going to have a decent salary. Nobody was hurt (aside from my wallet) from my error, I didn't do anything unethical, it was just a stupid and expensive mistake.

... which makes all of this even more silly, right?

You've all given me really good advice. This isn't about the budget, or even eating cheaply. It is about the intrusive thoughts and the disproportionate level of stress I'm reacting with. I do have disordered-eating-like behaviors, but it isn't related to body image-- it's related to this idea that I can or should get by with less, because I'm not really worth wasting resources on, and I've taken it onto myself to make sure that I don't accidentally take up anybody's resources or anything more than the bare minimum, resource-wise. I remember my parents buying me something as a gift, and before they even had the chance to exit the store, changed their mind and decided that it wasn't worth it or that it was too expensive, and returned it there and then. In front of me. I bring that up because I feel like... that kind of thing is exactly what I do now, except with buying basic everyday goods for myself. It is so exhausting to feel like I am starving (mostly metaphorically) all the time, even when in reality I've not had to worry about food for years.
posted by fernweh at 9:10 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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