To Curb Emotional Spending, You Need to Understand It

It was Christmas Day. I’d spent the afternoon napping, nursing a cold, and had emerged to find our front room as I’d left it: with wrapping paper, gifts and candy scattered about.

I looked around at the mess and feeling decidedly sullen. What was the point, some voice in my head said. I’d spent hours and hundreds of dollars trying to make this day special. And it probably had been. But from my point of view, I’d spent it in bed, too tired and grumpy to even enjoy anything under the tree.

My holiday-hangover spurred shopping spree

As soon as I could, I climbed back under my own covers. And immediately, I found myself pulling up my gift wish list, reviewing everything I’d wanted… and hadn’t received. 

I rechecked prices of that Switch video game. I added books that caught my eye to my Amazon cart. Then I noticed a makeup brand I like was having a sale.

And ooooh, they had a beautiful new palette. And if I’m here adding that to my cart, might as well throw in some concealer in a lighter shade (for winter), and so on.

The total reached over $90 before I hit checkout. And I absolutely would have completed that order if I hadn’t had the foresight to unsave my credit card numbers from my browser.

I sighed, knowing I wasn’t motivated enough to fetch my wallet from upstairs, and closed the browser.

This, for me, was a classic case of emotion-driven spending. 

5 Stressors that drive emotional spending

Emotional spending is just what it sounds like: spending driven by emotion or stress, rather than needs or even thought-out wants. The more powerful or overwhelming the emotion, the harder it is to resist the resulting urge to spend. And it can turn from harmless retail therapy to overspending that puts us in debt, sets back money goals, and only causes further stress.

Yet while I can look at my Christmas night shopping spree that wasn’t meant to be and recognize it as emotion-driven now, I didn’t at the time. But this reflection, recognition and understanding of my emotion- or stress-based spending has been key to curbing it over the years.

When I take a look at my shopping impulses and peel back the surface-level impulses to shop, spend, and buy, there is usually something else going on. It can be as simple as I’m tired and need to go to bed before considering any purchases.

But when the shopping impulse is hitting hard, it can be a symptom of bigger struggles than just money. That’s when I need to slow down, pay attention, and take a closer look at the underlying causes of emotional spending. Here are some common reasons that I tend to emotionally spend.

1. Spending to meet emotional needs

I’m feeling a bit isolated, so I offer to take a friend out to lunch. My car’s bumper cover falls off, and I cringe at my perceived drop in status and start to daydream of replacing it. I feel off, less like myself, and then start browsing gadgets or clothes that I’m convinced will make me feel more “me.”

In each case, the purchase is a way to meet or quiet an emotional need. It’s not terrible, but going straight to spending as a way to manage my emotions does two things: it connects my spending with my mood and makes it dependent on what I can or can’t buy. And second, this easy mood-boost keeps me from looking at my financial reality and emotional needs. 

I don’t have to consider why I’m feeling lonely when I can just get a friend to meet me for lunch. I don’t have to work through the the ways I feel my status and social standing are tied to my car and other possessions if I simply buy a brand new model.

Worst of all, spending money to meet an emotional need rarely works. At least, not permanently. The need comes back, because I’m not addressing it directly. And also because spending money is rarely an effective way to satisfy an emotional need.

2. Spending to restore control and security

Another big trigger for stress spending can be chaos — those times when things feel out of control. 

Losing control or security is a terrifying feeling. As humans, we have a biological need to feel that we are in control, safe, and secure. Without it, we’re prone to helplessness, disempowerment, and feeling victimized. And that sense of powerlessness can be even scarier than the circumstances creating it. Not only are you dealing with a undesirable or downright shitty situation, after all —  you’ve also lost the sense that you’re up to the task of facing it.

And feeling insecure or powerless often triggers a lot of impulses to spend, for me.  If I’m feeling insecure, I have the same instinct human ancestors have had for millennia: to go out and hunter-gather additional resources to fight a sense of scarcity. Because in many ways, money does give me a sense of power and control. Being able to buy things I want or need is powerful. 

But this sense of control from spending is momentary and illusory. It’s not real. And emotional spending can drain financial resources in a way that makes the existing crisis even worse.

3. Spending to solve a problem

Sometimes I find myself spending money because I’m facing a problem and I simply don’t know how else to solve. 

In fact, one study showed that a typical response to stress is to save money and restrict spending. This changes, however, if a person feels that spending would help to solve a problem or address what was stressing them out. In these cases, stress was more likely to push someone to buy their way out of a problem. To spend their way to a solution — but often impulsively, without thinking through a purchase and whether it’s worth the cost.

A person with a new job might spend a large amount on an office wardrobe, for example. Or we might spend on convenience such as eating out so we don’t have to cook or dirty a kitchen. In my own to attempts cook at home more or eat healthier, I’ve jumped straight to buying fancy gadgets and overpriced blenders — without first considering existing food preferences and eating habits. As it turns out, while I enjoy smoothies they are not a hit with my family.

Whether I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed about a problem, or even excitement about making a change and taking on new challenges, facing an obstacle or problem puts me in a heightened emotional state. And these ~feelings~ can make us foolhardy and impulsive, quick to make a purchase that might not actually be necessary.

4. Spending to just get some relief

Shopping is referred to as “retail therapy” for a simple reason — it does make use feel better, even if just for a minute. And when I’m feeling stuck, spending can be a kind of escape. It provides a moment of relief from my everyday responsibilities. Because staring at cute makeup or browsing sales sections is bother easier and more fun than doing the dishes, catching up on emails, or picking up the front room for the fifth time today. 

Spending for relief isn’t inherently negative. It can sometimes provide a healthy, needed break from the austerity of following a strict budget. But it can be a problem when we overuse the mood-boosting effects of spending. 

For one, we can quickly become desensitized to it. The weekly latte starts to feel less like a treat and more like a fixture in your life, for example. 

Second, making purchases is an expensive way to feel better or take a break when there are many alternatives that don’t cost a dime. When I’m in the habit of spending too freely, I often find it’s because I’m neglecting many of my free destressers: journaling, meditation, going for a walk, adjusting my attitude or simply taking a nap. 

5. Spending to avoid change or growth

Emotional spending might be driven less by a feeling we’re experiencing — and more a feeling we’re avoiding: the pain and discomfort of change.

Changing spending habits is not always easy, simple, or painless. It takes a lot of work to change overspending or impulsive purchasing patterns that have become ingrained. 

I don’t always want to take on the discomfort and pain of changing my behaviors. I don’t always want to deal with the letdown of telling myself “no.” I don’t always want to put in the work and effort to change spending habits. I don’t want to take an honest look at myself and see the ugly truths and effect of my poor behavior.

But I also know that my finances won’t change if I keep doing the same thing. The only way to improve our money is improve how we’re managing it. This requires us to stop avoiding the discomfort of self-improvement. Instead, work toward living within our means, reversing unhealthy money patterns, and spending with intention rather than emotion.

Emotional spending has its place — but use it wisely

It’s important to remember that emotional spending isn’t always negative! Plenty of healthy and balanced purchases are made based on feelings, too. 

Here’s the thing: Spending is a powerful thing. Retail therapy is called therapy for a reason, after all. Money can have a real impact on how we feel, how we view ourselves, and our capacities to solve problems.

It can be an effective tool to achieve the above goals. It can be a way to bring joy or manage emotions, or buy more of what makes us happy and fulfilled. We can use money to relieve stress when maxed out.

But we need to remember that while spending is a powerful tool, it’s just one of many in our toolbox. Before buying, we should consider whether spending money is truly the best way to achieve our desired outcome, whether it’s salvaging a crappy day or investing in a new skill. 

The linchpin of healthy spending is to evaluate and plan purchases carefully. To be mindful and intentional with what we choose to buy or how we allocate our money. To consider all options and alternatives, including going without, borrowing an item we need, or simply saying “no” if we know we can’t afford it. And to make even small spending and financial choices based as much on long-term goals and monetary health, alongside our temporary feelings or stress. 

Photo by Tristan Colangelo on Unsplash

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Aaron @
    January 8, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Great post!

    “And when I’m feeling stuck, spending can be a kind of escape. It provides a moment of relief from my everyday responsibilities.”

    This is the unnecessary spending I see most often. The emotional boost of buying something blocks out the dull pains of everyday life or feelings of stress. It’s a real thing that ultimately just leads to even more stress later, but it’s very difficult to see in the moment.

    But you’re right, it can be overcome. We are capable of learning the difference between buying for the right reasons vs. just throwing money away.

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