A friend and I were talking recently about how our spending habits have changed over the years. She was describing her time in grad school as a high anxiety time. While in school, taking on sizable student loans, her anxiety around money was so high that on one occasion, she panicked while grocery shopping. She abandoned a full cart in the store out of fear of spending any money at all.
I, on the other hand, like to consider myself a financial late bloomer. It took me longer than I like to admit to get my financial house in order. Rather than panic about money and restrict my spending, my tendency used to be to spend mindlessly. While my friend was surviving on beans and rice and store brand pasta, I was filling up my fridge with lavish health foods and going to restaurants and bars with friends multiple times a week without a second thought.
Everyone’s gotta eat (and drink and buy new sunglasses and impulse buy books and get expensive haircuts)…right? Don’t get the wrong idea. I was stresssssed about money. My non-profit sector income was not lining up with my lifestyle. Every few weeks I’d realize my bank account was veering into the negative and have a shame-fest.
Anxiety and Money
As a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety treatment, it is not unusual for me to encounter clients with unrelenting worries about money. In some cases, it becomes clear that establishing a more balanced relationship with money needs to be a focus of therapy. We work towards addressing unhelpful beliefs and patterns of behavior around money to lead to empowerment and liberation from anxiety.
My friend and I now hang out comfortably much closer to the middle of a spending spectrum. She still saves like a total badass, but also makes room for spending that brings her happiness. I have revamped my approach to spending to incorporate more frugality and conscious spending. This way which allows me to live free from financial anxiety and spend on what actually matters to me.
Our conversation got me thinking about what “healthy spending” really means. It clarified for me that most of us exist along a spectrum when it comes to spending behavior. Both extremes have their unique facets and downsides.
So what does a more balanced relationship with money look like?
For our purposes, here is a working definition: Practicing enriching and values-based spending in the present (in a measured, mindful, and confident way), while saving/investing and keeping long-term goals in mind–all while embracing some vulnerability and acceptance.
Money is a tool! If it is not working in your favor, it is likely working against you.
Here’s how you can work towards embodying this definition and ensuring that your relationship with money is one of joy and control, rather than stress or avoidance.
Three Steps to Healthy Spending
Step 1: Know Thyself
Addressing your money relationship starts with identifying where you fall on the healthy spending spectrum.
THE ANXIOUS END OF THE SPENDING SPECTRUM
What on the surface can look like responsible behavior (i.e., frugality), can also have a darker side. An example in another realm of consumption is orthorexia. Orthorexia is a condition in which a person becomes obsessed with “healthy” approaches to food, like ‘clean eating’. They cut out ‘bad foods’ obsessively. This approach can easily become restrictive, obsessive, and lead to clinically disordered eating.
Similarly, cutting out unnecessary spending and a hyperawareness of finances can spiral. It can leave a person with a disruptive focus on money–a focus that creates disengagement from their life.
What are some signs that you are an anxious spender?
- Money hoarding and reluctance to spend. You avoid spending on anything, even when it could bring you meaningful experiences, deepen your relationships, move you towards bigger life goals, or improve your health.
- Frequent checking. You find yourself checking your bank account balances, your budget tracker, your loan balance, etc. often and in an attempt to relieve anxiety or feel a sense of control.
- Personal distress and worry that is hard to shake. Sure, it can be useful to have some feelings of guilt after a shopping splurge–guilt can be a teacher–but if you’re finding yourself unable to sleep or still obsessively plagued with regret and guilt weeks later, that may fall in the realm of money anxiety.
- Social isolation. One of the most fraught scenarios that comes up for people when they’re frugal (or in a state of heightened frugality to reach a goal) is social outings. The temptations and frankly, social expectations, to spend money in pricey restaurants or on group activities are real. There are certainly workarounds, like drinking club soda at a bar instead of $15 cocktails, suggesting or hosting lower-cost activities. But when the anxiety around being in these situations is so high that you find yourself avoiding them altogether and isolating yourself from family and friends, there can be a problem. It may be a sign that your spending habits are no longer simply productive and frugal.
- Problems in relationships related to spending. When one person in a relationship is far more conservative with their money, anxiety about their partner’s spending can creep into their interactions, resulting in resentment or fighting.
THE CARELESS/IMPULSIVE SIDE OF THE SPECTRUM
What are some signs that you are more of a careless or impulsive spender?
- Avoidance. You haven’t checked your bank accounts in weeks, maybe you even avoid it completely, fearful of overdraft fees.
- Emotional spending. You spend to alleviate unpleasant emotions (e.g., boredom, self-loathing, etc.).
- Susceptibility to lifestyle creep. Every time you get a raise, start a new job that comes with a higher paycheck, or encounter a windfall, you find new ways to spend that money.
- Consequences!! There might be very real consequences to being neglectful of finances or overspending regularly. Late fees, inability to pay important bills, having to borrow more and more money, no savings or emergency funds, missing out on travel with family, etc.
- Hopelessness about gaining control. You feel like your habits are too ingrained and the problem too big to conquer. You don’t see the utility in making small incremental changes.
Step 2: Acknowledge uncomfortable truths.
Take the time to acknowledge if there are experiences from your past or ongoing psychological issues that contribute to your spending habits. This gives you a chance to work through those complicated emotions and beliefs.
This might not be relevant for everyone. For some money hoarders, the behavior is simply a reflection of temperament; for some irresponsible spenders, there may simply be a lack of financial education. In my observation, clients that exhibit the most financial anxiety have had experiences earlier in life that solidified a fear of scarcity. More often than not, the experiences center around seeing a parent/caregiver struggle with money. Of course that instills a feeling of scarcity and eagerness to hoard.
Similarly, clients that exhibit the most financial irresponsibility and engage in the most careless spending, tend to operate from a place of feeling not good enough. They engage in a lot of social comparisons. They are often reaching for an idealized version of themselves through excessive or compulsive purchasing.
Talk it out with a trusted friend or mental health professional, journal about it, find a safe way to process. Be willing to acknowledge and challenge (ideally with support!) formative experiences and deeply held fears and beliefs about money.
Step 3: Find the sweet spot for saving
Careless spenders tend to have a present-focused, YOLO, treat yo self approach to money. They see it as a tool for achieving pleasure in the short-term because “life is short.” They are not inclined to save money. Anxious spenders on the other hand are more inclined to forego luxuries and endure short-term deprivation for the promise of long-term security through saving.
If your bank account is almost always on E, you will have a hard time reaching goals that, while they might not be on your radar now, most people tend to want eventually, like buying a house or um, retiring. You will have a lot less freedom and fewer options. (Snag our goal setting freebie here!)
Conversely, if you’re too focused on saving, i.e., your money is serving mostly as a tool to dampen your fears and uncertainty about the future, you may be missing out on some of the experiences that contribute to a rich and meaningful life. Find balance (future you will be thankful either way).
This is part one of a series by Melissa Weinberg of