It happens to all of us. You buy something on a whim online or in-store and then BAM — instant regret. A knot forms in the pit of your stomach as you realize:
You didn’t need that thing you just bought.
You don’t even really like that thing you just bought.
You now have to decide if you’ll eat the expense or go through the hassle of returning it.
Emotional spending — it happens to all of us. Whether it’s a stressful day at work, a long day spent tending to young kiddos, or merely the stress of being in lockdown for over a year, we’ve all been there.
But here’s the dangerous thing about emotional spending — A little retail therapy here. A little retail therapy there. And before you know it, you get to the end of the month wondering where all that money in your bank account went.
When you curb emotional spending, you pump the breaks on buying things you don’t like or enjoy, so you can make room for all the things that light you up.
Ready to learn how to learn more? Read on as we discuss:
7 signs of emotional spending
How to avoid emotional spending for good
Two simple questions to ask yourself before you buy something new
How to start spending more mindfully
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL SPENDING?
Emotional spending happens when you buy something based on how it makes you feel in the moment — rather than thinking through if you actually need it or want it.
Emotional spending generally happens when you feel sad or stressed. Buying something new gives you a spike of adrenaline. It boosts your mood and makes you feel in control of your life — even if it’s just for a moment.
MY PERSONAL STORY WITH EMOTIONAL SPENDING
Learning to curb emotional spending isn’t about avoiding the things you love. I for one love honey lavender lattes and traveling to national parks and popping into the local bakery around the corner for the best freaking chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had in my life. (I’m pretty sure they’re 50% cookie, 50% chocolate chips — the perfect ratio in my opinion.)
Those are all things that bring me joy. They make me happy. And I plan on continuing to splurge on those little luxuries until my dying breath. (I know, a little dramatic.)
But you know what I don’t plan on buying anymore?
Clothes from TJ Maxx that shrink in the dryer after one wear and end up hanging in my closet for two years before I finally donate them to Goodwill.
Random knick-knacks from the dollar section at Target that end up in the trash or buried in a cabinet two weeks later.
That monthly subscription to Birchbox I never really used but wanted because I thought it’d make me feel prettier. (It didn’t — and I ultimately ended up with a bathroom drawer full of half-opened samples.)
These all used to be emotional shopping triggers for me. And now that I’ve cut them out of my life, I don’t miss them at all. My home is less cluttered. I have more money in my bank account. I have more space for the things I actually love. It’s a win-win.
EMOTIONAL SPENDING STATISTICS
Do you ever feel like you’re the only one who gets trapped in the vicious cycle of buying something on impulse, then instantly regretting it? Turns out, you’re not alone.
Over 75% of people emotionally spend in some capacity, according to research by Self, Inc. The two biggest reasons are because people want to:
Escape their current reality
But here’s the kicker — these feelings of happiness and escapism are often met with instant regret when you buy something on impulse. It’s like a sugar crash. You feel like you’re on top of the world for a few minutes, but then the jitters set in and you’re wondering why you had that third chocolate chip cookie (speaking from experience).
7 SIGNS OF EMOTIONAL SPENDING
I’ll be completely honest with you. I didn’t even know I was emotionally spending when I was doing it. I just knew I had a house full of junk I didn’t love, and I always felt like I didn’t have enough money to do anything fun.
If you’re like I was, here are seven signs you (or someone you love) may be struggling with emotional spending.
You often buy things to fill a void.
You have an uncontrollable urge to spend money.
You often shop out of boredom or because you’re sad or stressed.
You have unworn clothes or unopened packages in your house.
You have credit card debt.
You often regret your purchases and make returns.
You often hide your purchases from your partner or family members.
HOW TO AVOID EMOTIONAL SPENDING
Okay, not that that’s out of the way. Let’s give you a real roadmap you can use to finally kick emotional spending to the curb.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY EMOTIONAL SPENDING TRIGGERS.
The first step to avoiding emotional spending is to figure out why you tend to do it in the first place.
We all have different reasons for making impulse purchases. Maybe it’s because you’re sad, stressed, or overworked. Or, you’re bored and don’t know how else to fill your time. Or, maybe FOMO kicks in when you see someone on Instagram touting the latest fashion piece or kitchen gadget (I’m looking at you, air fryer!).
You may have more than one emotional spending trigger. That’s totally normal. Write them all down, so you’re aware of them.
STEP 2: IDENTIFY PATTERNS IN YOUR SPENDING.
We’re creatures of habit. A lot of times you may buy the same things over and over again because they remind you of items you already own.
Take my favorite white sneakers for example. I love them. They’re comfy. They have velcro straps. They make me feel like a giddy little kid when I wear them (in a good way).
It never fails. If I see anyone advertising a pair of shiny white sneakers. I’m sold. I’m hooked. My heart starts racing. I’m all like, “TAKE MY MONEY!”
But then I stop and ask myself… Why do I like these shoes so much? 90% of the time, it’s because they remind me of the ones I already own. That’s when I calm myself down and swear that I’ll scrub my white sneakers until they’re squeaky clean again so I can enjoy that fresh-out-of-the-box, brand-new feeling without spending money on a new pair.
So, what does this mean for you?
If you know there are items you always buy (even though you have plenty of that thing at home), make yourself a “Do Not Buy” list. Keep it in your purse or near your laptop so you can refer to it when emotions start fluttering up.
When I created my “Do Not Buy” list, I had two sections on it: one for items I loved but had plenty of (like sweaters, wall art, and plants) and another for items I always bought but never used or wore (like high heels and fancy dresses).
STEP 3: MAKE IT HARDER TO SPEND MONEY.
It’s SO EASY to spend money when your credit card info is auto-saved to Instagram, your web browser, your Amazon account, and everything else.
Make it harder to spend money using these tips:
Unsubscribe from emails so you don’t see discounts and new arrivals from your favorite retailers
Set time limits for Instagram, Facebook, and other apps that entice you to overspend
Delete any saved credit card information from your phone or computer
If you’ve memorized your credit card number, call up your provider and ask them to send you a new card (most will)
Wait a week before buying something non-essential to make sure you still want it
STEP 4: SET A “FUN MONEY” BUDGET.
Give yourself a set amount of “fun money” each month. You can spend it on anything you want — but once it’s gone, it’s gone. Using this strategy will help you avoid buying things you don’t actually want and will help keep you on budget.
STEP 5: ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS BEFORE YOU BUY SOMETHING NEW.
Before you checkout at a store, take ten seconds to answer these two questions:
Why am I buying this? (Is it to fill a void, because I’m bored, or because I already have something similar at home that I love?)
Is this something I’m genuinely excited to use/wear as soon as I can? (If the answer isn’t an immediate “yes!”, this is a red flag. You may waste time returning it in a few days, or it may waste away unused somewhere.)
STEP 6: IMMEDIATELY RETURN ITEMS YOU REGRET BUYING
You may follow all of these steps and still end up regretting a purchase. That’s okay! That’s life. Get into the habit of immediately returning things you don’t want anymore — instead of letting them sit in your closet where you’ll forget about them and miss the return window.
STEP 7: FIND OTHER WAYS TO FILL YOUR TIME
If you typically shop out of boredom, take all that time you’d spend window shopping and fill it with something else, like:
Browsing through books at your local library. You’ll get the same adrenaline rush as buying something new but for free.
Call up a friend to see how they’re doing. Take some extra time to check in with loved ones and nurture relationships.
Get outside and go for a walk. Visit a nearby park or walk around a new neighborhood. See what new discoveries you can find for free.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We live in a consumerist society where we’re praised for the things we have — nice clothes, a fancy car, the latest tech. We’re never praised for spending mindfully. For choosing to save. For saying “no” to purchases that don’t light us up inside.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to step back and put safeguards in place to spend more mindfully. You can do it. You do have what it takes to curb emotional spending and start buying more mindfully. I believe in you.
At SHE CAN WORK, we’re a subscription-based, online wealth building and management school that helps women achieve all their financial goals. If you’d like help building your financial legacy, sign up to stay in touch with. Classes start January 2022 and will cover everything from basics like budgeting and money mindset to more advanced topics like investing and estate planning.
Cassidy Horton is a freelance personal finance copywriter
at cassidyhorton.com. She also runs her own personal finance blog at getontrackfinancially.com. She's a bonafide adventurer, cat lover, and money nerd who's passionate about helping people find financial freedom. When she's not sitting at her computer desk, you can find her hiking around the Pacific Northwest.