Knowing Your Triggers Can Prevent Emotional Spending

By Andrea Karim on 16 July 2008 (Updated 28 July 2008) 20 comments
Photo: Eat Money

To save money, I quit reading women's magazines a couple of years ago. I don't save money by not paying newsstand price for a magazine, or even the subscription price (which is usually pretty cheap). I stopped reading fashion magazines because they are my worst and most fast-acting triggers for emotional spending.

I cannot flip through an issue of Vogue without immediately rushing out and purchasing a variety of face creams, body-slimming shapewear, or shoes. All it takes is a few minutes of perusing the articles and ads (definitely more ads than articles) to push my Need to Buy button.

Just doing their jobs

In a sense, this means that these magazines are incredibly successful. They exist solely to get you to buy stuff. There are few magazines aimed at women today that targets anything other than your pursestrings. The ads are obviously meant to inspire you to buy products, but so are the fashion spreads. Hell, so are the articles. The beauty advice. The health columns. Save the occasional "serious" piece about victims of landmines or female soldiers in Sri Lanka, women's magazines are essentially one giant advertisement with one simple message: you aren't good enough, but if you buy this, you'll be almost good enough.

Some magazines are very open about it. Lucky Magazine, for instance, eschews high-fashion or couture spreads for simply charted pages just chock full of season "must haves". Half the time, they don't even bother with models - they just photograph the clothing and shoes and accessories against a white background and list the price and where you can buy it. Other magazines are more insidious in their approach. From airbrushed models with flawless skin and too-tiny limbs, between product pitches in the most unlikely of places, notions of female beauty and personal worth are incredibly skewed in woman-oriented media that it's amazing we buy into it at all. Really, if you think about it, it's almost like an abusive relationship. Magazines promote an idea of loveliness that is unattainable (and also, frequently, rather freakish), all the while promising you that if you just try a little harder, and buy a little more, you just might be beautiful enough.

For me, ingesting the content of these rags is like a so-called gateway drug. Oh, sure, I derive some pleasure from reading, say, British Vogue. I won't lie - I LOVE fashion. I love the collections, I love the artistry, I love the crazy make-up and the pageantry. But the joy is short-lived and quickly followed by the need for a hit of something stronger, like say, a massive shopping spree in the Nordstrom shoe department. Or a pricey facial and haircut. Or a mani-pedi and some spendy bronzer (because tans make you appear slimmer! and hide cellulite!).

And just like a hit from the proverbial crack pipe, irresponsible and non-essential spending damages me. It takes away money that I could use to buy something that I really need, or even something that I want but haven't saved up for - such as an XBox or a nice couch. It racks up credit card debt that I don't have the money to pay down in a timely manner. The spending itself gives me only a momentary high, a fleeting sense of self-worth, before I'm faced with the fact that I haven't fixed any actual problems that plague me.

The fact that I have a similar reaction to reading home decorating magazines ("God, my living room is so blah! I guess I have to paint it and replace the furniture! Again!") obviously speaks deeply to my sense of inadequacy in all things appearance-related. The strange thing is that I don't generally feel particularly ugly, nor do I hate my abode. Sure, I could lose a few pounds and I'm not crazy about my haircut right now, but I don't feel particularly hideous until I stare for a couple of hours at, say, Cosmopolitan, and I suddenly feel very, very bad about having visible pores and thighs that are larger than my forearms.

(By the way, I do know that there are a few magazines out there that are radically different from mainstream fashion and gossip magazines, with more informational articles and a wealth of fun, positive, and honest info about women's issues. In fact, a variety of blogs have stepped up to fill the void of fashion analysis with well-written, thoughtful, and funny writing - to say nothing of some of the great discussions that occur between faithful readers in the comments section. This is how I get my fashion fix without falling into the magazine trap.) 

For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction

I won't go entirely Naomi Wolf on y'all, because although I personally can't read Vogue (or watch Sex In The City) without desperately wanting to spend, spend, spend, I'm aware that not everyone reacts in the same way. I have friends who devour women's magazines with a sense of zest, and feel inspired by the images rather than downtrodden and deprived. However, for every action, there's a reaction, and nearly all destructive behavior has a trigger.

In this way, emotional spending is very much like an eating disorder. I don't say this lightly, and I'm not intending to downplay the danger of a serious disorder such as anorexia. Financial ruin is a big damn deal, but still not as serious as starving to death. However, the mechanism that triggers self-destructive behavior is similar, and it rests deep in a well of negative self-esteem.

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People who are treated for eating disorders are taught to avoid the triggers that invoke their self-destructive eating habits, and the same advice can be applied to learning how to control your spending.

Sometimes, triggers are incredibly specific, unavoidable, and painful, like the death of a loved one or stress on the job. The point is that self-destructive behavior is largely brought on by feelings of inadequacy or loss. When we feel like we have less, we are spurred on to gain a sense of having "more", even if that "more" is something very minor. It's the kind of mentality that can frequently lead people who don't have much money to acquire tons of junk, just so they can feel like they have "stuff".

Do you have a trigger?

It can be hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that causes you to spend like there's no tomorrow. For me, it took a while to connect my exposure to high-fashion print media to my spending sprees. Another trigger is window shopping. Oh, I can go look at pretty things for hours, but if I'm going to be constantly exposed to pretty things that I can't afford, I will be very likely to go out and purchase something to make me feel better about it later.

In fact, I have a fashionista friend who I simply cannot go shopping with. She's funny, smart, and vivacious, but she loves spending money and loves being around people who are spending money. When we go out, I make a point to avoid retail areas. If I end up in any kind of store with her, she infects me with all kinds of shopping viruses, and before I know it, I've bought something I really don't need. She never asks me along to make me feel bad, but rather to seek my opinion on items that she has already scouted out and is considering for purchase. That she values my opinion on sartorial choices is really quite flattering, and I feel like a total jerk for finding ways to weasel around going shopping.

I'm sure that there are people who believe I should explain to her that I have trouble tagging along with her on shopping trips, but in a way, I'd rather just not approach her spending as a topic. She happens to have enough disposable income to do with as she likes, and I don't want to create any awkward feelings by telling her that watching her buy a $200 pair of high heels triggers my repressed spending bug. So, my response is simply to schedule times together where we hang out at each other's homes or in restaurants that are not right next door to a Barney's.

Some people might argue that you simply need to 'grow up' or 'get over' your emotional responses to these triggers, and I think it's an admirable goal to develop ways of dealing with the emotions. But I also believe that there is some value in deciding when these triggers are worthy of being removed from your life altogether. In my case, it's easy to avoid window shopping, and no one forces fashion magazines down my throat. I'm able to get my fashion fix online, and I feel fine with that workaround. Sometimes, you may need to choose to end a relationship with someone who brings you stress and grief, be it a friend or a family member.

A family friend who has suffered from bulimia her whole adult life finally severed ties with her mother, a woman with some severe emotional problems of her own and the main trigger for my friend's boughts with emotional eating. Linsey's post about moving away from The Joneses made me realize that many people prefer to deal with those kinds of feeling by removing themselves from a situation or activity that they know affects their ability to make sound judgments.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Congrats on both your level of self-awareness and your honesty in sharing your triggers. You're certainly not alone, but a lot more people are still in denial and rationalization. Whether it's fashion, family, work, eating, drinking or watever that is their trigger.

Emotional triggers do exist and you're smart enough and wise enough to not let yourself start up a cycle by removing yourself from a source. (Just like those with eating problems, there is no such thing as ONE chocolate, so they have to stop eating them. Period. You went cold turkey with fashion stimuli.)

I disagree a bit about women's magazines (perhaps you were only referring to fashion mags). I don't think they "exist" just to sell stuff. However, they do need advertising to pay for the publishing.

I think you may need to be careful about switching to the online world. You can easily get hooked on online shopping, as many people have.

Finally, it's not always about self esteem. But often about getting caught up in the society's "gotta have it" mentality.

Which exists and is certainly fueled by all types of media.

I have some very financially prudent friends who are extremely self confident and centered. They don't really have problems avoiding buying binges and staying focused on their big $$ goals. They feel loved and secure and they don't need "stuff." Of any kind.

They don't feel deprived or "less than" when they don't buy the latest clothes, electronics or don't eat out at expensive restaurants or take super luxury getaway trips.

They KNOW they are not their stuff.

And they don't need to take care of themselves by over-spending. Their enjoyment of life, not stuff, is their reward.

When your life is emotionally stable, stuff just doesn't have the same lure, even when you love clothes, jewelry, whatever.

Thanks for an article that asks people to stop, think and then, choose what is really best for their long-term financial security.

Wish there had been more of this type of material when I was in my 20s and 30s. I might have saved a lot more!

Guest's picture

Great article. Marketing is pure evil, in my book.

I've made the point to friends that magazine advertising such as you describe here - as well as tv advertising - costs so much precisely because it works. It may work overtly, as it seems to do with you. Or it may work subliminally, raising one's overall level of covetousness about stuff in general. But work it does. Marketers don't pay for fancy and costly ad campaigns because they have nothing better to do. They do it because it make them money. And it makes them money because people exposed to advertising spend more money.

Most people I've had this discussion with have argued that while that may be true in principle, *they* aren't susceptible to advertising. I call BS. And I commend you for your honesty.

I gave up on TV and publications with ads because I knew myself to be in the same boat as you. But I have some good news to share. Fifteen years after giving up tv and glossy mags, I am now thoroughly repelled by and impervious to marketing. On the rare occasions I'm exposed to advertising, I have a weird sense of cultural alienation, as if I'm an anthropologist visiting a very strange society. I think it's a lot like shifting to a healthy diet after years of eating badly. A while after having made a change, the cravings just fade. Wholesome food is now genuinely appreciated and you wonder how you could ever have found that junk you ate before appealing.

So hang in there. If you cut that stuff out of your life, eventually you will probably reach a point of total indifference to it.

Guest's picture
K. P.

I don't know if it is evil. Just learn discipline. That is the magic word in martial arts and shopping and spending money. We have to learn to use it.

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

I agree that people are less susceptible to wild spending when their lives are emotionally fulfilling and stable, in general. Alas, I'm pretty happy with my life overall - good job, loving family, great friends... and yet I really, REALLY want to buy expensive shoes.

Online spending has always been a problem for me, but I don't frequent sites that link to clothing sales - rather, I like to read slightly snarky analysis of high fashion events through the New York Times, or blogs like Jezebel or Go Fug Yourself. I'm also quite taken with The Sartorialist's photos, although his writing certainly lacks a certain something. I think I enjoy the discussion of fashion as much as the fashion itself, and discussion is not fostered by traditional print magazines. In a magazine, style is dictated to you. Online, I feel like I'm participating in interesting debates about clothing (and yes, it's just clothing, but for many people, it's a way of expressing personal creativity) and gaining a much broader range of inspiration.

Shopping online is a problem for me, but that's because of eBay.

Guest's picture
Sam

When shopping I keep the following in mind:

* Have a budget made up and don't spend over this amount.
* Have a list of items that you intend to buy and stick to it.
* Be wary of enticements like red-hot specials where an item is advertised in the store as reduced for the next 5 minutes or telemarketers saying that if you buy a product or service during this call they will include something else for free.
* Compare prices between sellers. You may find that someone is selling an item at 10% off and another seller is selling the same thing at a lower price and they're not having a sale.
* Compare items for price and quality.
* Examine the goods carefully. Are they exactly what you want. Sometimes packaging can mislead you about the actual quantity supplied.
* Keep all receipts.
* Check out the warranty.

Hope this helps!
Sam

Guest's picture

I congratulate you on your honesty.

I too have difficulty NOT buying Vogue and such, as I'm addicted to the quality of photography and artistry of clothes usually depicted. I too am compelled to get myself a new (cheap) handbag after leafing through an issue.
However I do not feel bad since I try to buy the mags only on season changes (april and september) and a couple of new hanndbags or shoes i do think i deserve despite my extremely frugal ways elsewhere, Go Andrea go!

Guest's picture

Great article...this one really hit home for me. When I'm sad and bored I shop. Even if I walk only two blocks to the store to buy a magazine, it's still emotional spending. I think one of my triggers is definitely bad weather. If I can't be outside playing sports or enjoying the sunshine, I don't know what to do with myself. Often, it results in shopping for a book, a new pair of shoes, or whatever I might come across. It's terrible...I know! But at least we're not alone. And putting the focus on the trigger is a very good idea. I will start working on ideas for things to do on rainy days that don't involve shopping.

All the best,
http://pushingthirtymydebtdeadline.blogspot.com/

Guest's picture

My trigger is food. Not that I eat a lot and am overweight but I LOOOVE to eat out at dinners and lunch with friends and my girlfriend. It can be hard for me to not spend all of my weekly income on food. Great post by the way, I am loving your content

Guest's picture
Susan

Enjoyed your blog and after another pay cut-need to read this daily.

One thing that has helped me is promoting my passion-empowering girls (www.PrincessBubble.com) whenever I have a little extra time

I used to spend that spare time in Target or TJmaxx and always found things I did not need.

Impacting others last way longer than another kick knack!

Susan

Guest's picture
DivaJean

My triggers are kid related. I could care less about clothes, shoes, or purses for myself- what about the children?!? I know my kids wishes and plan ahead for Xmas months ahead, squirreling away the perfect gifts. And sometimes, forgetting I even had them. No more. I began a spread sheet with kids, costs, and items bought. And I found a centralized hiding place.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

Another strategy is to not be afraid to return things after a slip-up. I've finally done this a couple of times. It doesn't work if you have the habit of removing price tags the second you get home, so I try to think twice before I do that now.

My main trigger these days is work stress, which makes me "deserve" delicious expensive junk food and lots of it. I fight it somewhat by bringing snacks and lunch to work. And I'm getting less and less picky in my job hunt.

Browsing in stores is a smaller trigger, but now I keep a list of specific things I'm looking for (such as a blouse to go with my blue polka-dot skirt for dancing in). I at least start my browsing in areas that might have the things on my list. I also use the "pretend it's a museum" strategy - I can enjoy looking at things and greatly appreciate them without actually buying them. Before we leave a store, my boyfriend and I show each other our favorite finds (sharing is fun!) and then usually leave without buying them.

I really admire people who can admit weaknesses and work with them. Like my friend who never went to the gym because she could always go tomorrow - she switched to a three-times-a-week plan; now she can't always go tomorrow! And my friend who has a savings account in a far away bank with only one branch and also used to buy savings bonds and take them out and admire the nice stack to help keep her from overspending. (That was back when you could get paper copies and when you didn't have to keep them so long to avoid penalties.)

Andrea Karim's picture

Kudos to the comment ideas! Some people just acknowledge their lack of discipline and find a work-around. It's something that I can live with.

Debbie, you bring up a really good point about feeling like we "deserve" something when we're having rough time. I certainly don't begrudge a kid a small bowl of ice cream or an extra half hour of TV if they fell and skinned both knees up, but there's something sad about entering adulthood and using food and shopping to 'cope' with bad days. I'm as guilty of it as anyone else, and I'm trying to find ways to reshape my thinking so that I can avoid a bag of Doritos after a nasty issue with a software build hits me between the eyes.

Guest's picture
expat

I try to avoid those triggers lock, stock & barrel... Which is pretty much how I was able to give up my true vice, instant gratification tickets, I mean, instant lottery tickets. I stay away from convenience stores almost entirely, and I keep very little cash on hand. If I need a convenience item I'll run into a Walgreens or CVS if the supermarket isn't nearby.

Guest's picture

I have managed to become addicted to saving. I know, it's crazy, but when I get a pay check or extra money, the first thing I think is, "how can I save some of this?"

The main thing that gets me though is food. Particularity restaurants. If I see them I want to go. If I see a commercial, it makes me want to go. At the grocery store... well you get the idea. Images of food are my triggers.

I do not think of myself as an over eater, just an expensive eater. I like to go to nice places, buy organic healthy food. I have found that by making a grocery list, my wife and I can spend less at the grocery store, and since we plan our meals, we dont go out to eat as often.

Guest's picture
Guest

I prefer reading "Men's Health" or "Esquire" because they do not contribute to my inferiority complex the way women's magazines do.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

As a consumer who is trying to be responsible, it's difficult when the temptation to spend your money is encouraged by the government. After all, what did our administration call for after 9/11? Go shopping! Rack up some debt and spend your tax refund at the mall, even if it requires taking out a second mortgage.

And women's mags are only the tip of the iceberg.

We have owned our house for a year now and I'm simply blown away at the number of avenues that a homeowner can spend their money. The amount of stuff out there is amazing. How many toilets (with names like Memoirs and Soiree) can a person look at?

In the consumer obsessed world that we live in, it's hard to avoid the message to consume during any waking moment. I feel it when I walk into a friend's home and see all the cool stuff they've bought for their house. 

And if you watch TV, forget about it. When you consider the massive market for kids toys and stuff, which I assume is not perpetuated via women's magazines, then there is only one avenue by which their message is relayed, and that's TV. It would therefore seem that print media is only part of the problem, since beautiful men and women are the norm on the tube.

Nice insight on your piece, Andrea. I think it speaks to everyone, even those who claim to be immune to it all.

Jason White's picture

I stopped taking a Sunday paper for this very reason!  What little I was saving in coupons was offset by the dozens of store inserts flashing the latest tech gadgets, clothing and more.  I have a lot of will-power, but no sense going out of my way to test it!

Guest's picture
Guest

Thanks so much for this post. I have slowly been cutting back on my subscriptions for this reason. I do love fashion and fashion magazines. I have also been perusing more fashion blogs for this very reason. I agree that they foster more creativity than the magazines, which is my goal, to be more creative in my style. My favorite magazine is Lucky, but it is an awful trigger for me. It has been very hard to give up, but for my sanity, and finances, I think it is the best thing to do.

I also can not window shop, I've tried and then end up in the store next day buying. This has been difficult for me but I am determined to get it under control! Thanks again for the inspiring post!!

Guest's picture
Suz

This is such an important issue to me, I'm always warring with my 'triggers' against buying things I don't want/need. Thank you so much for the suggestions and pointers!

-Suz

Guest's picture
Sab

A lot of the triggers are external. In my case, it's hard to be around 20-something year old friends who still live with their parents and have a lot of disposable income. They have new Apple gadgets on occasion, take cabs instead of the train and eat out all the time.

While it's tempting to keep up with friends, it's important to acknowledge that my lifestyle is different from theirs. I've moved out and pay bills every month - therefore, my priorities are different. It's difficult to say no to an invitation to dinner or a movie, but sometimes it's necessary.

It's shocking to me, though, when a friend who makes a lot of money and lives a luxurious lifestyle (takes trips out of the country, drives an SUV) suddenly announces that she owes a hundred thousand in credit card debt. This only means that friends and family members who seem financially carefree/well-off may actually have little money saved up or are in huge debt - so don't let their poor money management skills dent your bank account by trying to keep up with them.