Knowing Your Triggers Can Prevent Emotional Spending
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.
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.