Frugal is more than a way to spend money, Part III


I know that emotional health leads to financial health first and foremost in my own life.

On one level, it's pretty straight-forward. When I'm tired, frustrated, angry, sad, or trying not to feel any of these, it's a lot harder to give a damn about my budget. When I'm caring for myself, getting enough sleep, dealing with my emotions or the people and situations that bring them in, then it's a lot easier to care about when and where I spend my money.

When I'm upset, it used to feel like my money spent itself, like I didn't have control over it. It was like there was an appetite inside of me that wanted to spend more, that thought that something empty will be filled if I simply bought more things. I'm lucky — I haven't gone totally out of control with this. But I do see the habits in myself and feel the urges, and know that there's something to all the talk about emotional spending.

I also see this in the lives of people I know. How many times have I tried to distract an upset friend with the words, "Do you want to go shopping?" or "I think there's a shoe sale at Target." In all honesty, it usually works. 

Many before me have seen this trend, and have talked at length about practical ways to deal with emotional spending: how to avoid it, or get around it, or talk yourself into doing something else when the urge hits, so I'm not going to go into depth on it here.

A Deeper Problem

What I do want to talk about in more depth is this: The more happy and secure I am with myself and my life, the easier it will be for me to maintain financial health. The reason that the negative emotions set me off is that they undermine my security. They show me that my life isn't as safe and protected as I had thought it was, and that little things can still get in. They make me doubt myself and the life I've built, or the people I've chosen to have around me, or the things I've always found fulfilling.

Good Beliefs

However, the reason I've never gone out of control is that I know those feelings aren't the end. Even when things are bad, I have several beliefs that help me when I want to spend.

  1. I believe that things can turn around.
  2. I believe that I can get more sleep, or that I can do something with my emotions other than spend money.
  3. Above and beyond anything, I believe that buying things or living like I have more money than I do isn't the answer. It isn't going to make me feel better in the moment, and it's going to cause me more problems in the long run.

These beliefs allow me to walk off the urge to spend. They allow me to sit down and figure out what is really going on with me, when the urges come to buy and buy and buy. They give me the space to separate my financial decisions from my emotional state, and thus spend intentionally even when I'm upset.

Bad Beliefs

I highlight these beliefs because I didn't always have them. I used to find myself spending (or wanting to spend!) money on things I didn't really care about, and not know why I wanted to do that. It was as I became an adult internally as well as externally that the beliefs became conscious and I was able to see what I had believed before.

  1. I had believed that whatever I was experiencing in the moment was going to continue.
  2. I had believed that I couldn't change my emotional state, so I might as well spend money and see if that helped.
  3. I had believed that maybe, just maybe, buying things would soothe what I was feeling inside.

These beliefs caused me to want spend when I was tired or upset, without thinking about my purchases or their cost.

The End

I didn't ever approach the bad beliefs head-on until a bit later in my emotional journey. When I did, I realized that the good beliefs weren't directly connected to money, they were connected to my confidence, happiness with my life, and security in myself and my choices. To grow financially, I had to grow in all of those areas first, before I could even begin to look directly at the weird urges to spend that I felt when things were "off" inside of me.

Do I still feel those urges? Yes, and I probably always will. Do I act on them? Not usually, and when I do, it's not in any major sort of way. I usually feel the urges, and use them as signs that there's something else going on in me.

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Will Chen's picture

"I had believed that I couldn't change my emotional state, so I might as well spend money and see if that helped."

I am very guilty of doing this in my life.  Whenever I get depressed, I feel like I don't have control over my life.  I get the urge to spend money with the insane belief that somehow that will make me feel better.

A lot of that comes from the consumption-driven society we live in.  Our culture has programmed us to believe that you self worth is determined by what kind of car you drive or the brand of watch you wear.  In the end, none of those things make you happy.  They might actually just make you go into debt.  And when that happens, you end up buying more stuff you don't need because being in debt has made you even more depressed.  

And the cycle continues....

Great piece Sarah. I love this article!

Sarah Winfrey's picture

That's so true!  Money and how we spend it are so cultural.  I have thought about doing a piece on that, but it's not quite to the point where I can write it yet.

Guest's picture

I used to always reward myself with a shopping spree on my credit card whenever I'd had a particularly tough week at work, etc. I soon realized that the bill I received at the end of the month made me feel 10x worse. Now, I still go shopping for clothes every weekend, and buy as much stuff as I want to... however, it's at Goodwill now. So I get to spend some money on myself and feel like I'm giving myself a treat or a reward, but the most I've ever spent was $25, for about ten pieces of clothing (they do a 1/2 price sale every other Saturday here). In a way it's a have your cake and eat it too situation. It doesn't help the whole materialistic society thinking, I-am-what-I-wear attitude, but at least I have a much more interesting wardrobe for it. This is not for everyone, just for those that love a treasure hunt.


Sarah Winfrey's picture

I haven't been to a goodwill in years, but I did just move within easy walking distance of our local Savers (The Thrift Department Store).  If I ever make it over there, I'll be sure to post on what I find!

Kudos on the eclectic wardrobe, Kris!