How to Go on a Financial Detox

Photo: Jhayne

You've probably heard the term "cleanse" or "detox" in reference to physical health. "Detoxification" originally referred to the process that drug addicts go through when experiencing withdrawals associated with severe addiction. The concept of "detoxing" has taken on less severe connotations in recent years, but still involves the same basic principle — removing toxins from the body so as to attain a healthier state. The most basic “detoxes” or “cleanses” are pretty simple. Some people stop eating processed foods. Some people might go as far as fasting for a couple of days (or longer), others take expensive fiber capsules to “flush” out their system, and the most fanatical might combine all of these with a trip to the sweat lodge and a good high colonic. The principle is obvious — add clean fluids to the system so as to push toxin-laden systems out.

I’m not dissing detox — I think that a well-controlled body cleanse can be good, if managed carefully. But there are plenty of websites to guide you through an intestinal cleansing — what if your biggest problem is not your clogged colon, but your hemorrhaging bank account? Then you’ve got a different kind of toxin — toxic spending. (See also: 37 Savings Changes You Can Make Today)

Toxic Spending

Toxic spending is spending that you can’t control (and as a rule, spending that you can’t afford).

Roughly 90% of detoxing involves preventing new toxins from entering your system. Whether your detoxing from heroin, nicotine, or caffeine, the first step is to stop the toxins from re-entering your body. Flushing toxins from your body is an important step in detoxing, but it’s pointless if you don’t plan on preventing toxins from re-appearing.

The same can be said of a spending detox — the majority of the cleansing process is learning to stop stupid spending behavior from reoccurring. Toxic spending must be reduced, or even stopped altogether.

A spending detox is all about prevention, planning, and learning to let some things slide.

Locating Unidentified Toxins

When you embark on a bodily detox, you probably already familiar with the majority of the toxins that are making you feel sluggish — because you probably put them in your system knowingly. You know you aren’t supposed to smoke, and you’re aware that five cups of coffee per day might be a bit much. You know that you will feel better if you take it a little easier on the martinis.

But there are also toxins in your system that you can’t identify — and you may never know that they are there. Free radicals, pollutants from the environment, beauty products, and chemicals coating our foods; we may feel the effects of these toxins, but we’re not necessarily aware of their specific presence.

The same goes for toxic spending — there’s the spending you know, and the spending you don’t even realize is taking place. If you frequently find yourself staring at a negative checking balance and can’t figure out how you got there, then you’re probably facing an unknown toxic purchase or two.

How do you find the hidden toxins in your spending? Simple — you examine your bills and bank accounts in great detail. If you receive paper bills, go over them with a highlighter and a fine-toothed comb… OK, just a highlighter. Mark any purchase or charge that you see that you don’t recognize and investigate. There should be a phone number associated with purchases made online — call and find out what the heck it is that you bought.

On utility bills, look for hidden fees or charges that you don’t recognize. Cell phone companies are always trying to add new services to your account without your permission, and we all know how major banks are trying to figure out ways to charge you for things that used to be free — you know, like checking accounts themselves.

If you use online banking, export the last three months of your checking account ledger into a spreadsheet. Sort by transaction name/type, and then delete extraneous information. I do this on a semi-regular basis because I have never seen a bank that is willing to present most of my purchases in an easily examined format online. My bank, for instance, only displays the last 30 purchases made — since I make almost all of my purchases with a debit card, this means that I only see about five days at a time and have to keep clicking NEXT to see purchases made before that. A spreadsheet allows me to sort and track ALL monthly expenditures, which is how I find out when a software vendor charged me a monthly maintenance fee for a product I don’t use or my bank tacks new fees onto my account without notifying me.

Once you’ve found unknown expenses and dealt with them, you will still need to monitor your accounts to ensure that they don’t reappear.

Admitting to Known Toxins

Most of your toxic spending should already be familiar to you, because it’s something that you do regularly, impulsively, or both.

When it comes to performing a physical detoxification, there are certain toxins that are physically addictive and thus difficult to quit. This is because the chemical reaction between your brain and these chemical makes your brain want more, and drives your behavior by making you crave the toxin (or at least, the package the toxin comes in) and rewarding you for providing the toxin.

Impulsive spending can function like a physical addiction, actually creating similar chemical reactions in your body — flooding your brain with dopamine and endorphins when you buy a new pair of shoes, for instance. Feeling good when you buy something isn’t a bad thing — unless you can’t afford to buy that new pair of shoes, or SUV, or flat screen television.

There are other spending habits that cause pleasure in the brain, not so much because of the purchase itself, but because of the culture surrounding the purchase. Getting a $4 coffee drink halfway through the morning at Starbucks with your coworkers, for instance. It’s not so much that you enjoy the spending; it’s that you enjoy the environment in which the spending takes place and would feel badly about not participating. This is social spending, and while it may not result in obscene amounts of debt, it can certainly cut into potential retirement savings.

There are other types of toxic habitual spending that aren’t necessarily social, but that are equally damaging to your bottom line — like dining out because you don’t have time to cook. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner (or all three meals) that you can’t find time to prepare, dining out is a significant drain on the wallet. Every time you dine out or order in, you’re not just paying for food, but for labor. Of course, that’s half of the appeal with take-out food — you don’t have to do the dishes. But the increased cost rapidly adds up.

I'm not referring to occasional splurges on dinner, or even constant splurging on dinner — if you can afford it. What I am referring to is uncontrolled habitual spending. It’s damaging to your financial health in the same way that environment toxins and drugs are damaging to your physical health. It's toxic because it keeps you from ever finding financial security.

Short-Term Cleanse

Once you’ve identified the poisons that are making your bank account sluggish, you have to change the behaviors that lead to the toxic spending. Just like a physical detox, you might have to make some serious behavioral adjustments, change some long-held habits, and even change some social relationships. Abrupt lifestyle and spending changes are easier to handle when you know that the change is temporary. As an experiment, try a toxic spending cleanse for a fixed period of time, and see how much money you save and how you feel.

Go Cold Turkey

Like quitting any number of other addictive behaviors, toxic spending habits can be stopped by drastic measures — going cold turkey. The key here is to know that the stoppage is temporary. You’re going to stop dining out, stop getting weekly manicures, stop going on spending sprees at Target — for a month. One month. You can do this.

Make an Announcement

If the spending changes that you need to make actually bite into your social life, it can be good to give friends, family, and coworkers a heads-up. You don’t have to go into great detail or divulge the totality of your debt, but you might want to make a couple of phone calls, or send out a few emails, and tell people why you need to take a break from trivia night, Chinese Food Fridays, or shopping with the girls. Simple and honest explanations, like trying to really reign in spending, or hoping to cut back on unnecessary calories, are usually accepted.

Avoid Your Triggers

Uncontrollable spending usually has some sort of catalyst that triggers the impulsive behavior.

Make It Harder to Spend

Do you use your credit card too much? Put that puppy where you won’t use it. Online shopping addict? Delete all of your credit and debit card info from your PayPal account. Eliminate the ease of spending money, which will make you think twice when you see something on that you just HAVE TO HAVE. Temporarily suspend your daily online deals subscriptions, like Groupon and LivingSocial. Don't put temptation right in front of you.

Avoid Manipulative Media

Personally, I can't read a women's magazine without immediately running out and shopping immediately after. Some TV shows, like Mad Men, also trigger some strange spending reflex in me — I WANT to be stylish; I NEED to be pretty. When I quit reading women's magazines a few years ago, I got my impulse shopping under control. If you stay up late watching infomercials and end up buying one unnecessary blender after another, trade in your late night TV for a really good novel instead.

Reward Yourself in Other Ways

Doing good by yourself shouldn't be agonizing, even if it is challenging at first. It's OK to give yourself treats — a fro-yo after a week of dining in every night, or a night at home with a good DVD and a glass of red wine (instead of a full-price movie ticket), after you've avoided H&M for seven straight days. Remember, if you're an impulse shopper, you are denying your brain the addictive high that it gets from shopping, so it's not a sin to provide it with other ways to be happy. Just be careful not to replace one addiction with another.

See What You’ve Accomplished

At the end of one month, look at your bank account — are you shocked by how easily bills have been paid? Do you have more money leftover than you thought possible, given your salary? If not, you can try a deeper spending detox. If so, you have a couple of choices — return to business as usual, or alter your future behavior to make your detox permanent.

Long-Term Spending Detox

Once you’ve seen what you can manage in a month, try seeing how many of your behavioral changes can be incorporated into your lifestyle in the long run.

Assess Relationships

There are plenty of relationships that are as toxic as a drug. Do you have friends or family who make you feel like you need to spend money, either on yourself or on them, in order to be loved or accepted? Whether the pressure is truly external or imagined, the relationship needs to change in some way — you need to assess why you feel the need to behave in a financially irresponsible way when around such people. Decide if any changes you can make to the relationship, or your perception of it, will fix the issue.

Simplify/Plan Ahead/Collaborate

Some of the worst spending habits are caused by time-management issues — it’s not that we WANT to order take-out every night, it’s that it’s darn near impossible to get up early enough to care for family, pets, and ourselves while still finding time to shop, cook, and clean.

This is where teamwork and planning come into play. Take the free time that you have (and you probably have some, and you probably spend it watching TV, so pick one evening of the week and don’t watch TV, OK?) and plan your meals for the week. This doesn’t have to be an exact science — just allow yourself the extra time to put together meals that provide leftovers. Leftovers are the key to packing your own lunch. Who has time to make a sandwich in the morning? Not me. But taking a Tupperware container from the fridge? That’s just seconds of my time.

If you live with family or roommates, try coordinating a trade-off in cooking duties every week. This might not work in every instance, but if it does, it can reduce the amount of time, and pressure, that is put on you to create healthy meals every week.

What about those nights out with peers? If you think that your friends or colleagues might want to follow the same detoxifying route, you can propose a group change — maybe you and your work buddies can pack lunch every day and eat in the lunchroom together, rather than ordering teriyaki. Perhaps your girlfriends would enjoy hanging out and watching a movie at your house while enjoying home manicures — it may sound hokey, but you’d be surprised how many of your friends are probably struggling with finances as well.

Don’t be hurt if people continue on as before without you, though — just because everyone still meets up at the bar on Friday night doesn’t mean that they don’t value your friendship.

Analyze and Prioritize

Sometimes we form toxic spending habits simply because we believe in the necessity of the habit. Often, the habit itself can seem like a smart choice — like regular salon appointments. You’ve been told that regular haircuts (and updated color, and styles) are good for the health of your hair, and even your social life. But are they? That depends — does anyone really care about your hair? As long as it is clean and brushed and not falling in your eyes, does it matter if the style isn't avant garde?

If a seemingly "necessary" spending habit becomes unaffordable, you need to decide if your habits' frequencies, or cost, can be reduced. Can you get by with going to the stylist once every other month? Can you find a stylist who charges less? Can you join a gym that doesn’t cost $99 a month? Or skip the gym and work out at home?

Funnel Your Savings Somewhere Safe

It can be incredibly easy to fall back into old habits, especially once you have built up a buffer in your checking account — suddenly, you realize that you can go on more than one shopping spree! And before you know it, your checking account is back down to zero. To prevent this (and trust me, if you have a shopping addiction, you'll want to take this step), set that extra money somewhere that makes it tough to get to. You don't have to put it in an IRA or a CD, although you certainly could. But at least stash it in a free savings account that isn't connected to any of your credit or debit cards.

Detoxing isn't just about getting rid of bad spending behaviors — you have to keep from forming new ones. Any time you find yourself guilty staring at a bank statement and realizing that you've spent yourself into a hole, you can try a spending detox to see if you can regain financial balance.

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How to Go on a Financial Detox

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Guest's picture

I love this analogy! Over the years I've met so many people who need to detox their expenses....or at least follow your advice and at least go through them thoroughly. If they'd just do it once it would be such an eye opener.

Guest's picture

Credit card could be like haeven if you can control it.
Otherwise you will suffer because of high interest rates.
So be careful.

Andrea Karim's picture

High interest rates, late fees - it all adds up!

Guest's picture

The best way I've found to examine spending is to use You can categorize each transaction and it will email you if you approach/go over your budget. It is a livesaver!

Andrea Karim's picture

Yes, in addition to Mint, there are credit cards that help track the different ways you spend your money by categorizing expenditures. I've found that I do a pretty decent job sussing it out on my own (also, my current bank accounts don't work with But it's a great (free!) program, so well worth looking at.

Guest's picture

Love the comparison, both your health and finances are very important! A good detox, for either, should help you get back on track. Since I've nixed my bad money habits, I tend to thoroughly look at my fiances twice a year. Once at the end of the year and once in the spring. I do weekly check up as well just to make sure I'm on track with my budget.

Guest's picture


Great job on the article. It's important to figure out where the root of your debt/spending problems are coming from. We're all told what's "acceptable" in society, especially how you used the example of going to a salon every month to get a haircut.