How I Broke the Cycle of Emotional Spending

Rachel Gideon
Jan 12 · 9 min read
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

From confronting my demons to finding a support system and a few healthy hobbies, here’s how I got control of my mental and financial health — once and for all.

Beginning in my teens and stretching through college, I got in the habit of buying things left and right, sometimes for no other reason than to make me happy in the moment. Because of how gradually my habit formed and intensified, it took years for me to realize just how damaging the practice was to my mental and financial health.

A few months into my first job out of college, I came to realize just how unsustainable my spending habits had become. In fact, I was spending more money than ever in order to cope with what had become an absolutely toxic work environment. Rather than call the toxic job what it was, plan my exit, and take that minor setback in my career as an opportunity to do some much-needed soul searching, I instead leaned heavily on retail therapy to justify my miserable new position to myself.

In a sense, I’m thankful to my toxic job for exposing just how much I relied on spending money to numb my emotional pain. Without such prolonged stress, I likely would have never addressed my bad habit head on. Here’s how I went from living paycheck to paycheck to saving 60% of my income on an entry-level salary.

I kept a journal of each purchase

While I knew that I generally spent money to cheer myself up, I knew that I needed to know much more about the contexts in which I was choosing to spend money before I could make a plan to fully break the habit. For three months, I allowed myself to spend money as I normally would. The only catch was that I had to write openly about my emotional state leading up to the purchase, my rationale for buying each item, and how I felt immediately afterwards.

Writing openly about my spending decisions opened my eyes to just how prominently emotional consumption figured in my life, as well as how deep-rooted the habit really was. I came to realize that my emotional spending habit formed on a smaller much scale when I struggled with an eating disorder as a teen. This tendency of mine only snowballed in college when I found myself struggling to keep up with my much more accomplished peers. Finally, my toxic job at a big name tech company left me crippled with anxiety as I worked on a highly dysfunctional team. The common thread over the years was that I was relying on the aspirational nature of shopping to slake my feelings of inadequacy and stress.

No matter the underlying reasons for your emotional shopping, a critical first step is to identify and then make sure you truly understand those reasons. Journaling not only helped me to better understand the magnitude and origin of my spending problem, but it also forced me to realize that spending money was only marginally effective at making me feel better. And it only served to distract me from working through my emotions the right way.

I studied my journal entries to identify my spending triggers

By analyzing 90 days worth of entries, I found that I primarily spent money for the following reasons: to obtain social approval, to bolster my confidence, to reward myself for dealing with a bad situation, to relieve boredom, to deal with loneliness, and to feel better about my general life situation. When I looked closer at the specific situations that triggered my spending habit, I noticed that any time I saw my friends wearing new clothes, I felt the need to keep up by buying a new outfit. Whenever I felt bad about by appearance, I went out and bought some new makeup. Whenever I was stressed at work, I bought several new clothing items at a time. Whenever I was bored, I spent hours shopping sales for items that I ultimately wouldn’t ever use. And when I was sad, I would buy the first thing that even somewhat made me smile.

I formed alternate habits for when each spending trigger came up

While my journal responses and identified spending triggers overwhelmingly signaled that I wasn’t happy, before I could work on becoming happy more generally, I would first have to come up with alternate habits each time one of my triggers came up during the day. Instead of buying a new outfit whenever I felt the need to keep up with the Joneses, I donated an old article of clothing to charity. This newfound practice not only got me out of my own head, but it also reminded me just how often I’d bought clothes to keep up with trends in the past, only for those same clothes to sit in the back of my closet after being worn maybe twice if I was lucky.

Whenever I felt bad about my appearance, instead of filling my Sephora basket with makeup that rarely even made its way into my daily routine, I got in the habit of practicing a series of affirmations to remind myself of my value. Initially I struggled with this one because it felt somewhat inauthentic. I’d grown so used to being my own worst critic that loving and accepting myself as/is seemed like a radical act of rebellion. But after a few weeks, I started to believe my own words and no longer felt the urge to hoard beauty products.

When I found myself stressed at work, instead of turning to retail therapy, I started taking five minute pauses to meditate at my desk. At the end of the five minutes, I was ready to tackle the same problems with fresh eyes and no longer felt the need to buy anything. When I found myself bored, I opened my adult coloring book or went for a walk to provide myself with a viable alternative to recreational shopping. And whenever I was feeling down, I got in the habit of writing in my journal until I’d put everything on paper. Turning to my journal not only allowed me to avoid the temptation to shop, but it also forced me to actually work through my emotions for the first time in my life.

I got to the root of my underlying sadness

This step wasn’t as simple as merely asking myself why I wasn’t happy. I knew that I was anxious, lonely, and felt inadequate. But I couldn’t fully articulate why that was. On paper, I’d checked all the boxes that I’d set out for myself. So why did I still feel so aimless and unfulfilled? And why did I treat myself so poorly when I’d never held others to such exacting standards?

It wasn’t until I quit my toxic job that I began to realize just how much I’d tied my sense of self-worth to my resume matching what I thought everyone expected of me. While leaving that toxic job was absolutely the right decision, I spent over a year grappling with the immense shame I felt for doing the right thing for my personal health and wellbeing. My well-meaning friends and relatives’ ill-informed comments and insensitive questions about my career surely didn’t help.

But a few months ago, I finally decided to live my life for me, myself, and I — and nobody else. Ever since, my thoughts about my future have been filled with excitement rather than fear of failure or worries about what my old college classmates, friends, or family might say. And I’ve learned to filter out the opinions of others rather than living according to them as I once did. As a result, I’ve discovered entirely new hobbies, met the love of my life, and even started a new job.

I tested myself with a spending freeze

Once I felt confident that I could reliably turn to my alternate habits when I felt the urge to shop, I kicked off a 100-day no-spend challenge. Of course, I was still able to pay my bills and buy basic groceries. But any items that could be considered discretionary were off limits for the duration of the challenge. I then took my spending freeze a step further by writing in my journal each time I had the urge to spend money and resisted it.

While the first two weeks of my spending freeze seemed like an unduly harsh and self-inflicted punishment, I soon found myself forming new habits to punctuate my day. Instead of taking refuge in impromptu flash sales at all hours of the day, I sought out meditation, professional development opportunities, and even a little Netflix on a bad day. Before long, I noticed just how much time I’d gotten back in my week by not casually browsing my favorite retailers every day. And after a few weeks, the number of journal entries I wrote detailing the temptations I felt to shop all but disappeared.

While a total discretionary spending freeze may seem draconian to some, forcing yourself to put shopping on hold for some time, can shed much-needed light on just how much spending money affects your daily life. Better still, by embarking on an extended no-buy period, you will be forced to fill your newfound time with much more fulfilling, productive, and financially responsible pursuits. In short, a spending freeze can not only help you appreciate the true impact of your spending habit, but it can also give you the confidence to know that you don’t need to spend your hard earned cash to be happy.

I saved and invested the difference

Prior to my spending freeze, I truly believed that I needed to shop to be happy. Forcing myself to quit cold turkey for 100 days made me realize that emotional shopping, the one financial habit keeping me from reaching my financial goals, was finally under control. Newly empowered by my successful 100-day spending freeze, I decided to recast spending and saving in my life so that my old spending habits were much less likely to creep back in in a weak moment.

In order to fundamentally change my relationship with money, I read everything I could get my hands on about wealth building, long-term investing, and frugal living. After a few days, I was not only frustrated with my past self for forgoing several years of compounding in the stock market, but I was also keenly aware of the real cost of any impulse purchases made today or at any point going forward.

From there, I created a strict budget. And each month, I worked to bring down at least one major line item. For example, my first month, I focused on bringing down my housing costs. Since my lease was about to be renewed, I successfully negotiated a rent reduction and stopped cranking the AC to save several hundred dollars a month on a recurring basis. The next month, I shopped around for better car insurance and lowered my grocery bill to just under $100 a month.

With each passing month, I became more and more fond of my frugal lifestyle. And as the recurring savings found their way into my retirement account every month, I found myself making big plans for my future. For the first time, I felt entirely in control of and satisfied with my life. And I owe much of that to getting my finances in order.

I sought out like-minded people and started helping others

As I transitioned from compulsive shopper to aggressive saver, I noticed that I no longer had as much in common with some of my friends as I once thought. I started to notice that my shopping and brunch friends and I no longer shared the same interests. So I decided to look for new friends where they were most likely to share in and encourage my newfound lifestyle. I knew that my church had several financial education programs, as well as several Bible study and volunteer groups that were known to be popular among the frugal crowd. So I joined every single one of them.

For a couple of months, I attended as many courses, meetings, and events as I could in order to learn from those who had been living frugally a lot longer than I had. A few months later, I started a course of my own for teens and young adults at my church. Because I’d spent those same years of my life completely clueless about money and never learned basic personal finance concepts in high school, I wanted at least a few teenagers to not repeat my financial mistakes and instead start setting themselves up for long-term financial success a few years early. Teaching not only allowed me to begin to pay forward all of the support and knowledge I was given by my new friends, but it also forced me to continue expanding upon my understanding of personal finance.

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