Welcome to Joint Accounts, a weekly advice column about money and relationships of all kinds. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
Dear Joint Accounts,
I tend to live in the moment when it comes to money. I used to live paycheck to paycheck, while using credit cards to shop all the time, to the point where I’d have 79 cents in the bank. I’ve been trying to take the advice of my fiance, who’s excellent at saving, and in the past year, I’ve been able to pay off my debts and build up some savings of my own.
But I can now feel myself starting to overdo it again. I love spending money on myself and my loved ones, and my fiance has suggested that I set aside $50 to $100 just for “fun” expenses, but I get frustrated and sometimes angry at these restrictions. I start to feel like I can’t afford anything, even though I do have some money, and that just triggers my urge to spend — it’s like just feeling poor makes me overcompensate. How do I get myself out of this cycle?
— Resentful Spender
Firstly, congratulations on paying off your debt and building up your savings! Let’s not overlook these financial wins. You should celebrate them, not only because celebrating feels good, but also because brushing them off might make you more likely to return to bad financial behavior. If getting out of debt is no big deal, then getting back into debt is no big deal. See the pattern here?
And second, don’t obsess over comparing yourself to your fiance. You have different habits because you’re different people, and what works for them might not work for you. You’re still searching for solutions, and that’s okay. It sounds like you have a supportive partner and you’re receptive to building a solid financial foundation for the both of you. This is already a great start.
Your question boils down to one that many of us struggle with: How do I stop spending money when spending money feels so good? You want to get to a point where saving money feels even better than spending it.
To get there, before you do anything else, you need a goal. When you have a reason to save, it feels less like cutting back and more like you’re just spending that money on something else, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. Let’s say, for example, that I have a goal to save $700 a month for a down payment on a house. To fund that goal, I decide to: not buy any new clothes this year, limit my restaurant spending, and forgo my daily coffee shop visit. Skipping these expenses isn’t about depriving myself; it’s about using the money to indulge in something else I value. It’s a lot easier to say no to things when you’re saying yes to something else.
Come up with your own savings goal and put a monthly number on it. If your goal is an individual one, you should also come up with a shared savings goal with your fiance. Retirement, buying a home, traveling — what kinds of things do you want to do together in the future that you can start saving for now?
Of course, having a goal doesn’t make the temptation to spend magically go away. So, the next thing you want to do is to figure out your money script — that is, your behavior, habits, and attitudes around money. Financial psychologist Brad Klontz has identified four of them in his research: money avoidance (you don’t like to deal with or think about money at all); money worship (you believe money will solve all, or most, of your problems), money status (your self-worth is highly dependent on your net worth), and money vigilance (you are super frugal and watch your money carefully).
Learning about your emotional relationship to money can help you get past the blocks and triggers that come along with it. For instance, I’m a money status person; when I start to lack confidence in certain areas of my life, I’m prone to spending because it makes me feel better. This is valuable knowledge, because I know when and how to stop myself before that spending gets out of hand.
You can also try tracking your spending the same way dieters might track their food intake. Write down every single thing you spend money on each week, along with the things you’re tempted to buy. Look at your past transactions to see how much you’ve spent at specific stores or on certain categories. When you add it all up, you may be astounded at the grand total.
These exercises teach you a lot about your spending habits and force you to reconsider them more deeply than most money-saving hacks, which are often just workarounds — you unlink your credit cards from Amazon, and that might work in the short term, but you’re not actually learning to be a better spender. You’re making it harder to give in to the bad habit, but you’re not breaking it. And our culture makes it easy to spend money mindlessly: We pay for coffee with a credit card; our bill payments are automatic; if the soles on our shoes wear out, we buy a new pair because it’s easier than getting them fixed. Spending is the way we solve so many problems that don’t necessarily need to be solved with money. Your goal is to undo all of this and reset your spending habits.
Challenge yourself to a no-spend month, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Start with a list of things you’re allowed to buy for the month — mostly necessities, like groceries — then vow to spend absolutely nothing unless it’s on that list. This is a great exercise that can get you to think harder about your habits and make you realize that being frugal isn’t so bad. Alternatively, you could just pick one area that you overspend on, like restaurants, and try not to spend anything on restaurants for that month. These small challenges force you to be more mindful with money, and you’re addressing the root of your problem, which is the impulse to spend.
Another way to reset your spending is to break the habit loop, which is the cue, routine, and reward of a habit. Let’s say your cue is feeling bad about yourself, so you want to spend. Your routine is online shopping — if you don’t feel good, at least you can look good, right? As a spender, the reward is buying clothes to solve the problem of feeling bad. So, change the reward: What else can you do to feel better about yourself in the moment? (For me, it’s calling my mom and having a few laughs.)
Now that you know your money “script,” it should be easier to identify your own spending cues, routines, and rewards. Replace the reward with something that isn’t going to drain your wallet, and this is how you’ll change the whole loop.