Oct 16

How Do I Stop Stress Spending?

I’ve had a tough few months — my dad has been in and out of the hospital, I’ve changed jobs, and my closest friend moved a few states away for grad school — and I’ve noticed I’ve been spending a lot more. I know I need to cut back. How do I do that without feeling like I’m depriving myself, on top of everything else going on in my life?

— Purchase Pause


Dear Purchase Pause,

First off, take a deep breath. You’ve got a lot on your plate. Of course you’re stressed, and it’s completely valid to want to find a way to feel better. There’s nothing “wrong” with spending to lift your mood momentarily, but it sounds like this pattern is causing even more stress in your life, which is the last thing you need. To triage, try this three-step method.

Figure out ways to de-stress without $$$

It’s important to acknowledge that you are going through a lot, and you really may need to invest in some form of stress relief. But that investment doesn’t have to be a financial one. You’ve likely heard a lot of suggestions before — hangouts with friends, hot baths, meditation. They’re cliche, but they can also be great ways to de-stress. And if these ideas don’t sound appealing, take some time to think about the cash-free things that do make you happy. Write down the list, if you can, either as a physical note or a memo on your phone. Going for a run? Texting a friend? Baking cookies? Try one of these activities the next time you’re tempted to pull out your credit card.

Get to know your emotions

You also may want to deal with some of your feelings head on through therapy — your insurance may cover sessions, or it may be possible to find a sliding scale therapist or clinic who can work with your budget. Even finding a friend or family member to vent to — with the idea that you’re not necessarily looking for advice or a way to fix things so much as a sympathetic ear — can help you feel less alone.

Lose the guilt, but treat yourself

Finally, consider giving yourself a guilt-free “allowance” that you can spend on the things you love. Research shows that “treats,” as opposed to everyday occurrences, resonate more regarding your happiness level, so being more mindful of your spending — or maybe even just choosing one thing in your online shopping cart rather than the whole haul — can be a way to put checks on your spending. It also may be smart to consider how and what you’re spending money on, and prioritize the spends that connect you with other people. For example, a pedicure with your BFF could be a lot more beneficial than a new shirt. Research show experiences can feel more rewarding than purchases. Plus, you may find the companionship something you didn’t know how much you needed. Also, give yourself a little bit of leeway and a lot of forgiveness. You have a lot on your plate, so if you do slip, forgive yourself and move on.

Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write her at askliz@findjoy.com and check back every Tuesday for her next column.