I snapped a photo in the dressing room and texted it to my mom. “Should I buy it? I need new skirts, but I don’t know how much I’d use this.” I liked the skirt, and while sure, I could have lived without it, it would fill a hole in my wardrobe. I had enough money for it. But I did what I always did—reached out for external reassurance. My fear of spending money totally killed any pleasure I might have gotten from the shopping trip.
Luckily, I earn enough money to comfortably pay for the necessities in life, like rent, utilities, and healthcare. But I have a hard time when it comes to spending money on non-essentials for myself. I’m a pro at convincing myself that I don’t “need” that new pair of heels or a delicious-looking green smoothie after a workout class.
In some ways, I’m acting as if I’m still at my first job and pinching pennies to just get by. And while I know it’s good to be responsible and have money put away for retirement, I also feel like I’m missing out on some happiness in my present-day life. I don’t want to stop being financially responsible… but I do want to feel okay treating myself to a new outfit from time to time, or taking a memory-making weekend getaway with friends.
So, I talked to Bari Tessler Linden, financial therapist and the founder of The Art of Money, an online program designed to help people transform their relationship with money, and asked for her advice.
“You’ve moved into a new phase of life, but you’ve retained habits from your old financial identity,” she says. And while it’s not a “right” or “wrong” way to live (some people would say my savings rate is great and I should just keep it up), she asked me a few thought-provoking questions: “What is the balance you are trying to seek? Can you stretch yourself a bit to honor both the present time and your future goals?”
She took me through the steps she uses to help clients–of all income levels–find the right balance between enjoying their money now and saving it for the future.
1) Figure out where your fear of spending comes from
Many things influence our relationship with money, including our upbringings. Both of my parents are savers who shop sales, clip coupons, and get nervous about expenses like vacations and new clothes. While some kids do the opposite of their parents, clearly I fall right in line with mine.
I’m a workaholic and perhaps a save-aholic, who worries about the future–and feels irresponsible buying something that I don’t technically need. So, I delay gratification, telling myself to work hard and relish in the fruits of that labor later… but often, later never comes. I’m proud that I have a healthy retirement account, but I also want to enjoy the fruits of my successful freelance writing career.
2) Decide what’s working… and what isn’t
Once I figured out my “money story,” I reflected on which parts I found healthy and wanted to maintain, and which I found unhealthy and wanted to change. Saving is a good thing. And since I’m freelance and my income varies month to month, I need a cushion. But I also want to take pleasure in my money, by enjoying meals with friends or trips to visit family without worrying about the price and splurging on gifts for the people I love. I needed to find the right balance for me.
3) Make a money map
Tessler Linden asked me to write out my needs, wants, and desires. She defined needs as the basic essentials, which isn’t necessarily the bare bones. If you feel you truly need organic produce, include it in your map. Wants are the things that would make life more comfortable. For me, that includes two week-long vacations each year, quarterly massages, and weekly dates with my boyfriend. Last, desires are what life would look like if you had the income for everything you wish. My list included a nicer apartment, taking Ubers whenever I want, and donating more.
Next, I put a price tag on each level, by figuring out how much each item in it would cost me each month. When I compared this to my average monthly income, it proved to me that I earn enough to live at my “wants” level and still be on track for retirement and my other financial goals.
4) Start making changes
Once I realized I could spend more without worrying about going broke, I began to try to do so. First up: A close friend had a goodbye dinner before moving, and I put down twice as much money as I’d planned to for my meal and hers. Next, I bought some workout clothes, dressy tops, and shoes online, because I was in need of some new pieces. I ended up returning two items, but overall, I felt good about my purchases.
Then my brother asked me to fly to his place in Charlotte so we could road trip to an amusement park. (We grew up visiting them, and it’s our way of bonding.) I spent a ton of time researching flights, but they were just too expensive for my comfort level, and the trip would interfere with work. I decided that as much as I wanted to see my brother, the stress just wasn’t worth it.
5) Live your values every day
Slowly, I’m becoming more comfortable with spending money. I don’t go through with every purchase, and I sometimes still feel anxiety. But I try to stop and ask myself if the purchase aligns with my values, and if it does, I’m usually able to calm myself down and enjoy my decision.
What matters is that I’m making progress. “Learning how to make good money decisions is a practice. There is no perfect,” Tessler Linden says. “We learn how to work with our relationship with money and improve it, and it becomes healthier and healthier as we go.”