Somewhere back in my dark financial past, I discovered that emotional spending was a great antidepressant. I spent to change my mood, to reward myself and to make myself feel better.
I spent money when I felt sad and when I felt glad. I spent money so I wouldn't feel broke. I spent to get approval, to make my kids more popular, to impress people I didn't even know. The list goes on and on.
My credit cards were my therapy. Reluctantly, I'll tell you that they did the job. But only for a short time, until the pleasant feelings vanished because I was feeling broke again and needed another fix.
The more I used my credit cards to prove to myself that I wasn't really broke, the more debt I created — until I finally couldn't fake it any longer. The jig was up, and I was a mess.
Making money decisions based on how you're feeling at any given moment is a financially dangerous way to live. It took me a long time to understand how to manage money in ways that didn't change with the wind. Once I got this through my head, I stopped looking to spend money to make me happy.
If it's time to start dealing with your emotions in a reasonable way that will not send you hurtling into the darkness of debilitating debt, consider these five easy steps.
1. Address the feelings.
It takes a little practice, but you can learn to recognize the feelings that propel you to spend. Anger and disappointment are big ones. How about envy or sadness? Feeling broke and pathetic are others. Recognize that using money to anesthetize these feelings may work for a while, but it wears off quickly. In the long run, it's better to deal with emotions in an appropriate way than to slap them down with a temporary fix.
2. Don't go there.
If emotional spending is your nemesis, stop setting yourself up to fail. To make it difficult to give in to temptation, stop carrying credit cards. Avoid situations that entice you to overspend. I'm no saint, but I rarely visit malls or department stores anymore. Those are the places where I am most likely to slip and fall into emotional spending, so I choose to stay away. I've also deleted my eBay account, and I toss unopened mail-order catalogs into a recycling bin. Figure out the specific steps you need to take to rein in your spending impulses.
3. Find your diversion.
For many of us, spending on anything from French fries to Fendi just feels good — so good we want to repeat that feeling over and over again. But there are plenty of other mood boosters that don't involve spending money. While you can think clearly, come up with several feel-good actions now that you can rely on when your emotions are in high gear, maybe taking a quick walk or checking in with a friend. Carry a juicy novel, a book of crosswords, Sudoku puzzles or a knitting project with you.
4. Meet your inner parent.
It's not easy to admit that I can so easily allow behaviors for myself I would have never tolerated in my children. My inner parent is wise and strict when it comes to foolish, stupid behavior. She can see far beyond the moment and move in quickly to change my focus. She reminds me of the things I know so well but seem to forget when emotions run high. I've learned to call on my inner parent to take charge of the situation. Silly? Perhaps, but it's exceptionally effective.
5. Give yourself an allowance.
Whether it's five bucks or $100, having some money you can count on and call your own is a great way to curb out-of-control, emotional spending. Having money I know I can spend if I want to quiets my emotions and lets my better sense prevail. I can think clearly about whether it's a true need or a fleeting want. I can quickly assess where I'll store it or if I really want to take care of it.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com, "Ask Mary a Question." This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of Debt-Proof Living, a personal finance member website and the author of the book Debt-Proof Living, Revell 2014. To find out more about Mary visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.