36 pairs women's shoes neatly displayed in closet cubbies

How to Curb Emotional Spending in 5 Easy Steps

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. 



Emotional spending, or it’s much cuter name “retail therapy,” was my go-to activity when I was feeling stressed out, bored, under-appreciated, incompetent, unhappy or any number of other emotions. In fact, I’ve been known to spend mindlessly just because I’m happy.

My credit cards were my therapy. Reluctantly, I’ll tell you that they did the job. But only for a short time and until the pleasant feelings vanished because I was feeling broke again and needed another fix. 

It didn’t matter that I had 36 pairs of shoes but only 3 pairs I ever wore. Or that I had a fabric stash the size of  Nebraska. The more I used my credit cards to prove to myself that I wasn’t really broke, the more debt I created—until finally I couldn’t fake it any longer. The jig was up and I was a mess.

It took me 13 years to get out of that financial mess I got myself and my family into, but we did it and in the process I learned some very important lessons.

Emotional spending is nearly always a mistake. Feelings change but debt goes on and on.  The adrenaline rush lasts about as long as it takes to walk to the car. The feelings of guilt and remorse set in quickly, sending your emotions on yet another wild ride. 

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 spending 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 is another. 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 on purpose. 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. Now, while you can think clearly, come up with several feel-good actions 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 crossword or 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 from myself I would have never tolerated in my children. My inner parent is wise and strict when it comes to allowing foolish, stupid behavior. She can see far beyond the moment and moves 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 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 an allowance lowers your anxiety and boosts your self-esteem according to Kathleen Gurney, Ph.D., founder of the Financial Psychology Corporation, where she counsels clients and specializes in the psychology of money management. “It makes you feel like you’re on top of things and in control.” For me, having money I know I can spend if I want quiets my emotions and lets my better sense prevail. I can think clearly about whether it’s a true need or fleeting want. I can quickly assess where I’ll store it or if I really want to take care of it.

This post first appeared on the pages of Everyday Cheapskate on 7-1-19. 

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2 replies
  1. Kathleen French
    Kathleen French says:

    So true, Mary. I find that if I have my own allowance stash, I am more stingy with spending it. It’s real money so I can see it as a challenge to hang on to it and make it grow. And when I do finally weigh the pros and cons and allow myself to spend it, I feel the actual transaction as opposed to the painless, magic credit fantasy dollars.

  2. Bookworm
    Bookworm says:

    Shopping and eating — both are great mood-lifters, but the good mood only lasts until the guilt sets in. Great post, Mary!


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