by Jenny Smedra
This past weekend, I had a strange realization after a shopping trip with my niece. We had spent the day browsing and bargain hunting at the local outlet mall. And as usual, I was debating whether I should return my purchases to save money. As we window-shopped and sipped our coffee, I felt very guilty about spending money. Although every item I bought was replacing a threadbare item in my closet, I was feeling guilty about each one. From the $5 drink in my hand to the $50 pair of shoes in my bag, I felt selfish for treating myself to an afternoon of splurging. I kept telling myself that I should have spent that money more responsibly.
When my niece realized the turmoil I was going through, she asked me a very good question: Why am I feeling guilty about spending money? Even if it is spent for things I need, why is it so difficult to spend money on myself?
Getting to the Root of the Guilt
The more I thought on this question, the deeper I realized the problem was. Ever since I was young, I would deny myself things in order to save money. I rarely looked at candy in the checkout line, and avoided shopping in general until forced to go. My family was not poor, but we always struggled to make ends meet. We only spent money on things we needed. Never mind thinking about things we wanted.
During the leanest years, I always made sure to do my part by not wasting food and saving every penny that I got. I was already a natural saver, so learning where to put it helped me save up for my first car. However, I didn’t touch the balance in my savings account until it was time to buy the vehicle.
In fact, I never spent any of the money I received from birthdays, holidays, or summer jobs. Every dollar went either to my savings account or monthly bills. I never spent any of my savings for things I wanted; only what I needed. This trend continued through college as I lived on a barebones budget. While this lifestyle fits a hungry graduate student, once I started my career I had more breathing room. Yet, I was still afraid that a time would come when I didn’t have enough to pay the bills and regret those foolish purchases. Even today, I continue to scrimp and save to stretch my budget.
The Negative Impacts of Feeling Guilty about Spending Money
As I began asking others if they ever felt guilty about spending money, I discovered that many people experienced the same anxiety I do each time I spend money on myself. While I don’t think I have an extreme fear of spending money, I recognize that this is not a normal reaction when buying things I need. In reality, this hesitancy to spend has had several negative impacts on my life.
Taking a backwards glance, I can recall several instances when handing over large lumps sums was very similar to a gut punch. Even if the money went to investments, tuition, or cars, I would adjust my spending habits and further tighten my belt. Even though I was living well below my means, I forfeited comfort and convenience to save a few bucks.
That is, until I decided I was tired of living this way and went on a spending spree. After years of restrictions and denying myself simple pleasures, I had had enough. So, I decided to travel, using my credits cards like there was no tomorrow. The impulse buying I did over 10 months took two years to pay off. Furthermore, the guilt I then felt over racking up debt made it even more difficult to buy small things, like quality clothing or household products.
Seeing how far I had dug myself into debt made me feel as if I didn’t deserve to have new things. In my mind, I had overspent so severely that it would take years to get me back on track. While I was able to pay off my debts, I still beat myself up for all those wasted dollars that could have been better used in retirement accounts or investments. However, as I keep telling myself, what’s done is done. The only thing to do know is learn from the past and move on.
Coping Mechanisms When I’m Feeling Guilty
Today I have a much more balanced approach to my finances. While I still balk at paying large amounts of money for things, I have learned to cope when I begin feeling guilty about spending money.
1. Make Room in Your Budget.
I maintain a strict monthly budget to ensure that I am living within my means. However, I also know that setting aside money for myself is important for my social and emotional well-being. Therefore, I put aside 5% of my monthly earning for fun money. As long as I know it is accounted for in my budget, I don’t feel guilty about spending money.
2. Investing in Quality Items Saves More Money in the Long Run.
Another way I rationalize expensive purchases is by investing in quality items. As they say, you get what you pay for. Therefore, I can ease my guilt by reminding myself that you save more money when you buy things that last. It may cost more initially, but well-made items pay for themselves in time.
3. Small Indulgences Prevent Expensive Impulse Shopping.
As many people have pointed out, it is important to reward yourself when you have worked hard to achieve something. With this rationale, I can justify small indulgences, which in turn makes me less likely to impulse shop. As long as I have met all my other financial obligations and am still under budget, there is no need to feel guilty when I treat myself.
After reviewing these three coping mechanisms, I realized that all my purchases met these requirements. So, I decided to keep it all. In fact, I have already used or worn most of the things I bought. But, you can bet I kept all my receipts, just in case.
Jenny Smedra is an avid world traveler, ESL teacher, former archaeologist, and freelance writer. Choosing a life abroad had strengthened her commitment to finding ways to bring people together across language and cultural barriers. While most of her time is dedicated to either working with children, she also enjoys good friends, good food, and new adventures.