I used to have two responses when faced with stress: spend more or eat more. I still sometimes struggle with stress-eating, but stress-spending hasn’t been an issue since I started this blog.

My mother’s recent health problems, however, have brought a whole new meaning to the word “stress”. “I can’t believe this makes me so tense,” I told Kris. “I know Mom’s in good hands. She’s going to be fine.”

“It’s understandable,” Kris said.

So I was surprised the other night to find that, for the first time in ages, stress drove me to shopping. After a recent visit to the hospital, I found myself in the middle of a nearby mall. What was I doing there? I hadn’t been to a mall in years, and yet there I was, back in an old familiar place, looking for comfort.

I made a deal with myself. “I cannot use my credit card,” I thought. “Or my debit card. But I can spend whatever cash I have in my pocket.” I opened my wallet to look: I had $17.

I made a bee-line to the Barnes & Noble. I used to visit bookstores once or twice a week (spending money on nearly every trip), but one of my keys to building wealth has been to avoid them completely. If I’m not tempted, I cannot spend.

For fifteen minutes I wandered the store, admiring all the lovely new books: books on personal finance, books on gardening, books on writing. In the end, however, I bought a comic book (of course). I spent $12.99 on The Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel about lions that escape from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing run.

I drove home, read the book, and thought, “I could have borrowed that from the library.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this experience. I’m not mad at myself. “It’s only $12.99,” I keep thinking. Yet I know that’s a slippery slope: spend $12.99 to soothe myself today, and what will I spend tomorrow?

I also know that it’s important not to beat myself up for this choice. One of the keys to my financial turnaround has been learning from my mistakes. Instead of letting a single small error lead to a spiral of failure, I’ve taught myself to accept it and move on. In this case, I recognize that I spent $12.99 to cope with negative emotions, brought another piece of clutter into the house, and bought something I could have borrowed from the library.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t react similarly in the future, but by consciously noting the choice and its implications now, I make it easier to do the right thing in the future.

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