My name is J.D., and I’m a spendaholic. Now admittedly, I mostly have my spending under control. I’m no longer in debt, and I force myself to make conscious decisions about what I purchase. (Conscious spending is one of the keys to overcoming emotional spending.)

Having said that, however, I know that if I relax for even a moment, I’ll be right back in my old habits. I’ll find myself at the grocery store, buying magazines to soothe a bruised ego, or shopping for music in the iTunes store because I had a stressful day at work.

How do I know I’ll relapse if I’m not careful? Because I do from time-to-time. When I returned from our trip to Europe last fall, for example, I spent a weekend buying clothes and gadgets that I didn’t really need. I felt anxious about returning to writing (it’s always tough to find my groove after time away), so I found myself browsing on Amazon and at REI. Emotional spending is comforting — not just for me, but for a lot of other people besides.

Though I’m a recovering spendaholic, I’m still a spendaholic. I’m always one step away from compulsive spending.

Confused relationships with money
People who have never suffered from compulsive spending can’t understand the problem, and you may have a hard time explaining it to them. They don’t know what it’s like to see something and feel the urge to buy it now. They don’t know the lure of the shopping “rush” — and the subsequent nausea from the guilt have having spent too much.

“Overspenders…have confused and confusing relationships with money,” write psychologists Brad and Ted Klontz in Mind Over Money. “On one hand, they’re convinced that money and the things it can buy will make them happy; yet they’re often broke because they can’t control their spending.”

Fortunately, I’ve learned some ways to cope with emotional spending. Though I’m still tempted, I don’t spend nearly as much as I used to because I’ve developed habits that help me do the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult.

Curbing compulsive spending
Here are some steps I’ve learned can help people overcome emotional spending:

  • Cut up your credit cards. If you have a problem with compulsive spending, destroy your credit cards now. Don’t make excuses. Don’t jot the account numbers someplace “just in case”. Don’t rationalize that you need them to help your credit score. If credit cards fuel your emotional spending, you’re better off without them.
  • Carry only cash. Don’t use your checkbook or a debit card. Inconvenient? Absolutely, but that’s the point. If you’re a compulsive spender, your goal is to break the habit. To do this, you’ve got to make sacrifices. Spending cash is a way to remind yourself that you’re spending real money. Plastic (and to some degree checks) make this connection fuzzy.
  • Track your spending. You may not even be aware of how much you’re spending. When I let my emotions rule my financial life, I had no idea how many books I was buying, for example. But once I started tracking every dollar that came into and went out of my life, patterns became clear. When you see your spending patterns, you can act on them.
  • Play mind games. For some people, money isn’t an emotional issue. They’re able to make logical choices and not be tempted to otherwise. They’re lucky. For most of us, however, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re in this majority, find ways to play tricks on yourself. You might train yourself to use the 30-day rule, for instance: When you see something you want, don’t buy it right away; instead, note it on your calendar for 30 days in the future. If you still want it in a month, consider buying it. I’ve found that I can keep myself from buying a lot of stuff by simply putting it on my Amazon wish list. I come back later and wonder why I was ever tempted!
  • Avoid temptation. Speaking of temptation, the best way to keep from spending is to avoid situations that tempt you to spend in the first place. If your weakness is music, stay out of record stores and de-activate your iTunes account. If you tend to overspend at big department stores, stay away from the mall. Avoid the places where you normall spend, especially if you’re under emotional stress.
  • Ask for help. There’s no shame in asking for help if you’re having trouble with your spending. Talk to a close friend or family member, and ask for support in breaking the cycle of compulsive spending. You may even want to seek professional help. But remember: If you ask for help, don’t get angry when your counselors call you on your missteps. Listen to what they have to say.

The good news is that you can break free from emotional spending. The bad news is that it’s going to take work, and it won’t happen overnight. You’ll make mistakes and backslide, but when you do, don’t give up, and don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re human, after all. Stay focused on your long-term goals, and resolve to do better next time.

To learn more about compulsive shopping and emotional spending, visit the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery website, which has a list of money habits that indicate a problem with compulsive shopping or spending. How many do you have?

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at the Pageonce blog. It’s adapted from one section of my book, Your Money: The Missing Manual.