This post is by staff writer Tim Sullivan.
Most of us struggle with some psychological aspect of money that can impede our savings. Whether it be the lure of clothing stores, nights out with friends, or stocking a top-shelf liquor cabinet, there tends to be one thing or another that creeps from our wants category into our needs. I’ve never been a compulsive shopper and always preferred voluntary simplicity, both in the kitchen and in my closet. This means that for most of my young adult life, I had good control of my finances.
Then I started dating…
Dating quickly made gift giving my Achilles heel. As with other debt-inducing habits, it seemed harmless at first. Here are some things I started doing, not realizing how much money I was shelling out:
- I never liked to show up at my girlfriend’s apartment empty handed so I always had her favorite Snapple or a magazine for her in hand. (Six bucks, just to say hello.)
- I always wanted to pick up the check, even when we were out with a friend or two. (Could be upwards of $100, just to show I cared.)
- I brought expensive bottles of wine to dinner parties, not to show off, but just to enjoy with everyone, even if I was just as happy with $7 bottle myself. ($25 to try to find community.)
- I was sent to the store to get simple baking supplies, but instead of getting the normal vanilla extract, I would get the fancy packaged one for twice the price. Take that philosophy down the entire list of supplies and I’d racked up a pretty hefty bill. ($50 extra just so we could feel high society together.)
It was never about seeming rich to my friends or girlfriend. I took pride in my penny pinching in every other aspect of my life. I honestly thought it was about generosity and showing affection, nothing more.
My usual smart budgeting was out the door. If it began with my dating life, it quickly found its way into all my close friendships and relationships. If I were booking a hotel room for myself, I would find some side-of-the-road motel for $35. If it was for my parents, I’d charge a much fancier $300 room to my card. I wanted them to be comfortable, right? (I should note that my parents’ honeymoon was a nine-month camping trip in a VW bug across the United States. They’ve grown up some since their 60s hippie days, but not all that much.) Technically, I could afford it. I just wouldn’t contribute very much to savings that month.
As the gifts became a larger and more elaborate, my savings account stagnated. The want of purchasing gifts found its way into my budget as a need.
Providing the important stuff
If I look deep enough, I know that I have an engrained desire to be the provider in my relationships. I was stuck in a 50s mentality of the man as the breadwinner, and thinking that gift giving was my only way of showing financial muscle. I never wanted to buy the affection of my friends, but I got caught in a trap thinking that financial security was the most important thing I could provide. I ignored all the other myriad ways of showing affection, whether it be kind words, acts of service, spending quality time, or even a big hug.
I tried a spending freeze on gift giving and decided to come up with something different whenever I got the urge to spend for someone else. The experiment lead to the following new behaviors:
- I accepted that showing up at her front door was hello enough, and I realized a smile and being genuinely happy to see someone went further than I’d ever expect.
- I learned the fine art of the potluck dinner, and saw that people got so much joy just from sharing what they loved to make in the kitchen.
- At a dinner party, I brought Apples to Apples. It was appropriate for the crowd, probably more appropriate than the bottle of wine I would’ve brought, and if you’ve never played it, it’s the best thing ever to bring a group a little closer.
- Instead of worrying about how fancy the baking supplies looked, I joined her in the kitchen. I never realized how much raw dough the woman could eat. I joked that it was a much truer way to her heart.
Ignoring these other ways of showing love had been getting in the way of my friendships and relationships. I learned so much more about the people around me and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves when I stopped worrying about how much they were enjoying themselves.
Since I identified the underlying cause of my stagnating savings account, I could go about fixing it. I started tracking the dollars that left my bank account each month and realized just how much was going to small gifts. Paying for gas for my girlfriend’s SUV was an incredibly friendly gesture, but it hurt in the long run. This isn’t to say I needed to stop with my generosity, but tracking my spending allowed me to create a column just for gift giving. It stopped being a mindless act and more a conscious decision, which in turn provided me with more joy in the activity. This way, I was giving something from my daily life to be generous toward others, which to me, seems a much truer definition of generosity.
Virtues in excess
We usually think about our financial trolls being negative. Something like greed leads us to live in excess, buying new shoes or the new electronic. It’s easy to blame. It’s much harder to point your finger at a problem that seems virtuous. I started to see that I wasn’t alone. My friend Tracy spends almost all of her disposable income spoiling her kid and yet complains about the holes in her own shoes. I had a family member almost go broke donating to the Doctors Without Borders. Such gifts of charity are easier to rationalize; they seem so nice, even if they are ruining your financial situation. It’s never easy to change patterns, especially when the emotions of not only yourself, but of others are involved. As always, it’s important to be honest with yourself and communicative with those around you.
I still have to remind myself that if someone is going to breakup with me because I don’t bring Snapple to her door each time I show up, I could probably do without the relationship. I bring myself, and that’s just fine.
What are some ways that gift giving puts you under budget? Do you have other “virtuous” that hurt you in the long run?