Breaking the stress spending cycle

Lately, life has been a little hectic. I have a full schedule of work. I’m trying to plan a surprise party. I’m working on three different passion projects. My laundry needs to be washed. Hell, I need to be washed. It’s noon and I haven’t even showered.

I don’t mind a packed schedule, and I’ve learned to better manage my time. But for those moments when a lack of time gets the better of me, and my stress level rises, I’ve noticed something unsettling: I have a really careless attitude about money.

In short, I’ve been stress spending. Some of it is emotional, and some of it is spending out of convenience. Here are a few examples of my recent stress spending:

  • Instead of cooking, I’ve been ordering takeout.

  • I ordered some clothes online because I thought I deserved it.

  • I’ve been paying at parking meters instead of opting for free street parking.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these expenses — if I were planning for them. But I blew my food budget because I felt like I didn’t have time to cook. And I bought a bunch of clothes that I didn’t really want to spend money on. And parking on the street in my neighborhood takes an extra minute, at the most, but I didn’t feel like thinking about it.

With each of these expenses, stress clouded my judgment.

The problems with stress spending

My stress spending didn’t bring me to my knees, no. But I like to practice conscious consumerism. Being a better spender has saved me quite a bit over the years. It’s also helped give me a better appreciation for the things on which I choose to spend my money.

Impulse-fueled stress spending has quite a few drawbacks.

It takes away from my goals.

I budget my expenses because I have savings goals I’d like to meet. The less I spend, the faster I can reach those goals. Haphazard spending is like stealing money from my future self.

Small amounts add up.

When I recently ordered a pizza because I didn’t feel like cooking, I actually patted myself on the back. I found a good deal on a greasy, unhealthy wad of dough: $6. “Hey, that’s not bad for a splurge,” I thought to myself. Except that, over the course of the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent more than I care to admit on takeout and fast food. Those small purchases add up, especially when you convince yourself they’re insignificant.

My spending decisions are unhealthy.

I mean that my spending decisions are both physically and emotionally unhealthy. I bought those clothes to make myself happy and relieve my stress. Whether it’s clothes or trips or cars, it’s OK to buy things you like, of course. But what I didn’t like about my spending decision was that I used it as a quick fix, instead of actually addressing my stress problem.

And then there’s the physical consequence. That pizza was cheap, sure. But it was also pretty unhealthy. And I’m not going to lie — I love unhealthy food, but in moderation. Most of the time, I eat like your garden-variety hippie. So my stress spending has also lead to stress eating.

It creates a cycle of bad decisions.

I stress spend. I get mad at my bad decision. This adds to my stress. I stress spend.

Stress, spend, regret, repeat.

What to do about it

OK, so you know that stress spending is not a good thing. So how do you put a stop to it? Here’s how I’ve been approaching it.

Stop the cycle.

Throw a wrench into your vicious cycle. Lately, when I sense my judgment becoming clouded, I stop whatever it is I’m doing and walk away and listen to a song I love. Whether it’s exercising, meditating or just zoning out on a song for two minutes, a moment of reflection can do wonders. It clears my mind and keeps my judgment sharp.

Don’t overwhelm yourself.

I have a bad habit of overwhelming my to-do list with an impossible amount of tasks so I can get a head start on the next week. But, if I’m stressed out trying to get a head start, I’m not sure that it’s worth it. I’ve learned to let go and cut down my list. There are some things I won’t get to today, and I’m learning to be OK with that rather than to lose sleep and, eventually, money over it.

Identify your triggers.

By understanding the thought process behind my stress spending, I can usually stop it in its tracks. When I want to buy something unplanned and frivolous, I’ve discovered that I always tell myself something along the lines of: “You work hard. You have money. You can afford not to give this much thought.”

When that thought pops in my head, my savings goal pops out. So I remember that now. That thought is my spending trigger, and it’s helped a great deal to understand that.

Another trigger? It’s 4 p.m., and I haven’t given any thought to dinner, and I still have stuff on my to-do list. This scenario is what leads to my ordering takeout. Now that I’ve identified that trigger, I can do something about it.

Have a backup plan.

For convenience-based stress spending, it helps to have a backup plan. Whatever you spend money on out of convenience, look for a way to avoid it, or at least find a cheaper alternative. For my takeout problem, this might mean cooking meals in advance, and then freezing them.

And here’s a confession: I have one prepackaged frozen meal on hand. Most frugal people will groan at this, and understandably so. It’s not a good everyday food option. But when I don’t have time to cook, and I’m stressed, a cheap Trader Joe’s meal beats takeout. It’s not ideal, but it’s a backup plan. I also know that, when I break out that meal, it’s time rethink how I’m balancing my time.

Of course, it’s better to focus on the long-term solutions and find a way to stop putting yourself in a position to stress spend in the first place.

Do you guys ever stress spend? How do you avoid or correct it?

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There are 36 comments to "Breaking the stress spending cycle".

  1. Jon @ Money Smart Guides says 16 July 2014 at 04:10

    I can second that small spending adds up. I too tend to “stress spend” by eating out a lot. I think hey it’s only $10 here or $12 there, no big deal. But then I see just how quickly 10-15 times of eating out adds up to.

    You have to understand your triggers and try to set up roadblocks in their place. For me, it’s usually when I am really busy and don’t take a break to eat something. I get caught up in my work, realize it’s lunchtime and I am starving. So I run out and pick up something quick and easy. When I stop in the morning and eat a snack, the craving goes away and I am more patient to actually cook my lunch instead.

    • Laura says 16 July 2014 at 06:49

      Ditto here. I found I was stopping to grab a candy bar or some such on the way home from work because I was hungry and the commute so long. Now I pack an extra sandwich and eat it just before leaving work. Most of the time I’m still hungry enough to eat dinner by the time I get home, I just don’t eat as much of it (then it’s leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch).

    • Money Saving says 16 July 2014 at 09:04


      My wife and I can also easily fall into the same trap of stress spending on eating out. If either one of us is having a bad day, it takes A LOT of energy to cook at home. Now that we’ve identified the problem, we are able to prevent falling into this trap much more often.

      • TB at Blue Collar Workman says 16 July 2014 at 14:23

        Any sort of “stress” related behavior makes me think of women. Stress eating, stress shopping, stress crying, etc. And I”m a dude, so I don’t have to worry.

        But actually, I have to agree “stress spending” is a thing for us men folk too. And like Money Saving says above, when one half of a husband/wife team falls prey, the other is quick to follow.

        Knowing that that is happening though, like you said, man, is half the battle!

  2. FI Pilgrim says 16 July 2014 at 05:02

    I’m the same way! Especially when it comes to eating out or purchasing some useless gadget.

    My personal solution has been to redirect that desire to spend and use it for something else, like taking my family to a park for a picnic instead. It’s stress-reducing, basically free, and worthwhile. It’s really a win-win.

  3. Annon says 16 July 2014 at 05:57

    I am looking for work right now. When I get an interview I want a new suit, blouse, shoes, SOMETHING because my brain gets nervous that if my skills don’t quite cut it maybe a nice blouse will tip the scales my way (adrenaline – she is nuts).

    I go out and I look (overlooking all of the suits in my closet that fit fine etc etc etc) and usually eventually buy something at a store where I have a good understanding of their return policy.

    I bring it home, never un-bag it, never take the tags off and a day or two later when I’m busier thinking about how to highlight my skills than making a stellar first impression, I take it back.

    Admittedly, it isn’t idea, and someday I hope to not want to go out and look/buy. Until I get there – the zero net spend game will have to be enough.

    • Beth says 16 July 2014 at 15:11

      Maybe try looking at it in terms of opportunity costs? You’re not technically spending money on the clothes, but you may be spending money getting to and from the mall (gas or bus fare) and you’re using time to shop that could be better spent preparing for the interview.

      I find it helpful is to go for walks. It helps deal with the nervous energy, and it helps me think. I find myself walking through questions and answers in my head as I get some exercise.

  4. Nina says 16 July 2014 at 06:20

    I got caught in a stress spending spiral recently. It started with me buying some clothes because they were on sale, and the person I was with said I should just spoil myself. This despite resolving beforehand not to buy anything. Since I did that, I ordered more clothes online because “it is the sales period and I might as well get the actual items on my wishlist”. Fair enough, all items are things I will wear often but only half of them were really needed. This then lowered the barrier for me buying makeup which again would be real nice to have but I could have put off buying. And the same happened for a reusable water bottle.

    While in the end half the items were wanted beforehand, and all will serve a good purpose, I still feel like I went on a spending spree because of stress I have been dealing with and the feeling of needing to pamper oneself to make up for that. I certainly felt better, but I think in the longer term I’d have better saved the money to cut some of the stress. So thank you for this post, as it came at just the right time for me. I will pick myself up again and try once more.

  5. Ray says 16 July 2014 at 06:29

    I am a big proponent of the frozen meal backup plan. Sometimes life is just a bit overwhelming, and it’s better to eat a $4.00 frozen vegetable meal then get $6.00 unhealthy takeout!

    • Marcella says 16 July 2014 at 15:24

      I eat something out of my freezer at least twice a week. I could not survive without this strategy. It’s 99% homecooked meals that I have made an frozen, but I just don’t have the time to shop for and prepare from fresh every night.

      Emergency back-up if the freezer is bare is some fancy asian two minute noodles. I boil these up with the seasoning provided, hopefully add a fried or boiled egg and any vegetables I have on hand (sometimes from a frozen bag of asian vegetables).

    • Kristin Wong says 16 July 2014 at 17:38

      Yep, that’s my reasoning, too. It’s the lesser of the evils. Plus, those Trader Joe’s enchiladas are actually pretty good (and cheap!)

  6. imelda says 16 July 2014 at 06:52

    OK, totally off-topic, but: There was an article yesterday in the NY Times about data breaches being at an all-time high in NY.

    We’ve talked before about precautions you can take to avoid identity theft – security freezes, so no one can open accounts in your name; regularly checking your reports, etc.

    But what about just outright stealing? Once someone has your passwords, is it possible for them to, say, do electronic transfers from your online bank accounts into theirs?

    I’m not sure where else to go with these questions. It would be great to see an article on the real vs unlikely risks posed by these kinds of massive data breaches.

    Thanks! 🙂

  7. Brian @ Debt Discipline says 16 July 2014 at 06:59

    Agree on the back up plans. Meals seems to be the easiest downfall for most people, whether its lunch or dinner. We always try and keep frozen food on hand, even if its a jar of sauce and some tortellini it’s better then $35 in takeout. It’s like being on a diet and you eat to much and say I’ll get back on track tomorrow, no start right now to stop the bad habits before they get worst.

  8. Marie says 16 July 2014 at 07:21

    Being realistic about my laziness is my most important obstacle to stress food purchases. Ideally, I would buy everything in raw form and process it myself for the lowest unit price. In reality, I hate cooking, and having a kitchen brimming with cheap healthy ingredients that need work to be edible just isn’t going to happen. So, I spend more on prewashed spring mix and individual yogurt cups, knowing that I will actually eat those. Patting myself on the back for buying the “right” thing and then watching it rot in my fridge is just beating my head into a wall.

    • Marcella says 16 July 2014 at 15:20

      This is really great. I call it closing the gap between the person you want to be (or think you should be) and the person you actually are.

      I eat a lot of spinach. I used to feel guilty about buying the bagged pre-washed stuff, but now I’ve learnt that it’s a huge convience to me to just be able to open the bag and throw the spinach straight into my salad bowl without a thought.

    • Kristin Wong says 16 July 2014 at 17:45

      YES. This happened with me and chard. I tried. I really did. But me and chard are never going to happen.

      Also agree on the pre-washed thing. I used to feel guilty buying that, too! (what an odd thing to feel guilty about). But yeah, the convenience is totally worth it. I’m much more likely to snack on something that takes zero effort.

  9. stratagic says 16 July 2014 at 07:43

    Yes, I also stress spend. I recently read somewhere (maybe even here) that people tend to pay higher prices in a messy room vs. a clean environment. I think the same thing is going here– that is, our heads are “messy” with all these to-do items and hence we have no capacity to make good decisions or will to take the so called harder route. That’s why it’s so important to say no to stuff and additional work and to keep things uncluttered in our lives and mind.

  10. eZonomics says 16 July 2014 at 07:52

    Interesting post! There is a bit of talk at the moment about the impact on decisionmaking of scarcity (with a book of that name released last year). Scarcity can strike in a range of areas – be it money, time or something else.
    The idea is that it reduces your “bandwidth”, self control weakens, the decision dynamic changes.
    Tips include scheduling reminders for yourself in your calendar or phone (so that you don’t have to spend mental energy remembering critical dates), use commitment devices to help calm impulsiveness, or even “outsource” your thinking by enlisting the help of a friend or family member who might have less on their mind and who can offer a second opinion on purchases or other important financial decisions. Good luck!

    • Kristin Wong says 16 July 2014 at 17:49

      Yes! We covered that book here, recently. I think I actually wrote this article before reading that book, haha. Actually, since writing this, I’ve learned to be a lot more efficient with my time. And a lot of it was just taking a step back and focusing on one thing rather than five things at once.

  11. heidi says 16 July 2014 at 07:56

    I had the same problem! Never anything to eat at 5pm. I found that by buying kitchen items that help make meals faster, I actually eat healthier. fajitas in 15 minutes (yes please). Although you could argue that I spent $$ on these products but if I use them daily I think the expensive and healthiness is worth it!

  12. Dave LaLonde says 16 July 2014 at 08:05

    Stress spending is the toughest. One trick I do to “stall” stress spending is to actually purchase an item that requires time. The item can be a book, CD, movie or anything along those lines.

    When I buy a book, it forces me to sit down and read. Yes, I just spent some money, but at least it would make me sit down and consume some time. It also wouldn’t hurt to just grab something from the local library as well. That’s me “stalling” the stress spending.

    But in order to avoid it? I give my money and cards to my wife to hold onto. She is a huge accountability partner for me.

  13. Carla says 16 July 2014 at 08:44

    I don’t necessarily stress spend but I do buy (healthy) take-out when I’m too tired and worn out to cook. I’m on a new medication regimen and its taking me out more than expected.

    I started making extra food and backup meals when I cook so that I don’t get tempted to buy take-out rather than heat something up on the stove. Trader Joe’s pre washed packaged veggies is not ideal but it a huge help when I can’t do too much in the evening.

    Take-out will still happen every now and then but it wont happen as much as has been and it will be planned and more of a treat than out of desperation.

  14. El Nerdo says 16 July 2014 at 09:08

    Stress foods– just accept that at times things will get hectic and adjust your budget to fit that reality.

    We keep a stack of instant ramen noodles in the pantry, and sliced roasted pork loin/ green onions/ chiles in the freezer, broccoli, etc. When we’re stressed out/tired/overworked, we put it all together.

    Frozen pizzas is also good to have at hand if you’re going to end up eating pizza anyway. Peanut butter is good. Boxed Trader Joe’s soups are good. Jars of bulk almonds and seeds are awesome. Cans (tuna, salmon, garbanzos, whatever).

    Greek yogurt is a fast shot of protein: 1 cup = 20g. Mix honey and nuts/seeds and frozen berries and you’re good to go (blueberries will melt fast).

    There’s other stuff I can make fast– I keep sesame seeds and frozen garbanzos (cooked in large batches) and I can make a 1-shot hummus in the food processor in about 5 minutes (a bit sticky for washing but okay). The frozen garbanzos actually work for this.

    Crackers, Swedish bread, etc– always good to keep at hand. Top with cheese, with tuna, with anchovies, with peanut butter and honey– you have a meal or snack in seconds.

    Oh, and a big can of whey powder.

    Since we bought a chest freezer last year we’ve been using it so much I want a second one. Now I batch-cook and freeze al kinds of stuff so there’s always an inventory of cooked food ready to be eaten besides the raw supplies we keep there. Pretty great.

    ps- i would never think of “rewarding” myself with clothes, but… buying tools is another story (hello impact driver).

  15. Nicole says 16 July 2014 at 10:02

    I know exactly how you feel. When I was working over 40 hours a week at my former job I didn’t want to even think about cooking dinner. I was lucky that a family member took over the cooking duties at that time.

    Now that I work less I find I still don’t want to cook during the week after work, so I plan ahead and buy convenience meals for those days. Sure, they aren’t the cheapest foods, but they still cost less than takeout, are generally healthier, and can be prepared in less than 30 minutes.

  16. LG says 16 July 2014 at 10:35

    My husband and I have a “Menu” calendar on our shared iCal dedicated to planning meals. We take 15 minutes over the weekend to review the week ahead and decide what we’ll eat for dinner each night we’ll be together at home. This helps us:

    1. Save $$ on groceries – We’re only buying what we need for the predetermined menu, and we can also buy less of the fresh food that tends to go bad hidden in the produce drawers.

    2. Eat healthier – Since we make a list for everything we need, we’re less likely to impulsively grab snacky things or junk food. And not having that stuff in the house means not eating it (especially when stress arises). #rocketscience

    3. Manage our time – By looking at the week ahead as a whole, we get a sense of how busy we are outside of our jobs, and we can discuss any potential conflicts in advance. I can also anticipate stress if I see our calendar full of obligations 5 days in a row…I’ll make it a point to schedule some time for us soon after.

    4. Team up – Our dinner times don’t always align, so we determine who will cook, and – if time permits – who will prep each meal. Many times he’ll prep during his morning off, then I’ll cook while he’s working late, and we’ll eat together when he gets home. Even though we’re apart for most of the day, we were able to accomplish dinner through a joint effort!

    5. Enjoy “Solo Meals” – As often as we eat together, we also eat dinner on our own if the other has plans or is working late. This helps us keep our individual food preferences (read: husband -> bacon lover, wife -> aspiring vegetarian) satiated while maintaining marital bliss.

    6. Spend less $$ going out – If we already have dinner planned out, purchased, and on the calendar, I am less likely to stay longer at a happy hour or meet a friend for an impromptu dinner because I already have plans…to stay in!

    • genavieve says 16 July 2014 at 21:15

      My husband and I do this, too. We plan for the upcoming week on Sunday evening. It’s made a HUGE difference in our ability to stay on budget and not get stressed out. It used to be such a hassle to try to figure out what to prepare at 5pm, and invariably, something’s missing from whatever we’ve decided to prepare. I refuse to run to the grocery store at 5pm, aka “the Witching Hour.” We’ve been doing the Sunday night plan for a couple of years, and I can’t imagine going back to winging it.

  17. Looby says 16 July 2014 at 10:40

    For me there is a difference between busy spending and stress spending. When I am busy I take the bus instead of walking, or want to opt for take out instead of cooking. When I am stressed I want to “treat” myself to that bag or those shoes I’ve been eyeing.
    So I tackle them differently- for me the key to avoiding “busy spending” on food is breakfast foods: an omelette or poached eggs, or even a bowl of cereal is not an ideal dinner but better than take out, still filling. To avoid “stress spending” I treat myself another way; running a bath and enjoying a terrible rom com on netflix is a great way to take a mental pause and relax for me.

  18. Honey Smith says 16 July 2014 at 10:48

    “garden-variety hippie” — is there any other kind? GREAT turn of phrase.

  19. Stan says 16 July 2014 at 11:32

    Mee too. Job puts me driving at lunch time so a wuick drive through is convenient but does add up. Nees to premake and freeze pb&j ready to grab lunch bags.

  20. Jodi says 16 July 2014 at 14:25

    I battle with stress/convenience spending all the time. You mentioned freezer meals. I’ve always been frustrated by the amount of pre-cooking in most freezer meal plans. But just recently I discovered someone who has a freezer meal guide that doesn’t require any pre-cooking! It keeps the time for prep down to a minimum and makes the first time eating not taste like left-overs. This small little detail in that wonderful plan-ahead concept has made all the difference in the world to me to not be overwhelmed just by thinking about prep day! The site and the article are in no way related to me. I’m just a fan. ( and the article is 25 freezer meals that don’t require any cooking ahead of time.

  21. AMW says 17 July 2014 at 06:47

    One thing that helped me reduce the drive through windows was keeping granola bars in my car at all times….it would get me through any commuting or errands I was running til I could get back home. My fast foods when I didn’t think about dinner are eggs and toast,frozen burgers that just need to be grilled, frozen soup, a sandwich or cereal (cereal days are when you know you are worn out).

  22. Green Girl Success says 17 July 2014 at 11:47

    I’m not a stress ‘shopper’, but when I get stressed and busy, I also don’t want to cook. When I was working full time, that meant A LOT of eating out. Now that I am self employed, I keep healthy, ready to eat food on hand…. raw nuts, cut up veggies, boiled eggs, fruit, yogurt, etc… I also cook healthy meals that will last a few days.

  23. Tina says 21 July 2014 at 12:07

    I have the opposite effect: I get stressed over eating out.

    My husband wants to eat out all the time and I stress about the cost of eating out especially when I have just bought a hundred dollars of groceries and worry about us eating our savings away. No matter how hard I try, budgeting for food never works because he has the mindset that “we need food”

    All I can do is add an allowance for dining out which does help my anxiety. I have had many talks to him about eating out with no resolve. I am to the point that I feel worry every time we eat out and can’t enjoy my meal.

    Does anyone have any ideas?

    • Tara says 21 July 2014 at 14:23

      I have the same problem – husband wants to eat out too frequently, so every time he suggests it I just keep telling him I don’t feel like it, I prefer to have x in the fridge. Usually it works and the times it doesn’t, I try to just go with the flow and not worry myself to death about it.

  24. krisy says 21 July 2014 at 17:48

    sadly my problem is not my spending, i have that under control. my problem is my income.

  25. Tricia says 26 July 2014 at 18:30

    When I was saving for my house, I had an aggressive savings goal, but was at a place in my life where I was quite busy and fairly stressed and didn’t feel like I had the cognitive resources to control every purchase or even do a good job of tracking my spending. So, rather than try and track and control everything at a purchase by purchase level, I set a budget which included my savings goal and my fixed expenses (rent and the like) and had a modest amount of discretionary spending (including food). Then I took out the cash for my discretionary spending at the start of the month. If there was cash in my wallet, I could spend it on whatever I wanted. If I didn’t have cash, I was out of luck. Since I had a reasonably well-stocked cupboards, I never went hungry, but I did eat less well when I burned through my cash. Not only was it an effective way to control spending with minimal effort, but running out of money a few times was enough to curb excessive impulse spending even when stressed.

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