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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