Don’t Forget Regret – Use It Instead

Right after we graduated from college, my best friend wanted to buy a real bed. He'd slept on gifted beds, Craigslist-ed beds, found beds, futons, couches, and I even think there was tatami mat in there, but he decided graduating college made him an adult and needed a real, adult bed.

He saved a good amount of money and did research at multiple mattress stores testing for firmness, pocketed coils versus continuous coils, pillow top or memory foam — he tried them all. He finally settled on one that was as adult as a mattress can get. It was a Bonnell coil system king-size mattress with a memory foam pillow top. It had a temperature regulating system to assure neither overheating nor shivering, and he was convinced that this mattress would be the end to his minor-yet-chronic backaches. He waited for a somewhat decent sale, purchased it (with free delivery), and his mattress arrived.

After buying a bed frame that took up most of his Brooklyn apartment, he was ready to live the good life.

The first night, he couldn't sleep. Second night, same story. He couldn't tell if it was too firm or not firm enough, if it contoured to the curves of his back perfectly or not all. The seemingly simple act of falling asleep was just confusing. He had a rather sleepless week and then called to exchange it. But since he bought it on sale, they wouldn't do their normal bed exchange. He kept trying to sleep on it while trying to sell it for a decent price, and when that didn't happen, he ended up settling for a nearly $2,000 loss. He bought a used IKEA mattress off Craigslist and has slept perfectly since.

Guilt settles in
My friend talked a lot about the financial guilt he felt after saving for so long and then losing so much money. He made the bed a priority and his priority backfired on him. We could break down his researching of the bed, that he should have read the return policy fine print more carefully, or how he could have been more assured of his purchase, but for now, the deed was done and he had nothing but the consequences. I remember hearing him on the phone with his mother who pretty much said get over it. Move on.

 

Normally, I consider this sound advice. And maybe so does Shakespeare:

“Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done.”

Taken out of context, Shakespeare is siding with all the live for today, forget regret rhetoric that we often encounter. That said, this quote is by Lady Macbeth, chastising her husband for being such a wimp for feeling bad about murdering people. The inability to experience regret is a diagnostic characteristic of sociopaths. Guilt is a utterly human emotion and should be allowed to be experienced. Quit feeling guilty about the guilt, that's the first step.

Mistakes happen. Instead of trying to live without any regrets, what if we learned to live with it in a way that serves us?

Overcoming the guilt
I think it's interesting to see what we regret and feel guilty about. According to a study from the Kellogg School of Management, only 2.5% of the guilt we feel is because of financial reasons.

Decisions (or non-decisions) about education, career, romance, parenting, and self all beat out our decisions about finance in terms of our longterm levels of regret (finance even loses to how we spend our leisure time). And though a 23-year-old may regret the $20,000 she owes after graduating college, it's more likely that the 35-year-old will regret never having gone. Granted, this isn't even close to a sure-fire statement, but it demonstrates that we regret decisions about education more than decisions about money, to the tune of almost 30%.

We all know what it's like to make a large purchase and having that pit-of-the-stomach, sick feeling. Whether it be a necessity or a decadence, that feeling is unavoidable, and it's not likely that you'll ever eliminate it completely. I think my stomach will always drop when I make a big withdrawal from my checking account, even if it's something exciting and purchased responsibly. Tickets to Paris? My bags are packed! Seeing the cascading numbers on my online savings account screen? I could do without that.

What we can change now
American journalist Sydney J. Harris said, “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is the regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”

Learn from what you regret. Write down your financial regrets, past and present, not only the times that you did spend, but also those that you didn't. Many of our more profound regrets come not from the things we did, but from the things we were to busy or bullheaded to get around to doing. You still have time to make that next step, whether it be a future investment, that long sought after degree, or just a new skill — regretting what we haven't done is often easily remedied.

Listen to that pit-in-the-stomach feeling. If you spent months saving for those airline tickets and you're meeting your other financial goals, the anxiety is probably nothing to worry about. But if you feel guilt every time you buy the pricey olive oil or the new must-have app, that's worth thinking about. Don't “move on” or “forget” until you've asked yourself why you feel badly. Are you buying out of boredom? Are you charging it to your credit card? Are you spending more than you earn?

We can't live life without guilt and regret. Every day, we do things. Most of those things will be in the positive column, and as for the rest, chalk them up to experience. What's done is done, and we should let residual emotions run their course, but we also can learn from the negative experiences, and hopefully not repeat the same mistakes.

What have been some of your larger financial hiccups? How quickly did you recover, and what did you learn from it?

More about...Psychology

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Terry
Terry
8 years ago

I think fear of failure causes us not to do some things that we know we should do to move towards our dreams. We pay a price to follow our dreams but we also pay a price by not following them. I used to have a fear of appearing on radio shows to do book promotions, but I overcame the fear by remembering that my goals were more important than my fears. In the movie “We Bpught a Zoo” the hero motivates himself by saying “I only have to be couragous for 20 seconds.” The 20 seconds of courage is… Read more »

jack foley
jack foley
8 years ago
Reply to  Terry

Yea i think also that the fear of failure stems from lack of self-confidence when you think you will have the money.

this is really common. People are afraid to have money because they think they will be hounded by friends/family for the money..!

and they haven’t even made the money!

BIGSeth
BIGSeth
8 years ago

Good article.

I would venture that maybe your friend couldn’t sleep because he knew that he had spent too much money for the mattress.

NoTrustFund
NoTrustFund
8 years ago

I regret buying a condo and car right after grad school and using up most of my liquid savings to do so. Of course I had a plan- I had a big fancy job and those savings would be replenished within a year or two. But I ended up HATING the job. So much so that I was having trouble sleeping and dreaded going to work every morning. It was so bad that I, had I an emergency fund and a ‘f-you fund’ I would have quit in a heart beat- Even without another job line up. I’ve never felt… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

Your friend’s story doesn’t seem to mesh up with the messages you say to take from it.

With your friend, I would say, “Sunk Cost” and move on. The only message being to make sure expensive products are returnable just in case.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

I was wondering about that too! All that research and he didn’t look at the return policy? It’s an expensive lesson to learn.

We may think “I would never do that”, but I’m always surprised to read how little people know about warranties and return policies. I once bought a toaster I didn’t need because I didn’t know my old one was still under warranty. D’oh!

chacha1
chacha1
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Whereas I looked at it and thought, spending $500 on physical therapy to sort out the “minor, chronic” back pain would have been a much better investment. If you can sleep on a tatami mat, you can sleep on anything.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

That’s funny considering it was my physiotherapist who had me questioning what I sleep on. I found buying a $150 memory foam mattress pad helped me a lot.

Debbie M
Debbie M
8 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

And whereas I thought that with all that research he still screwed up. So maybe now he feels like he can’t trust himself to ever make any kind of decision again. You don’t just get over that and move on. Someone should have told him that finding the right information is much more difficult for mattresses than it should be, and much more difficult than for most decisions he will make in the future, and so, in fact, he may be able to trust some of his decisions in the future.

My University Money
My University Money
8 years ago

If you further read the study you refer to though Tim, there is a reason that regret is a basic instinct. The ability to learn from your past mistakes is a big deal and an overall positive thing. It kind of reminds of the debate we have about stress in the current workplace. Stress has got this terrible reputation, but really, stress is a good thing if you listen to it, and control it, instead of ignoring it. When you feel guilty analyze why and either convince yourself it’s ridiculous or learn your lesson for next time. Cool story to… Read more »

Beth
Beth
8 years ago

I’ve heard the same about stress. A holistic practitioner I know claims that the problem is we experience stress and our body is prepped for “fight or flight”. However, there’s often no physical expenditure for that response. (We aren’t going to beat up our bosses or run away from coworkers, for example!)

She recommended when I feel stress to exercise to use up the stress hormones. It sounds strange, but I figure I need more exercise anyway!

Lisa
Lisa
8 years ago

I feel the same way about the loss of money to my accounts even when I am making a financially responsible, researched purchase that I can afford. Just bought a slightly used Prius in December, had MAJOR anxiety about the loss in our savings account for about a week. Now I am over it and I still love my car.

Sam
Sam
8 years ago

My biggest financial regret is buying an investment property in So Fla in 2006. I regret that I overpaid for a house that is not worth less than half of what we paid for it. But more than anything I regret getting caught up in the So Fla real estate bubble. We didn’t buy real estate just b/c everyone else was (we had real and good reasons for doing so) but it was a factor and it drives me crazy. I wouldn’t mind the loss on the investment (and its not a loss yet) so much if it wasn’t for… Read more »

DM
DM
8 years ago
Reply to  Sam

If you could buy real estate in South Florida now, would you?

KSK
KSK
8 years ago

Last year, I planned and saved money for what was to be a trip of a lifetime. It WAS a trip of a lifetime, but not quite the trip of a lifetime I was hoping for. I ended the trip early, and returned home. Initially, I regretted ever going on the trip. But, the failed trip brought home some underlying issues. Out of those underlying issues, I developed a list of personal goals and have been working on accomplishing these goals in the last 3 months. Although I still regret the money and time I spent on the trip, something… Read more »

VR
VR
8 years ago
Reply to  KSK

just out of curiosity, how does one fail a trip?

Steven | The Emotion Machine
Steven | The Emotion Machine
8 years ago

Love this article – completely summarizes my feelings about most negative emotions. The best we can do is accept them, learn from them, and move on. Regret can be a good sign that we did something against our values, or we didn’t carefully plan a certain course of action. While it’s true we can’t change the past, we can take this knowledge and try to act better in the future.

John | Married (with Debt)
John | Married (with Debt)
8 years ago

My biggest regrets are buying new cars. This is the quickest way to guaranteed poverty.

Now that I’ve paid them off, I don’t feel so bad, but that money could have been better spent elsewhere.

Sunk costs be danged!

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago

There is nothing wrong with buying a new car, paying it off, continuing to make “car payments” to yourself until you drive the thing into the ground, and then paying cash for another new one that you drive into the ground. (Better make some “car payments” after you get the next one, though.)You do buy some confidence that it won’t break down fast when you buy new.

Andy
Andy
8 years ago

I can go both ways on the education regret.I regret trying out law school on a whim and leaving a year later because I didn’t like it with 26k in debt. I am glad I went to undergraduate and studied computer science which gave me the good job I have.

Mary T
Mary T
8 years ago

Feeling regret about using our saved money is normal. It’s easy–and very good!–to question ourselves in cases like this. We need to ask ourselves if using the money set aside in the new car fund entirely to buy a new car is the right decision, or if buying a used car and using the balance of the savings towards a different goal is the right decision, and so on. What we regret in these cases is the opportunity cost–the cost of all of the things we gave up to choose something else. The downside to questioning ourselves in this manner… Read more »

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
8 years ago
Reply to  Mary T

Interesting. I have the same problem with Targeted Savings accounts. I don’t want to use them because they are still a downward tumble for my overall net worth. Even if they aren’t calculated on paper, I *know* I have the money sitting there. Instead I always scramble to cover costs of travel or vet car or car maintenance within my means, and supplement with the fund. Ugh! Its a needless scramble. I like the idea of a goal to use your fund. On the night of a big purchase, I never sleep. I just don’t. I play the whole thing… Read more »

Ccq
Ccq
8 years ago
Reply to  Mary T

Then TREAT YO SELF!! :D. Seriously though. My husband saved a bunch of money over the course of a year and a half for a couch (we didnt have one). There was a little pang to pay off the card with all of that awesome saved money, but that’s why we saved it. We discussed using it for some bills coming but, but then decided it wouldn’t make that big a dent in bills, but it would be a huge boost to our quality of living. We have our couch now and love it, thanks to our careful saving, research… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago
Reply to  Mary T

People can also have untreated anxiety disorder that is affecting them more than they realize. Treatment is a good thing.

Ivy
Ivy
8 years ago

10 years ago we moved from Europe to the US to start grad school. On our 3rd day here we were exploring Philly and decided to have a look at a gym nearby with the vague idea that it will be good to have a place to exercise. As soon as we entered, a salesman took over and before we knew what was happening we signed a membership contract. In a month or so we realized this was not a simple membership contract, but a financing agreement for 3 years where the membership fee is effectively like a loan monthly… Read more »

JTG
JTG
8 years ago

The only regret I have is taking out student loan debt; but that regret is tempered by the fact that I wouldn’t have the career – or comfortable income – that I enjoy without that investment in education. These days, my biggest concerns revolve around making solid financial decisions that I won’t regret later on. For instance, I’m currently struggling with the question of how I should prioritize the following: build my emergency fund (currently at $5k), pay off my car (have the funds to do it right now without tapping emergency), or restore the brick face of my townhouse.… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

This story doesn’t make a real clear point (in what way am I supposed to “use my regret”?), so all I can say is that for the most part, I disagree. You will be a much happier person if you put your mistakes behind you rather than dwell on them. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try and learn from your failures, but to carry them around with you daily does more harm than good, I think.

AverageJoe
AverageJoe
8 years ago

I went gambling one time. When I left the casino I was $80 poorer than I’d been when I walked in. It wasn’t even fun. I thought about all the things I could have used $80 on that would have been so much more worthwhile. That’s the regret I use as a lesson whenever I think about “splurging.” How will a feel afterward about the purchase?

SB @ One Cent At A Time
SB @ One Cent At A Time
8 years ago

I never heard anyone going mad due to education stress. Naturally, I would question this Kellog study.

Finance and relationship stresses are biggest of all, in my opinion.

Kate
Kate
8 years ago

My biggest regret is buying a new car. A few years ago I got a big raise at work and was still living at home. I went out and bought a brand new jeep wrangler loaded out. I barely put anything down and financed the rest at 8.5%! When I started taking personal finance seriously my fiancé and I started to aggressively pay it off- we completely paid off 26k in a year and a half. We are now completely debt free, we were lucky to get degrees without taking student loans (paid out of pocket by working full time… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago
Reply to  Kate

Keep making “car payments” to yourself so you can pay cash for the next one.

Christa
Christa
8 years ago

My financial regret is using credit cards in college when I just couldn’t make ends meet. It took me years to pay those suckers off! But now I am credit card deft free, and I will never use them again.

Amber
Amber
8 years ago

I’m sure I have financial regrets, but I can’t think of any. Probably, as the author suggests, because I’ve put them away and maybe have not learned from them. I think that is the whole point here. Keep at least a small part of it up front where you can access it as a reminder.

Amber
Amber
8 years ago
Reply to  Amber

OK I found one. Going out for dinner or drinks with big groups of people. You generally get put next to someone you weren’t there to see, and if you are with at least an interesting person, they are distracted. It costs a ton, and is not that fun. I am really super social, but I have quit the herd mentality when going out. Give me a one on one or three any weekend over that!

Ru
Ru
8 years ago

I kind of regret all the money I spent on my gap summer, spending a week in Tokyo, staying with a a friend in Oregon and then living and working for 2 and a half months in Hawaii. BUT the experience fundamentally changed me as a person, and convinced me that I’m only happy when I’m making stuff and that a creative education was right for me. When I got to university and realised how expensive London life was, boy did I miss the £4000 I spent playing with hippies, but if I hadn’t spent that then I wouldn’t be… Read more »

Paweł Białecki
Paweł Białecki
8 years ago

Remember that money is just a money. If tomorrow world would be end, would it be important to you that you have a million of dollars? I don’t think so. Treat your money like a resource. Resource to give you things and experiences, that makes you feel happy. + treat your resources very logic. Don’t feel regret if you’d buy thing that you NEED. It’s stupid. If you need something, get/buy it. THAT’S THE MONEY FOR.

Agatha Tefora
Agatha Tefora
8 years ago

I regret resigning from a job and settling in a different country just to go home after three months and losing almost all my savings but I am glad since I took a different road. I have experienced things I will never experience, I meet different people from different countries and I have learned lessons I won’t learn if I did not choose to take a different path.

doug_eike
doug_eike
8 years ago

This is fantastic advice! We all make financial mistakes, and doing so is especially disconcerting if we have sacrificed to save the money we’ve either misspent or lost. When such a loss occurs, it’s important to put it behind you while learning from it in order to avoid doing it again. Even so, sometimes we repeat our mistakes and beat ourselves up about them all over again. Thanks for the insights!

Eugene
Eugene
8 years ago

There’s an interesting TED Talk discussing the topic too. “Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly; it reminds us that we know we can do better.” http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/kathryn_schulz_don_t_regret_regret.html

Jason
Jason
8 years ago

I too suggest Kathryn Schultz’s TED talk. Further, I think it should have been cited by this post’s author. In her talk Schultz speaks about regret and also uses the Shakespeare quote and Macbeth example. Then she speaks very similarly about sociopaths. Citing sources, and giving credit is essential, I enjoy this blog and expect to trust it.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Jason

!!!!

Jeff @ Digital Nomad Journey
Jeff @ Digital Nomad Journey
8 years ago

We have to follow our dreams. What I tell myself is “I made the best decision at the time, based upon my knowledge of the situation, experience and desires”.

Every decision is a learning process , for better or worse. And in the grand scheme of things, we can’t feel too bad about it, because worry/regret doesn’t change past actions. It only lends experience so we can hopefully make “better” decisions in the future.

Rebecca
Rebecca
8 years ago

My regret was choosing a liberal arts degree.

I’ve used that regret as motivation to pay off the degree as fast as I can to wipe the shame off my life. Although I only make 10,000 USD a year, I’ve managed to pay my 31,000 college debt down to 7,000 since I graduated since 2003. When it is paid off I will tuck the experience away and pretend it didn’t happen. I will then seek training for an actual career such as nursing or pharmacy technician.

Heather
Heather
8 years ago

Awww I wanted to hear about the mattress shopping. I desperately want a new mattress, consider me Buddy Pre-Mattress. But I don’t want to get something that won’t work long-term, and how it feels when you sit/lay on it at the store is totally different than how it works in your own home, with your own PJs and blankets and pillows and sleepytime. I don’t know how to test that, beyond at least making sure I can exchange if I need to.

Leslie
Leslie
8 years ago

Agreed. I believe certain regrets have their place in the best forgotten pile (over indulging at a party leaving you a vomitting mess) but others have a more important role that serves as education. You might not be ablee to change it, but with the lesson learned you should be able to not repeat it.

Krishanu
Krishanu
8 years ago

A couple of adages I go by:

– Make mistakes; just don’t make the same (or similar) ones over again.

– There’s not enough time in your lifetime to make all the mistakes; learn from other’s mistakes.

Brian @ Progressive Transformation
Brian @ Progressive Transformation
8 years ago

Who doesn’t have a financial regret? What always made me upset is that I paid such a high value for something that required a larger than expected commitment. I couldn’t change my behaviors or need for change although I suddenly had a materialistic possession that looked impressive on the outside.

We do this with ourselves in life ALL THE TIME. The question is, how do we find the strength to let go and move forward? Failure isn’t easy. I don’t like failure. How do we accept it? It really can be frustrating.

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