Freedom from Mindless Spending

“People’s complex attitudes toward money often defy economic theory.” — Drazen Prelec, associate professor of marketing at the Sloan School of Management

There was a time not so very long ago that I didn’t pay much attention to where my money went. I always paid more than the minimum on my credit card, but I still wasn’t making significant progress in debt reduction.

For many people, it simply isn’t enough to have a tactical plan to pay off debt. We know we should spend less than we earn, but as Drazen Prelec noted in the quote above, people have complex attitudes toward money. When emotion and logic are at odds, emotion usually wins.

In retrospect, there are five phases I went through to change my relationship with money. Note that my process wasn’t this linear. In fact it was quite messy, sometimes moving two steps forward and one step back.

I’d swear to myself to do better next month, and satisfied with that vague goal, put the whole thing out of my mind.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Recognizing and accepting myself

The thing of it was that I fully understood the implications of credit card debt. I saw how living paycheck-to-paycheck imprisoned me and limited my options. I was tired of feeling guilty after every purchase. I couldn’t stand that I was unable to save for travel because that money needed to go toward debt (so I wasn’t saving it all).

Logically, I got it. Emotionally, I felt a mess.

I started thinking about why I felt the urge to spend. Was I bored? Restless? Anxious?

When I was in college just a few years earlier, I was somewhat depressed. I’d been to too many funerals, I was in a bad relationship, and I’d gained weight. Shopping was a high. Shopping was a hobby and a way to reinvent myself (or so I felt).

But that was years ago. I was now in a wonderful relationship with my now-husband, and I had every reason in the world to be happy. If nothing else, I had the basics — food, shelter, and family. I started to focus on the positive things in my life, and I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention to them before. So why was I stuck in a bad pattern if life was good? What was I trying to prove, and to whom?

My self-perception was so off the mark that although I had lost the weight I’d gained and then some, I would regularly try on clothes that were two sizes too big, much to the bewilderment of the salesperson.

I wasn’t seeing myself as I was or as loved ones or even strangers saw me. I began to notice where I was being hard on myself, and I decided to try to be okay with where I was right now. Not a Calvin Klein dress from now, not five pounds from now, just now. Being a perfectionist was just too exhausting.

Finding flow

I was starting to see myself more clearly, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I knew I was sick of the roller coaster, of too much Stuff cluttering my life, of paying for the past (plus interest). But if I didn’t want what the marketers told me I should want, then what?

“I flipped through catalogs and wondered: What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” — Fight Club

What made me happy? Seems like a simple question, but to find the real answer, you have to block out a barrage of ad campaigns, expectations from family members and peers, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses.

My list of things that make me happy looks like this:

  • Cooking with my husband
  • Time spent with family and friends (playing games, telling stories, etc.)
  • Photography
  • Time spent outdoors — backpacking, kayaking, swimming
  • Yoga
  • Travel and new experiences (learning)

When engaged in many of these activities, I find “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. Flow occurs when you are so engrossed in an activity that you forget about your worries and lose track of time. For example, normally my mom can’t stay awake past 9 p.m., but when she is sewing, she can stay up until the wee hours of the morning.

I didn’t know about flow or Csikszentmihalyi at the time, but I think people are instinctively drawn to activities that get them in the zone. There are countless pastimes that could give someone flow — running, surfing, singing, playing piano, hiking, writing. According to Csikszentmihalyi, a life of many activities in flow is likely to be a life of great satisfaction.

My goal was (and still is) to spend as much time as possible in activities that give me flow, especially the ones that don’t require much money!

First steps

This introspection was all well and good and necessary, but the debt wasn’t going to just disappear because I was feeling like Buddha on the Mountaintop now. I still had to take tactical steps to kill the debt, but those steps aren’t anything you haven’t heard before. To begin, I stopped accumulating Stuff and started to track my spending.

I also purged relentlessly — but not all at once. Over the course of a year, I donated, consigned, or gave away Stuff about eight times, slowly weaning myself from things I never used, realizing it was okay to let go.

I put off purchases and considered the reasons I wanted whatever it was that I wanted.

  • Was I trying to prove something?
  • Was there a real need?
  • How often would I use or wear it?
  • Did I already own something similar?

Then I’d think about my goals. Did I want a new pair of shoes, or did I want that money to go toward a trip to Italy more? It’s helpful to use visual reminders of your goals. Find images that represent your ambitions and keep them in your purse or wallet. A lifelong Italianophile, I kept a photo of Cinque Terre on my desktop.

The visual reminders are helpful because you are more likely to make a lasting change if you focus on the positive benefit to the new course of action (extra money in my travel fund), rather than focusing on what may seem to be a sacrifice (not buying the shoes I think I need this very moment or I’ll just die).

If you still can’t decide, write down the Very Important Thing, along with where you saw it and the price. Tell yourself you can always come back and purchase it later because you’ve written down all of the information. Give it a day (or three) and see how you feel.

Many times, the intense desire to buy the Very Important Thing will dissipate. If not, maybe it’s a worthwhile purchase. Only you can decide what is most meaningful to you.


I still feel the urge to buy on impulse. Maybe it’s on sale, maybe I think there won’t be any later, or maybe I’ve just convinced myself that it’s a super smart purchase. Awful, isn’t it? After all of that work shouldn’t I be free from mindless spending? Had I not changed at all?

What changed was my self-awareness. Now I’m able to feel the craving, acknowledge that it’s there, and let mindfulness intervene before I act. Therein lies the freedom. I am no longer reacting on impulse; I am mindfully choosing my actions. I choose yes or no based on my goals. That freedom is a better high than anything I could have bought in a store.

What about you? If you struggle with mindless spending, do you know why? Have you overcome it (and if so, how)? Do you have activities that give you flow?

J.D.’s note: I personally found this piece very powerful. I could identify with a lot of April’s emotions and thought processes. “Being a perfectionist was just too exhausting,” she writes, and I think that I could have written that myself!

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