Freedom from Mindless Spending

This is a guest post from April Dykman, an avid GRS reader, and a writer and editor by trade. April is a potential Staff Writer for Get Rich Slowly. April is an active commenter at this site.

“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.

Freedom
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!

Monopoly money photo by Goat Girl Photos. Sticky Note photo courtesy of Lynn Brem from the excellent website, Take Back Your Brain.

More about...Psychology

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Martin
Martin
10 years ago

If this is a typical example of April’s writing style, I think that it fits very well on your blog JD. I agree that it seems like something you could have written (in a good way).

Just my 2 cents. I enjoyed it very much. Now I have to go read about that Csik… Czik… Ch…. whatever the guy’s name is.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I’m not anti credit card like some folks (alhtough we don’t use ours except for business expenses and travel) but I too found my credit card spending mindless. Even though I paid off my credit card in full each month I spent double, and some times more than double, what I spend now on day to day spending (entertainement, eating out, clothes, personal expenses, etc.). I just didn’t pay any real attention to my spending, although I promised myself I would keep it under a certain level. Now we use our debit cards and we have a limited amount funds… Read more »

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

This is a great article! I love frank articles on the emotional side of dealing with money that GRS posts. Thanks April for the candid insights.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

And I love Fight Club for its impactful message that we can be a slave to our possessions and therefore a slave to our job and the expectations of others.

When I was driving my 1999 paid for car (now I drive a 2006 paid for car) and people gave me a hard time about it I kept telling myself that I didn’t need to impress these people with my car and if they were going to judge me by the kind of car I drove than there opinions were worth bunk.

Jason D Barr
Jason D Barr
10 years ago

Great article, April!

ObliviousInvestor
ObliviousInvestor
10 years ago

Hehe. I love the Fight Club reference.

As much as some people don’t approve of the movie, I think it’s the most delightfully entertaining anti consumerism statement I’ve ever encountered.

Bob
Bob
10 years ago

Great post. As Martin mentioned, if this is her writing style, it would def fit well with GRS. I could totally relate to this, and I’ve done most of these steps to stray away from mindless spending and it has worked wonders for my debt reduction and savings accumulation.

Ophelie
Ophelie
10 years ago

Yeah, I could relate to this, too. My boyfriend cut up his credit card last night, and I kept asking him, “but what if we need to rent a car? What if you need something online? What if…”, but I know that he made the right choice for him. It’s just too easy otherwise.
Mindful spending, mindful living — it sounds like a better way to be.

sybil
sybil
10 years ago

This really is a great piece – I was struck by the acceptance of personal responsibility and the growing self-awareness that marked April’s evolution from an undisciplined spender to a thoughtful, focused person. It really is about finally maturing, isn’t it? Accepting that every action has consequences and YOU control those events.

Trini
Trini
10 years ago

I enjoyed the post as well. It reminded me of a shopping experience I had with a friend – I personally don’t buy much at all, and if I do, I agonize over choices (it once took me 30 minutes to pick one bottle of shampoo over another). Her philosophy was if you can’t decide, buy em both, and return one later. That sorta made sense … but I can see how it would be a gigantic waste of money. What if you didn’t get around to returning the unwanted thing in the 30 day window? Beyond that, I remember… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I like April’s post. Understanding the emotional/psychological reasons why we spend & where we spend are at the core of really changing our behaviors. And knowing that other people have undergone transformation helps me to believe that I will be able to keep on doing it too. Very encouraging. The best thing that I did for myself to stop unnecessary spending was to cancel catalog subscriptions and stop wandering in stores. If I don’t window shop, I tend not to shop at all. I’m much more responsible now about buying only what I need and planning for it. (Ex. I… Read more »

Jeff In Debt
Jeff In Debt
10 years ago

This is a great post. Thank you for sharing this personal experience with us. The emotion versus logic battle could not be any more true, and is something I’m battling with now.

Also I like the list of items that make you happy. I may try that out myself.

Matt B.
Matt B.
10 years ago

But what if shopping actually IS something that makes someone happy?

April Dykman
April Dykman
10 years ago

@Sam and ObliviousInvestor–Glad you guys liked the Fight Club reference. The strange thing is that as off-putting as that movie is to some, the more I read about mindfulness and yoga philosophy, the more I’m reminded of Fight Club. @Kate–Love that tip about avoiding the tactile sensation! @Matt–I actually love shopping. Anthropologie is my kryptonite. But I wasn’t able to enjoy things I bought because I had debt hanging over me, and many times it was Stuff I only wanted in the moment. There was a lot of guilt afterward, and that’s not good. When I make a mindful purchase… Read more »

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
10 years ago

Finding activities create flow is so important to finding some meaning in life. The danger is in finding flow in activities that lead to the same temptations we had before we found them. When I was in college, I got really into home recording. I could stay up 36 hours straight working on a recording and regularly did on the weekends. However, it didn’t take long to get distracted by all the awesome (and expensive) gear available to make my recordings better. Over several years, I spent a huge chunk of my money on recording equipment. Now, I’m a little… Read more »

Shane
Shane
10 years ago

@Matt B.

I don’t think shopping can truly make someone happy unless he is in a position to comfortably afford it.

Nate
Nate
10 years ago

This was simply fantastic. My favorite of the sampling we have been exposed to so far. I would like to see the next offering by this candidate have something more tangible in line with frugality. That being said, I enjoyed this immensely.

RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
10 years ago

I’m pretty surprised with how bad the economy is, there would really be “mindless spenders” out there. That said, if there are, then like the article says, the #1 thing to do is TRACK YOU MONEY for a couple weeks to wake yourself up from self destruction.

Shop if you want to. But beaware of the return policy and return everything!

Best,

RB

Mar
Mar
10 years ago

Great post, April! Very helpful

KellyB
KellyB
10 years ago

Great post April! Very insightful and not “too tough on myself” at the same time. Enjoyed it, thanks.

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

I’m definitely working on my impulse spending. I’ve spent a lot of time soul searching (for lack of better words), and I have realized that no, simply accumulating Stuff I can’t really afford doesn’t make me happy. When I give my purchases a bit of thought, and look forward to them, then I enjoy the purchase more. Lots of people don’t naturally get satisfaction from the “simple things”, sadly. It’s often a concentrated effort on my part to go for a walk without ending up at the mall, but I am learning to enjoy life without spending, and it is… Read more »

Emily D
Emily D
10 years ago

I love the idea of a visual. I’m printing off a picture of beautiful Hawaii to tack up on the wall. My husband and I have made it a goal to be financially prepared to take that trip on our 10 year anniversary.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

April–this is a truly great post! I love the discussion of Flow. There are activities I get involved with where I lose myself and my concerns, and just produce and/or enjoy what I’m doing! But I never had an idea that there was a word to describe it. On the spending priorities, I think the problem we all have to one degree or another is that we live in a culture that tells us we can have it all. We don’t have to chose between A and B, we can have them both, and while were at it, we can… Read more »

Sandy
Sandy
10 years ago

This is a great post. It’s the best of the three samples we’ve seen, as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t usually comment although I read this blog about 5 days of the week. I already hope to read more posts by April!!

Nate
Nate
10 years ago

Oh I forgot to mention one of the most powerful ways I control my spending is to go a, “week with no spending” (I literally prepay any bills that might fall during that week etc. to ensure that I spend nothing during that week). It sort of feels like fasting is a way — you feel the pain for a day or so and then it subsides. You are just acutely aware of everything you are doing — and how to avoid spending a dime. I do it for a week partly because I think a month is unreasonable for… Read more »

Saving at 40
Saving at 40
10 years ago

I really related to April’s article. I have been struggling with the emotional side of spending/saving for a few years. I am more mindful now when shopping. There is no joy in a purchase that I feel guilty about. How much time does it really take to change?

ClaireTN
ClaireTN
10 years ago

I love this post! It’s very insightful and fits well with the style of your blog and the themes you often emphasize, but also gives us a different voice. Plus, April is a very good writer.

April Dykman
April Dykman
10 years ago

@Tyler–Yes, spending on our flow activities can be dangerous! I used to hit up REI before every backpacking trip, when really my family could outfit a small army with all of the gear we own. That’s when I have to stop and ask myself if I really need it or if I can get by without it. Waking up surrounded by mountains and desert makes me happy, not the new fleece pullover I bought for the event. It’s very easy to get carried away when it’s an activity you love, though. @Kevin–Spending can definitely make a person feel powerful. When… Read more »

-hilde
-hilde
10 years ago

Liked this post a lot. I’d like to see more posts adressing how to bridge the gap between what we know we should be doing and what we actually do when it comes to money.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

I think that the best way to diminish negative emotions is by replacing them with positive emotions. I cut my spending dramatically without ever feeling a need to practice any self-denial. I made detailed plans as to what I would do with the money saved by not giving in to the urge to participate in mindless consumerism. From that point forward, it was making progress on my plan that excited me. Rather than trying to make myself feel good by spending I was making myself feel good by saving. It was a question of rejecting the images of “The Good… Read more »

Jean
Jean
10 years ago

Like several other responders, I like the idea of using cleverly placed visual reminders of one’s larger goals as a way to help curb unnecessary spending. In one of J.D.’s earlier posts, he talked about removing obstacles that stand between you and your goals — be they financial or otherwise. April’s visual reminders are a way to ADD obstacles between you and your urge to spend. Same principle, reverse application: nice.

I’ll definitely give it a try.

Kim
Kim
10 years ago

I second what -hilde- said. I know what to do, I just can’t seem to get myself to do it.

Loved the post!

Rich
Rich
10 years ago

Terrific post and I could really identify with the perspective and the personal take on the situation. Good luck with the writing position April, look forward to reading more of your insights!

rachel
rachel
10 years ago

first time commenter, though i’ve been reading GRS for months now and i love it. keep up the good work, jd, i love your practicability and good humour you offer advice with.

there, sucking up out of the way 😉

i really enjoyed this post too, and will look forward to whatever else april has to write. wishing you luck in finding the right person to be your co-writer 🙂 xx

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

If I had to vote today, it would be for this article. It’s just what I need to read right now. I can’t wait for the future submissions from other contestants!

Marianne
Marianne
10 years ago

I loved this post, especially because I very much identify with the emotional high that comes from shopping, especially for clothes, accessories, etc. I’ve managed to avoid debt so far, but one of the things stopping me from achieving my savings goals is my attitude towards Stuff as a way to reinvent myself. I’ve started the process of purging, and now you’ve inspired me to make my own list of things that make me happy.

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

Great read April. That part about being a perfectionist being exhausting really spoke to me. In my job as a CPA I have to be detail-oriented, but sometimes (OK most of the time) that also carries over to my personal life. I demand perfection from everybody. That causes stress, especially with my wife. I realize I need to “let it go” and I’m working on it.

Deemeter
Deemeter
10 years ago

I have been a reader of GRS for over a year and this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment. I feel like I could’ve written this post myself – only it likely wouldn’t have sounded nearly as professional 🙂 I rode the rollercoaster for years and used shopping as a way to fill other voids in my life. I love this article because it reminded me how much progress I’ve made. It’s easy to still get down on myself because I bought a $20 set of BBQ tools on impulse at the grocery store (just an example)… Read more »

sf
sf
10 years ago

Now with better spelling: Best writer yet. Great. I come here in part for high quality, pure, mainline=able memoir in serial form, (which April’s post makes me think of because she does it well). Er, OK, I come for a fantastic combination of that narrative with service journalism. But I don’t go to msnbc or other money sites, even though perhaps I “should,” that is, the journalism isn’t even vaguely as sticky without the ongoing story. So. JD, a roundabout plea for the personal in your eventual book: keep the story in it, keep yourself in it. But try to… Read more »

AJ
AJ
10 years ago

This was a great post April, I have been able to eliminate almost $9,000 in credit card debt in 10 month using a lot of this mental focus. As you mentioned a big key for me was focusing on my ultimate goals. I will make my last payment in about 1 month and boy will I feel free and more importantly it will never happen again!!

Erin M.
Erin M.
10 years ago

Absolutely loved this article. I think the psychological aspect of money is fascinating. The article made me think about a Zen Habits simplicity link from the GRS blog a while ago. It’s all about prioritizing.

Now, I’m going to go and cut out that picture of a vineyard in California and go from there!

Ryan Stackhouse
Ryan Stackhouse
10 years ago

Great post. I really relate with the part that you wrote about flow. I find that when I’m engaged in activities and hobbies that get me in the “zone,” I forget about the trivial stuff in life and things are much more enjoyable. I also can relate with the perfectionism stuff. I am my own worst enemy. That’s a big battle and I think we all can get ourselves down more than anyone else could. Thanks for beating down the path for the rest of us and giving us a fresh perspective.

Teresa
Teresa
10 years ago

This is exactly how I feel about my credit card and my past emotionally — great article! Thank you for such insighful and honest writing!

Piccolina
Piccolina
10 years ago

More posts like this please!!

I really enjoyed the discussion of the relationship between personal finances and life’s purpose/priorities. I love reading about how April is learning how to live well while spending less money.

This was spot on! Thank you, April!

ldk
ldk
10 years ago

Great post/great voice. I agree that the first step on any meaningful journey is to know yourself and why you do the things you do. (& in this context, why you buy the things you buy!)

and….Perfect is Boring!!

Cheers~

Stephen
Stephen
10 years ago

Quality post, April. Another reason why mindful spending feels empowering is that you can now trust yourself to make the right money decision in spite of fickle emotions and peer pressure. In effect, you became a powerful decision-maker.

Lise
Lise
10 years ago

Personally I think JD has it together and sometimes I find that frustrating. He doesn’t even have the delayed gratification of the mini-cooper to inspire me. Its kind of reading a weight loss advice column written by a skinny person at times, inspiring, but sometimes not relateable. This article was relateable and i liked that. However, as a gap in the personal finance picture I think I would personally benefit from hearing from someone still figuring out how to get control.

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

@Lise (#47)
Yes, yes yes. This is one of the things I’m trying to address by finding another writer or two. I’m not perfect, and I don’t mean to sound like I am. But I’ve made huge strides. Using your analogy, it’s as if I’ve lost the weight and am fit now, and making mostly correct choices (with some chocolate chip cookies now and then). I recognize that this works for some people, but others need to hear from somebody still in the process, as I was when I started GRS.

DC Portland
DC Portland
10 years ago

Another great GRS post; thanks April and JD! I would like to expand on a couple of things April covered: 1) Emotions truly do drive our intentions, judgments, and behaviors. What we often fail to recognize is that this happens unconsciously. Noble prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, describes the “affect heuristic” as the most important element of our psyches leading to actual behaviors. The affect heuristic is primarily unconscious and represents our “gut”, emotional response to every stimulus in our environment. 2) Materialism is toxic. Loads of scientific research is showing that emotional connections with things over experiences is very… Read more »

arg
arg
10 years ago

I liked the post okay, but personally preferred the previous 2. I rarely get that much out of a broad piece like this; I like the ones about specific day to day stuff like this week’s on grocery shopping or couch surfing. I thought both were really well written and came at practical stuff from a new angle. Sorry to be a slightly negative voice but if I had to vote today I would vote for Monday’s or Tuesday’s writer.

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