4 Steps to Have a Healthier Attitude Towards Spending Money

There is such a thing as being too frugal.
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There is such a thing as being too frugal.

During my last year of college, I safely tucked away some of the money I had earned into my savings account to pay for meals for my upcoming honeymoon to Iceland. We love to eat lots of great, local food, so I knew I wanted to have quite a bit of dough reserved for that.

I found, though, that despite having saved specifically for this trip, I still struggled to spend it while we were on our travels. I would tell my husband, “Let’s skip lunch so we can eat a nice dinner,” or, “We can eat this over that because it’s cheaper.”

My husband pointed out that my strict saving habit was interfering with my ability to enjoy the experiences we had budgeted for, and could thus afford. I was simply hoarding money, too anxious to spend it and see my bank account number drop. As financial coach Adam Hagerman points out for U.S. News, “Chronic savers seem to just have this pile of money. It's never allocated to anything.”

Being overly conscious and frugal with my money paralyzed me so much that I even struggled to spend it on necessary items. I would drive as little as possible, trying not to run down my gas tank. I would spend multiple hours in the grocery store comparing prices. A thought constantly replayed in my brain: “I don’t want to spend any money, because what if I need it later?”

While a sense of frugality is important, it should prevent anxiety, not cause it. It shouldn’t cause you to hate yourself for paying rent or school costs, like it did me. Laura Vanderkam, Verily contributor and author of All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth, says, “Money is a tool to build the life you want.”

I wanted the feelings of anxiety, guilt, and self-hatred over spending to stop. So I started trying to view money as an instrument, not as an inhibitor. This didn’t mean I would suddenly go on shopping sprees or blow all of my money on things. But I tried to recognize that we earn money so that we can use it to survive and thrive. In her book, and in a recent interview I conducted, Vanderkam shared her thoughts on how to get comfortable with money rather than letting it rule our lives. 

View your bank account as just a number

The root of my spending anxiety came from a feeling of worthlessness in the face of a decreasing bank account.

I first began to worry over spending money when I went to college and had to buy groceries on my own. What I thought was plenty to spend on groceries wasn’t nearly enough, so I ended up spending way more of my food budget than I had anticipated. It made my pulse skyrocket.

“For all the obsession regarding our net worth, most of us fail to consider our decisions rationally, and in the end we succumb to one, essentially universal, basic financial assumption: there is never enough,” writes Vanderkam.

Money is of no value if all it does is collect dust. The purpose of money is to afford services and purchases that enable us to live with dignity. Even my savings account will eventually go toward sustaining my life, either in an emergency or in retirement. I had to remind myself that the number in my account doesn’t define how much I “have” or am worth. We all have much more than money: family, friendships, and personal fulfillment.

Don't just save for your future

When I was growing up, my parents would give me an allowance every month and tell me to save ten percent of it. It was a great habit to start. But while in college, I learned that saving money without a specific goal or purpose is hard. Why should I put my money in a savings account if I’m not saving it for anything? This was way before retirement even crossed my mind.

Then, once I understood that saving money meant building one’s future and security, I stuck to that goal religiously. My savings account was for nothing else. “Many of us want to save money and build up assets, and that’s a good thing,” says Vanderkam. “But like any emotion you can take that too far.”

I realized that having more than one account would be necessary for me. After saving money for our future and living expenses, I also started saving some money for something I knew I wanted to have or do. Currently, this means setting aside extra money my husband and I make for a trip to Montreal.

“You need to be clear on what your values are,” says Vanderkam. “It’s very easy to spend money mindlessly, which can trigger bad feelings about it.” She points out that eliminating spending on smaller things you don’t really care about can lead to saving that money, bundling it, and spending it on something bigger that you do care for and value.

Give yourself permission to spend money on small non-essentials

Apart from saving my money for something big that I want, I’ve also begun to allocate money into a day-to-day “fun” account.

To lose the guilt that came with spending money, I needed to know how much I could use on non-essential items. Just like having a fixed amount of money set aside for expenses like rent, groceries, and gas every month, I started to set aside a small budget for things I enjoy, such as calligraphy pens, coconut milk iced lattes, and an occasional new shirt from my favorite clothing brand. With this new habit, I knew the money was meant for these “nice-to-have” items, so I didn’t feel bad when I spent it on them.

“Be clear on what does matter to you and seems really awesome to you,” says Vanderkam. “Maybe it’s something like traveling, or you have a certain business you’d like to start, or you’re very happy when you have lovely stationery. No judgements here.” Despite all the advice out there on how to properly divvy up your income, no one here is saying that you have to spend money a certain way.

If you are worried about having enough money to spend on non-essentials, Vanderkam suggests finding a “side hustle” (like one of these ideas for ways to earn money on the side by doing something you love). “It could be that you sell stuff on Etsy or you babysit your neighbor’s kids on Saturdays,” she advises. “And you could consciously say that the money that doesn’t go to taxes from that is fun money.”

Spend your money where it holds more value

One reason I experienced anxiety when it came to spending was that what I was purchasing was not as fulfilling as I thought it would be. Science agrees. One study published in Science finds that “participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.”

One way I eliminated anxiety over spending was to value using it for experiences over things. When we went to Iceland, I wish I had realized that it wasn’t just the food that I was spending my money on, but the experience behind trying new and exciting cuisines that I had never seen or heard of before. Now when I go to the movies, I don’t view it as blowing $25, but as enjoying a special date night with my husband. Thankfully, our budget enables us to enjoy these experiences without feeling uneasy.

A research study in the North American Journal of Psychology reports that being less materialistic and freer with how we spend our money is proven to expand our openness to new experiences. “Experiences are less subjective to comparison,” says Vanderkam. “That lack of comparison allows us to draw more pleasure from experiences.”

The next time you feel anxious about spending money, ask yourself if the experience is worth it to you. If you’re thinking about buying a $100 dress, for instance, ask, “Am I willing to pay $5 to experience wearing this dress at least 20 times this year?”

If you still feel spending anxiety, “start by choosing something you’ve always wanted to do that has a reasonable price tag and get a friend to do it with you,” says Vanderkam. That way, you learn to spend your money on an experience that matters to you while also fulfilling your social needs.

I now feel confident when I spend my money because I know I’m saving for the future and taking care of my basic needs. And I know how to maximize the rest of it in a way that works best for our lifestyle.

Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia