How I broke a spending habit that was wrecking my budget

Do you have bad spending habits? Learn noteworthy insight on how to save your budget without giving up too much.

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A few years ago, the night before a big event where I wasn't going to know many people, I left work and headed to the mall. In shoes that were in no way appropriate for extended walking, I began the hunt for the perfect outfit to wear the following day. After an hour and a half of overturning all my usual stores, I was energy-depleted, sore-footed, and still empty-handed. Realizing I might strike out, panic started to set in.

As unusual as this high-stakes shopping trip may sound, it had become a usual occurrence for me. Events with strangers ramped up my stress levels, but a new outfit seemed to give me the boost of confidence I needed to get through it. Before long, every event became a reason to shop.

I would often find myself scouring for my look on the eve of the event. Though I normally enjoyed shopping, these trips weren't for pleasure. I was on a mission to find the right camouflage—the one thing that would make me feel like I belonged somewhere I would have otherwise felt out of place.

I felt like the camouflage was the only remedy to my nerves. This may sound more like a personal problem than a financial one, but really, it's both. The anxiety was the personal problem; purchasing camouflage, whether it was in the budget or not, whether it was affordable or not, and whether I had other things to spend my money on or not, was the financial problem. I was usually good about budgeting and saving, but when it came to these outfits, I didn't care about that.

Back then, I was totally unaware of this pattern. It wasn't until this need to blend in had me exhausted, anxious, and overspent that I started to recognize something was wrong. The burden of preparing for the events had become more taxing than the events themselves, and when I looked at how much I was spending, it just didn't make sense.

It's in these moments when our coping strategies become untenable that the opportunity to change arises. As Victor Frankl said, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

It was the response—the shopping trips—that I recognized as problematic first. I noticed the stress and tension I would feel while shopping and that I wasn't enjoying myself at all. I observed how critical it felt that I find the right outfit, and I started to question why that was. Eventually, that led me back to the stimulus—the events and the onset of my nerves—until I finally made the connection between the 2.

We all have stimuli in our lives that push us toward certain, potentially problematic responses. 3 people in our neighborhood buy new cars, so we buy one. We can't risk looking cheap to our friends, so we buy the best orchestra seats at the theatre. We're frustrated with work, so we go out for nice lunches every day. We feel guilty for not spending enough time with our kids, so we take them on expensive vacations to make up for it. None of these things are inherently wrong, but if they jeopardize our financial security, we suddenly have 2 competing interests: the thing we need to do emotionally and the thing we need to do financially. If we don't create space between the stimulus and response, the emotional need will win every time.

Once we've learned to identify our stimulus as it happens (no small feat), feeling it should be a signal to slow down. By remembering to PAUSE and ask ourselves some questions, we give ourselves the space to reflect before we respond.

P — Purpose

  • What am I trying to accomplish?
  • What problem does this solve? Am I targeting the symptom or the cause?
  • Will I have to repeat this in the future?
  • Am I trying to feel good, protect myself, exert control, or give and show love?

A new outfit will protect me from feeling out of place tomorrow, but until I address my feelings, I'll have to keep buying new clothes.

A — Alternative

  • Is there a better way to accomplish my goal?
  • Do I already have what I need?
  • Are there things that are more important to me than this?
  • What else can I do to feel good in this moment?

Instead of buying more clothes, I could buy an audiobook on how to conquer my nerves and put the money I save toward a trip.

U — Upshot

  • Will spending this money put me in a better situation? In what way?
  • What would happen if I don't spend/save/give away this money?
  • Will the negative consequences outlast the positive ones?
  • Will I feel proud or ashamed?
  • Is this purchase helping me be who I want to be?

I might feel more comfortable at the event, but I'm giving up time with my family to shop, and I'm reinforcing the idea that the outfit is more important than everything else.

S — Scarcity

  • Is this an opportunity that will go away if I wait?
  • Are external forces creating an artificial sense of urgency?
  • Will this feel equally important 10 minutes, 10 days, or 10 months from now? 

If I get past this event, I won't want new clothes but if I do, they'll still be on sale.

E — Emotion

  • What emotion am I feeling right now?
  • Do I feel any physical sensations, like tension or sweat?
  • When do I usually feel this way?
  • What do I usually do when I feel this way?

I feel scared of being out of place, which is usually when I shop and overspend.

Thinking through these questions before moving forward converts a knee-jerk response to an intentional one. It helps us recognize our patterns and evaluate if our habits are really helping us the way we think they are. In my case, after slowly growing the space between stimulus and response, I've gladly traded in stress-induced shopping for meditation and lots of time to pick something from my closet.

If you find yourself caught in a reflexive spending, giving, or saving pattern, the trick to moving forward might just be to pause.

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Article copyright 2018 by Danielle Seurkamp. Reprinted from the December 19, 2018 issue with permission from Forbes.
The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data.
This reprint is supplied by Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC.
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