When We Make Spending Choices We Don’t Like

I currently read a fairly narrow span of subjects when it comes to blogs – personal finance of course – followed by simple living, home improvement, and homesteading sites.

At least once a month I come across a statement in various posts along the lines of, “We were lazy so we ordered takeout,” or “Too lazy to mow and now the weeds are taking over!”

my city – from a rooftop where I totally spent $4 on kombucha

 

The concept of “laziness” in relation to spending choices especially bothers me. Using that term implies an inherent slothfulness towards money in the moment the choice was made. I believe, however, that it also creates a cycle of guilt. Say that we logically hold the belief that we should cook our own dinner instead of ordering in, to further our financial goals. One night we get home late, tired and overly hungry, trip on the cat because he’s hungry too, stub our toe on that same dang corner cabinet, and we recognize that preparing dinner is going to be more of a chore than our current mindset wants to tolerate. So we order Thai food.

We order Thai food, and there’s a little voice in our head that reminds us we don’t want to spend all our money on takeout. Then there’s another little voice that chimes in reminding us we are accountable to an audience and we’ll have to admit we spent money on takeout. Before long there’s a whole chorus admonishing us for a simple choice made in a simple moment where our wants didn’t align with our goals.

Three days later when we’re writing and tallying up our spending for the week, we pen the seemingly innocuous phrase, “We were lazy so we ordered takeout,” and have reinforced to ourselves that we made a “bad” choice.

I believe it’s time we stop labeling our spending decisions as “good” or “bad” — especially to ourselves. 

To me this dichotomy just reinforces the “treat” mentality many of us fight so hard to overcome. Assigning emotional value to spending choices is also how many of us got into debt situations in the first place! Making ourselves feel guilty just adds to the pile of subconscious beliefs we have about our ability to manage our finances well.

If we take the emotion away from how we frame our decisions, choices become yes or no questions. “Does this spending fit the clearly defined goals I’ve outlined for my financial future?” 

this guy wants you to stop making yourself feel badly about money

If the answer is yes, great!

If the answer is no, it gives us an opportunity to examine our spending habits and the stories we’ve unknowingly told ourselves about why we spend. In the takeout example, perhaps we’ve just started cooking at home recently and it’s not yet enjoyable or quick. Or maybe we’re really struggling with meal prep for busy days and the idea of yet another warmed up frozen meal is not appetizing. Or it could be as simple as we’ve really, really been craving authentic Thai food from that place down the street where we spent so many great nights last summer with friends. None of these possibilities are “good” or “bad” scenarios, right? They just are. Understanding which one is the reason we chose to order Thai can help us in the future, if we can look at it objectively.

If we identify that cooking is slow and tedious, or we’re just struggling with foods being routine, we can look at changing prep time to include music, slicing and measuring portions of veggies and fruits ahead of time so all we have to do is dump ingredients together (I’ve been known to premeasure even things like cheese days ahead because I am still slow!), and trying one new recipe a week that looks plain fun. If we realize that we have had a hankering for Thai because we associate it with easy companionship and good conversations, maybe we can plan to invite friends over and make a crock pot curry next time.

The key is reframing our decisions to encourage an empowered mindset. If I thought about my cafeteria breakfast purchase this morning as a bad decision (yes, I totally did just this morning spend $8 on eggs and potatoes!), I’ve now reinforced the guilt cycle internally. Next time I get home late I’ll tell myself “Oh I’ll just make breakfast in the morning,” and when it doesn’t happen again I’ll be thinking, “Ugh! See, I still can’t get this right!” I had a little twinge at the $8 price tag, for sure, but I know by now that if I chastise myself internally over this, I’ll be more likely to do the same next time. Now instead of being able to shake off this one purchase as an aberration in the giant picture of my financial wizardry, it’s becoming a pattern associated with negative emotions. Feeling badly almost never leads to success in big endeavors.

So what the heck do we tell ourselves, then? Instead of being annoyed with my purchase this morning, I realize it’s simply a choice that I don’t like. I can clearly identify the variables that led up to this decision: I worked late last night and thought I’d prep my food this morning; I sure did sleep hard and didn’t get up on time; I forgot to boil eggs in my water for making coffee while I was showering (I thought I was a genius the first time I did that); I remembered I don’t have any bananas because I’m having an internal conflict about the ethics of buying bananas; and I hit the door with just coffee in hand. Did I berate myself all the way to work? Nope. I had a good chuckle about the very obvious outcome to my lack of preparation and the grand assumption that I could suddenly be expected to function before 5am when I don’t on any other day. I know I’m still committed to my finance journey, and I won’t allow a blip here and there to keep me from making forward progress. 

If I start noticing a pattern, then yes, it’s time to revisit my goals and make sure they still match my values. Because every spending choice at its core boils down to that yes or no question, regardless of what caused us to spend in the past.

It helps, too, to remind ourselves of how awesome we are for being on this journey at all. I know that I’m a pretty amazing human woman that has the ability to choose how my money is spent — just think about that! That is power! Most of us are in a position right now to have the privilege to choose where our money goes! Even for those of us that are choosing to fulfill minimum payments that stretch our budgets incredibly thin, we are choosing to move forward. That’s incredible!

If you soon find yourself disappointed in an impulse buy, take a moment to stop and examine the feeling, then send it on its merry way. “Thanks, guilt, for showing  up so I can look at this situation from a different perspective.”

“Does this spending choice align with my financial goals and my personal values?”

Happy Friday, finance friends!

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7 thoughts on “When We Make Spending Choices We Don’t Like”

  1. I really like this Kat. You’re not suggesting people avoid responsibility, just that they acknowledge in a way that doesn’t involve beating themselves up, which completely does not help. I struggled with the guilt and bashing for years and I’m certain it’s part of what kept us from making progress for so long.

    Now that we’re not shaming ourselves for budget mistakes, yet still acknowledging them and working on a solution, we’re making much better progress.

  2. I go through that guilt cycle and that still-not-auto-pilot morning routine thing (such a fine balance!) on a regular basis. Thank you for putting it into words so well. It’s so important to recognize that progress is made despite imperfection, and also to allow a bit of flex in our commitments to gain better financial health. I’m glad you chuckled at your need to buy breakfast. Next time I find myself in that situation, I’ll try to do the same : )

    1. I definitely can still sense those guilty feelings trying to sneak in from the sidelines (emotional habits are stubborn things!), but each time I choose to focus positively instead, the disempowering thoughts and feelings fade a little faster.

      Laughing at myself became much easier once I had made enough progress to realize that it’s just silly to allow $8 to derail my entire plan, which is very different from how I used to think 🙂

  3. Great post. So true, “If we take the emotion away from how we frame our decisions, choices become yes or no questions. ” I WISH I did this before spending $400 celebrating 2 of my close friends birthdays (why do they share the same month). I knew that I could Not afford it, but emotion clearly won. Removing the emotion makes the decision in question concise. I will frame my question in this manner next time I am confronted with such a costly decision.

    1. I still lapse back into mindless spending choices, especially this time of year that is so busy with social activities! But reframing the whole thing so that I don’t also carry guilt has made it easier and easier to evaluate spending *before* it happens.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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