A financial expert has revealed how people who struggle to save money could be stuck in an ’emotional spending cycle’.
Clare Seal, the UK-based money-saving expert behind popular Instagram account @myfrugalyear, has penned The Real Life Money Journal as a practical guide for people who want to get their spending under control.
In an extract shared exclusively with Femail, Clare explains that overspending caused by emotional triggers is common, in the same way that people who struggle with their weight might be trapped in a cycle of ’emotional eating’.
Here, with the help of a handy flowchart, Clare reveals the questions you should ask if you want to finally beat the habit – and shares tips on how to prioritise your spending so you only buy items you really need.
Stop and think: Clare suggests asking yourself these questions each time you shop online
What is the emotional spending cycle?
Overspending caused by emotional triggers is a very common issue and, although yet to be officially categorised as a form of addiction, the compulsion to shop can be incredibly difficult to resist.
Clare Seal has penned The Real Life Money Journal as a practical guide to help people who want to get their spending under control
Often, the cycle goes like this:
FEELING A STRONG NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE EMOTION -> BUY SOMETHING TO ASSUAGE OR AMPLIFY THAT FEELING -> REALISE THAT YOU’VE OVERSPENT -> FEEL ANXIOUS OR DEPRESSED ABOUT OVERSPENDING -> THE CYCLE REPEATS
Once begun, this cycle can be difficult to break, and can continue for years on end, creating a spiral of negative feelings around money and a steadily declining confidence in your own ability to manage your cash.
Even once identified, it can be easy to laugh off for a time, especially in our current culture of consumerism – but that doesn’t negate the very real effect this cycle has on your mental health and financial situation.
Triggers for emotional spending include:
- low mood
- work stress
- feeling overwhelmed
- feeling good, and not wanting to ‘ruin’ it by thinking of your budget
Think about the things that trigger emotional spending for you. It might help to look back through some bank statements and identify purchases that you made for the wrong reasons, then think about what prompted that behaviour.
Breaking the cycle
Checklist for reducing impulse spending
- Unsubscribe from marketing emails.
- Delete shopping apps.
- Remove your credit and debit card details from your device’s autofill function.
- Disable thumbprint payments on your phone.
- Create a rule that you will always sleep on non-essential purchase decisions, and enlist someone to help you to do this.
- Have a phone curfew (most people find that their impulse spending happens later in the evening).
These emotional forces can override your normal, logical decisionmaking process, and make it very difficult to know whether you’re spending for the right reasons or the wrong ones. I have found that the best way to tackle this problem is to introduce some circuit-breaker questions every time you feel the urge to spend.
It’s very difficult to completely overcome the urge to spend emotionally, but in a lot of ways, that doesn’t matter – because even if it’s hard to get rid of the impulse altogether, what we can change is the way that we deal with that impulse.
We don’t have to condemn ourselves to a life of overspending and financial anxiety just because we get tempted to hit the shops (or, more realistically, our smartphones) when we’re struggling to cope with – or need a distraction from – the way we’re feeling.
There’s no need to perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophecy of being ‘bad with money’ any longer. We can turn the cycle into a circuit, with switches along the way that can help us put a halt to a sequence of events that can sometimes feel inevitable.
This diagram is something you should be able to come back to time after time, on every occasion where those toxic spending habits start to coax you back again.
You can customise it with your own notes, or add more circuitbreaker questions as you figure out what works for you. Once you are able to weed out all of your toxic or impulsive spending habits, you will be able to develop a healthy way of shopping.
What to do instead of spending
- Go out for a walk.
- Pick up the phone and call someone for a chat.
- Read a book.
- Write down how you’re feeling.
- Listen to a podcast.
- Watch a TV show or film that you enjoy (and really watch it – don’t double-screen).
- Do some stretches.
- Paint your nails (this is a good one, as you won’t be able to operate your phone or computer for at least a few minutes while the polish is drying).
Separating ‘wants’ from ‘needs’ and planning to afford both
Spending money is not something we can simply opt out of entirely; like food and sleep, it’s an important and unavoidable part of life. Instead, we need to find a way to make it work for us.
Before we dive in, I’m going to begin with a bold statement. It’s something that seems to have got lost in the (justified) backlash against consumerism and the trends towards minimalism and frantic frugality in some social media spheres.
It’s OK to want things.
Clare shares her advice in her new book, the Real Life Money Journal, pictured
And I mean material things, holidays, pricey day trips. As we grow more consumed and distracted by the daily comings and goings of our lives, it can become increasingly difficult to tell what we ‘want’ and what we ‘need’. It’s easy to become fixated on certain items that we feel we ‘need’: things that we tell ourselves will fix everything.
It might be a material possession (I’d be able to manage my life much better if I had a Dyson AirWrap) or an experience (we just need a holiday), but usually whatever you are trying to solve comes from somewhere deeper than just flat hair or wanderlust.
It’s easy to get fixated on certain ‘wonder’ products and see them as necessities, rather than things that many people manage to live successful and fulfilled lives without. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a certain material possession is the gateway to whatever you want to achieve.
Nine times out of ten, that’s not the case. I’m not being flippant about the importance of access to technology, but I wrote my first book on a very old laptop with a damaged screen and a broken charging port, meaning that I could only work for an hour at a time.
I’m writing this one on a new MacBook – a much agonised-over investment in my career – and I can tell you honestly, it’s been no easier to get the words on to the page.
Often, we talk ourselves into thinking that everything will magically fall into place when we finally get ‘the thing’ – and then we get it, and things don’t fall into place. This can leave us with an empty feeling that perpetuates the toxic spending cycle we looked at earlier
Work out priorities
Of course, just because you need something, doesn’t mean that you can necessarily afford it. Keep a running list of the things that you need, how much they will cost and how much of a priority they are (ranging from low- to high-priority). I find prioritising really useful, because it helps me to keep my perspective when I’m presented with a Facebook ad for one of the things further down the list.
Since I began my own journey to pull apart and rebuild my relationship with money, I’ve realised that I actually ‘need’ very little.
I need time and space to work, I need quality time with my family, I need decent food and a roof over my head, and I need adequate storage for my husband’s inexplicably large collection of football shirts.
Those are the things that I need in order to function and be largely content.
The difficulty is that every person has different needs: ones that are completely unique to them.
When you are considering a purchase, the best way to tell whether it is a ‘want’ or a ‘need’ (if you don’t immediately know) is to write the item down, and then wait for a while.
Once you’ve added something to the list, wait a week or two and see whether you still feel like you need it, or if you’ve found a way to make things work without it.
What you want
Going back to what I said originally, though: we’re allowed to want things. Reducing how much we consume is a great thing – for our bank balances, for our wellbeing and for the environment – but it’s quite unrealistic for most people to stop wanting completely.
Spending money that you’ve worked hard to earn on something that you really want can actually be a very rewarding experience, and I can attest to the fact that paying for a considered ‘treat’ purchase with properly ‘disposable’ cash rather than credit is an absolute thrill.
It took me a while to stop feeling guilty about buying inessential things, because I had managed to get those judgements so wrong in the past, and I needed time to learn to trust myself again when it came to ‘unnecessary purchases’.
Just as with the ‘needs’ lists, I have found that keeping a running list of things that I want is super helpful – not only because it helps me to spend mindfully, but also because whenever I’m asked what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I have a ready-made list to refer back to. And if it’s not special enough to be a birthday or Christmas gift, then what’s it doing on my ‘Want List’ anyway?
My Want List has a ‘Why?’ column – not because I think anyone should have to painstakingly justify everything they buy for themselves, but just to make sure that everything on the list is there for the right reasons, and that I’m not going to end up with buyer’s remorse afterwards.
If the reason something is on your Want List is simply that your favourite influencer has it, or that you’ve seen it so many times on Instagram that it’s now etched on to the backs of your eyelids, then it probably doesn’t belong on this list, but in a special filing cabinet we’ll be learning about next (the ‘I saw it on social media’ bin).
The ‘I saw it on social media’ bin
We all know that social media can be a great place to get inspiration for everything from fashion and interiors to careers and creativity, but we also know that it’s been increasingly co-opted by big brands wanting to sell to us, whether in paid media ads or via collaborations with creatives and influencers.
The effect of this is not only acute (we see a gorgeous dress on a gorgeous person, and we want to own it there and then), but also cumulative (we see a huge number of our ‘peers’ enjoying lovely lifestyles filled with luxury goods, and our expectations for our own lives, homes and wardrobes are elevated, whether or not we have the means to afford these things).
As retailers seek to remove friction from the customer journey by decreasing the number of clicks you need to make to get you from Instagram to the ‘Thanks for your order’ page, it’s becoming easier and easier to sleepwalk your way through social media purchases and then end up footing the bill for something you weren’t even properly committed to in the first place.
Sometimes, even if you manage to resist this slippery slope, the item remains lodged in your brain – so please feel free to chuck any abandoned impulse social media purchases in the bin. This can include items where you’ve caught yourself before checking out, and those items you’ve decided against putting on your Want List after considering the ‘why’ column.
The Real Life Money Journal by Clare Seal, £14.99, Headline, is out now