A reader recently asked me to tackle he problem of how to spend without guilt once you’re out of debt.
The honest answer is that I’m not completely sure. It’s a work in progress for me. But I’ll try to come up with some suggestions nonetheless.
So let’s answer the age-old question: Once you’ve achieved your saving/debt reduction goals, how do you stop feeling guilty about spending money?
Hold onto the why
Of course, the first question is why you want to stop feeling guilty about spending. After all, it’s a useful tactic for keeping yourself in line budget-wise. You can definitely harness it to stay on point.
Well, after a while the guilt becomes a problem. It can keep you from enjoying the things/experiences you’re paying for. Also, it’s just flat-out enervating. It can consume too much of your mental bandwidth, making it harder to concentrate on larger goals. (Plus no one likes to feel bad.)
So first of all, hold on to that memory of how draining guilt is. When it starts to creep in, ask yourself whether this is really a good use of your time and energy. Ask how much your actions are impacting your budget and whether it’s really proportional to the guilt you feel.
It’s hard to let go
Also remember that it’s natural to want to spend a little more once you have a little financial breathing room. It’s normal to loosen the reins a bit. To untighten the belt.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
By the time you’re out of debt/have met your savings goals, the practice of not spending money is usually ingrained a bit too deeply. It’s difficult to let go of the feeling that every spare cent should be saved or thrown at debt.
So, really, how do you stop spending guilt?
Earmark the money
The biggest trick I’ve found is making allowances for myself. I got sick of feeling bad about once a week takeout. It kept happening, so I could either feel endlessly guilty about it — which sounded exhausting — or I could accept that it was a standard expense in my budget.
So I sat down and looked at the situation realistically. Was $9.34 going to break my budget? No. I’d be spending just under $40 a month to eat out, which ain’t bad for this day and age.
Thus I started allowing myself to get takeout once a week. While I don’t have a budget strictly speaking — at least, one in which I have limits on each category of spending — I made mental space for about $40 a month in takeout.
Now that the money is (at least mentally) set aside for this specific purpose, I can spend without guilt.
So if, like the reader, you feel bad about a restaurant trip with your partner, budget for a date night. Similarly, you should give yourself some fun money each month.
With the money specifically earmarked for date nights or potentially frivolous wants, you should be able to spend without guilt.
Of course, then you have to deal with the guilt of adding that line item into the budget.
It’s sooooo tempting to eliminate it, right? I mean, that’s $40 more that could go toward your goals. Knowing that you’re keeping the funds out when they could go to savings or the emergency fund… Well, that can be tough.
At those points, I remind myself of two things.
First, it’s not reasonable or healthy to completely deprive yourself. And chances are, it’s not sustainable. Better to cut loose in one or two small ways than to let it all build until the behavioral dam breaks and you overcompensate with a spending spree.
But maybe you really could keep doing without forever. Well in that case, we move to my second go-to: I look at my account balances.
Guilt, according to my therapist, is rooted in fear. Which means that guilt about spending money is at least partially rooted in the fear that we won’t have enough, even when we patently do.
So checking my account balances reassures me that I’m doing just fine. It reminds me that, while every little bit helps, $40 a month in takeout isn’t going to significantly impact my bottom line or keep me from (eventually) retiring.
So I’m able to spend without guilt — within reason, of course.
Another reader suggested keeping an index card for each budget category and deducting each expenditure. This would mean that you have a quick reference for just how much money you have left in a budget category.
That’s awfully handy if you’re feeling guilty about a sudden desire for — oh, I dunno — delicious, delicious hummus at the grocery store. (Not that I’d ever do that. *Innocent whistling*)
By checking the index cards, you could see that you still have plenty of money in the grocery section of your budget, which should help you spend without guilt. Or it’ll tell you to rein things in and skip that hummus. Which will suck, but at least then you’ll know you’re on track for your goals.
And if you’re on track for your goals, you can spend without guilt.
Another tactic would be to realize that you’re spending on something, not just spending. That is, you’re spending for an important thing or experience. Of course, this rationale can get out of hand, so use it sparingly. But it can help.
Take the reader’s lunch out with her spouse.
She could frame it as eating out, which could sound frivolous and without much value. Or she can frame it as a date: quality time with a quality person and (hopefully) quality food. That’s important stuff — so important that that even people still in debt often budget for it.
Knowing that everyone (or certainly most people) make room for it in their budgets should let you spend without guilt on something like the occasional meal out.
But what if the meal were just a whim without much value added? For example, quick bite of fast food while you’re out running errands. Then it’s a little harder to swallow, as it were, when it guilt comes a-knockin’.
But really, it’s okay. You have the money. You didn’t just blow the whole budget. I assume, anyway. If you’re out of debt/on track for savings goals and a $10 fast food meal blows your budget, it may be time to rework the thing.
So yeah, a little perspective can let you spend without guilt.
Remember your purpose
When I get uptight about spending, I also ask myself why I try to save money. Yes, it’s mainly for security. But it’s also so that I can enjoy myself by spending on what matters.
So when you get uptight about spending, you have to ask yourself what kind of life you want to lead. One full of deprivation? Or one with carefully balanced spending?
I’ve talked before about balancing frugality and quality of life. It’s hard to juggle because of the guilt. Still, in the end I want a life full of contentedness and joy.
Of course, I can find plenty of that without spending, but there is a certain amount of outlay necessary for me to live my version of an optimal life. I’ve come to accept that that’s okay.
Remembering this, I can move forward with my purchase and spend without guilt.
Deal with money anxiety
Of course, it’s not just fear motivating spending guilt. Anxiety is another large component.
Anxiety that you don’t actually have enough to spare the funds. Anxiety that you’ll be decried a frugal fraud if your spending is discovered. (I struggle a lot with this one, especially now that I do spending diaries.) Anxiety that you’ll need the money more later and won’t have it.
So if you cope with your money anxiety, you’ll probably find the spending guilt eases.
One of my favorite suggestions for dealing with money anxiety is to donate to charity. This helps me to feel rich, which nicely defuses the scarcity mentality that makes me fearful of/guilty about spending.
Getting rid of that scarcity mentality allows me to spend without guilt.
Focus on ROI
Borrowing from The Ladders.com, I’d also tell you to think about the ROI.
ROI = Return on investment. In this case, you’re investing money into a good or service, and the return is the reaction it evokes in you. Ideally, it’s a pleasant one.
Rose Colored Water spent a large sum on a nice treadmill because she did the mental math and found that it had a good enough ROI to be worth it. Months later she has yet to regret her purchase — and she wasn’t even out of debt yet!
So remember the warm fuzzy feeling you got from lunch with your spouse or the much-needed mental break that a quick bite of fast food provided. Dwell on the surge of happiness that the overpriced gadget or accessory brings you every time you use it.
In short, realize that the money wasn’t frittered away. It was spent consciously to make your life better, even if it’s in some way that could appear silly to others.
So spend without guilt on the occasional indulgence– emphasis on “occasional” — if it gives you a positive ROI.
Permission and forgiveness
It all boils down to permission and forgiveness. You have to give yourself permission to spend. Then — and here’s the even harder part — you have to forgive yourself for the spending that you permitted.
Because in all likelihood, you’ll convince yourself that you’re okay spending the money right up until it’s spent. Once you’ve signed that credit card slip, the guilt sets in about all of the other things that money could have gone toward.
So you have to forgive yourself.
Well, technically you should realize that you don’t need forgiveness in the first place. But failing that, work on forgiving yourself for any cent not spent working toward your savings goals.
How that forgiveness works… That’s the tough part. In the end, it’s about remembering that you’re well on your way to or have already met your financial goals. So the occasional purchase won’t kill your budget and/or momentum.
And yes, this may necessitate obsessively checking your bank balance/spending totals in order to convince yourself that things aren’t going down in flames after a single lunch out. But that’s just at first. As you practice forgiving yourself, you’ll relax a bit and not need to assure yourself constantly. (Probably.)
It’s also important to remind yourself that money for money’s sake is unhealthy. And perhaps most importantly, tell yourself that you’re worthy of the forgiveness.
You’re worth it (sorta)
In the end, I think you also have to realize that you’re worth a little spending. Note that I said “a little” because of course “I’m worth it” is a renownedly slippery slope.
But the fact is that, if you’re doing well financially, you are worth some indulgence. It just needs to be in small doses (or in just one, single very large dose if you’re buying something really pricey like good concert tickets or a designer purse/dress/whatever).
And however you get over the guilt, it’s vital that you do get over it.
Because if you don’t, you’ll end up not enjoying the things and experiences you spend on. Which, assuming you’re in a good place financially, is the only way that you truly waste money.
How do you deal with spending guilt?