I hesitated about writing this post when a friend suggested it to me. Talking about unnecessary spending felt somewhat callous, considering all of the people struggling financially right now.
But I also realized that this may be one of the best time for everyone to ask this question. Yes, everyone.
If, like me, you’re still doing pretty well financially, you may feel even guiltier than usual about unnecessary spending. And if you’re one of the people barely getting by, you may be wondering whether you’re ever allowed even small pleasures.
So perhaps this is a more timely question than I initially thought.
First things first
Obviously, if you are barely making ends meet (or can’t cover everything), any type of splurging is probably best avoided. I say “probably” because I do understand just what that would entail.
Right now, life is even harder than usual. You’re constantly stressed about which bills to pay — which ones are at the “final notice” stage and which ones can be put off til next month or perhaps just not paid in full — and there’s no end in sight to this pandemic. Not to mention that it looks like no second stimulus check — which might have allowed you to get caught up — will be coming any time soon.
Thus now more than ever, you may feel the need to have some small pleasure in life. And there is a valid question of just how long people can live in complete deprivation of everything but the basics without short- and long-term damage to the psyche.
So I absolutely get it.
But if you’re living that close to the bone, even a $5 coffee per week might keep you from paying rent or even just keeping bills out of collections. And when the world is no longer upside down, you’re going to be glad you protected your credit score and rental history.
Still, I just can’t bring myself to judge anyone who chooses a very small pleasure if it means staying at least vaguely sane during this awful time. At least, assuming they’ve found a way to keep a roof over their head and the lights on.
I know plenty of people disagree, and on paper their points make the most sense. But life isn’t black or white, and mental health is part of surviving this awfulness. So I think there simply isn’t a right answer on this one.
As for the rest of us…
Even in normal times, it can be hard for many of us to splurge on ourselves — whatever your definition of splurge would be. Some people feel guilty for getting takeout. Some only feel bad for a very expensive indulgence.
But no matter what the price tag, the same voice tends resound in our heads: “You don’t really need it.”
And the problem is that the voice is correct. If we “needed” it, it wouldn’t be a splurge. (Or we’d have a very skewed definition of what “need” is.) So it’s hard for many us of frugal folks to pull the trigger on a purchase, even when we have the money.
But if you’re on track for or have reached your goals, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to indulge from time to time in something you don’t strictly need. Arguably, it’s actually important to do so.
When we don’t indulge in anything at all, we’re forgetting half the point of being frugal. Rather than money being a tool we can use to make our lives better, having it becomes the end goal. And that attitude is rarely conducive to a well-balanced life.
Of course the primary purpose of being careful with money is to ensure financial security. So I’m not saying that we should splurge indiscriminately. We should certainly exercise a fair amount of restraint while building our financial cushions. (But not necessarily complete restraint for the reasons cited earlier.)
However, once your nest egg is in place, I firmly believe it’s important to find a way — even a small one — that spending can make your life more enjoyable.
After all, we can’t swim in our copious savings Scrooge McDuck style. So huge account balances have diminishing returns on happiness.
Of course, some people feel differently. For some, having the money in abeyance is what makes them happy because they’re very worried for the future. Bag lady syndrome is upsettingly common for women as they get older. If that’s true of you… Well, I’d urge you to work on deconstructing and combatting some of that anxiety, but in the meantime, the best course for you is clearly to avoid splurging.
But most of us would do better at least occasionally indulging once all the bills are paid and the savings account has been padded a bit.
Thus the question becomes: How do you reconcile that with a frugal lifestyle? A hard question even at the best of times, but so much more of a quandary amid so many people’s financial strife.
So here are some steps that may help you relax a bit and enjoy your money as more than a bank balance.
Remember your progress
When I’m feeling guilty or hesitant about an unnecessary purchase, the first thing I do is remind myself that my savings account grows every single month. Not always by a ton — especially while I was shoveling money at my retirement accounts — but I do always have at least a couple hundred to pad my balance.
And speaking of my retirement accounts, I always remind myself that I’m on track to max out those out, as well. (And now, I can just say I have done it. Well, for three more months.)
Knowing that I’m still bettering my financial progress — even with some indulgences — lessens my anxiety/guilt about purchases that aren’t strictly necessary. So check your spreadsheets or bank accounts’ histories or and remember that you’re making positive progress toward your goals.
Help others first
It’s hard for me not to feel guilty buying makeup or getting an extra massage each month while I know others are struggling. On way to combat that is to make sure I’ve done something to help them.
Two months ago — once I was within a couple hundred dollars of maxing out both retirement accounts — I increased my monthly giving by $100. I believe that once my future self is taken care of, it’s time to turn more toward other people’s present.
Of course, some people aren’t into charitable giving. So this step is completely up to you. But for me personally, I feel better about spending on non-necessities once I’ve contributed something to some people’s most basic needs.
When my iPhone 4S was finally becoming untenably outdated — it couldn’t download or update quite a few apps — I finally had an excuse to upgrade. But even getting the oldest model Apple was selling (iPhone 7), $700 was a painful amount.
I shuddered at the idea of taking that much out of savings for a phone that still technically worked for my main needs: texting, WhatsApp (for my trivia group and a few friends), etc.
Since I couldn’t bring myself to lower savings for something quite so unnecessary, I created an Ally account specifically for a new iPhone and started setting aside $100 a month. Once I had the funds, I was able to get what I wanted without the stress of seeing the savings balance go down.
Remember items’ value/meaning
As my mom likes to say, frugality is about saving where you can to spend on what matters. What constitutes “something that matters” will obviously vary.
It might be the occasional (or even weekly — or even more often) takeout so you get a respite from the stress of making everything to feed yourself/your family. Or maybe it’s just because you remember back when things were too tight for anything not made at home, so treating yourself to a meal you didn’t cook feels wonderfully luxurious and indulgent.
Or it might be a manicure or coloring your hair at a salon or various other aesthetic-based services that make you feel better about your appearance. Alternatively, it could be massages that aren’t strictly necessary. (Some people do need them for pain management or to avoid having pain in the first place.)
Basically, it’s whatever will genuinely bring value to your life or enhance your happiness in a meaningful way. Not necessarily, a permanent way — takeout, massages, beauty services are all ephemeral after all — but some way that has significance to you.
Take your time
It’s important to remember that it’s okay to take some time choosing to indulge.
Sometimes it’s hard to be sure that a splurge is definitely worth it to you. And unless there’s a super rare sale, few purchases have a tight timeframe.
So there’s no need to rush yourself when you’re (almost invariably) hesitant to spend the money. It’s fine to put an item in your cart, take it out, put it back in, etc. Or to put it in your cart, then leave it there for a few days while you debate the merits of the purchase.
Of course, there’s a logical limit for time. If you feel permanently stuck going back and forth, ask a friend or partner to help you debate the pros and cons. It could be that the cons outweigh the pros, and you’ll have your answer.
But if you’ve thought about it long enough to need help, chances are it’s a good choice for a splurge, and your frugal tendencies are just rearing up. Someone else will be able to remind you that you have the money, that this matters to you and basically all of the things you’re already telling yourself but that somehow always seem to make more sense coming from someone else.
And if that doesn’t work…
If all of the above steps don’t work, one of two things is happening. Either the item isn’t something you really want — something that will enhance your life — or you’re dealing with major anxiety about doing anything with money other than saving it.
If it’s the former, good news: You just saved yourself some potentially big bucks!
But if it’s the latter, you may want to try to work on the problem.
I understand the issue, believe me. I’ve dealt with anxiety about… almost everything, really: getting in a crash most of the times I drove, falling and breaking a bone or chipping a tooth (or being knocked unconscious falling in the shower and drowning — or full-on breaking my neck) and, of course, money. It’s exhausting — but you don’t quite realize how much energy and brain space the anxiety takes until it’s dulled.
But once it has, it’s practically blissful. So if you have issues that are causing you not to be able to spend for almost any non-necessity, I urge you to talk to someone (professional or trusted friend) or journal or meditate or… Whatever it takes to work on anxiety that’s basically paralyzing you on a major part of life.
Finances permitting, it’s important to value ourselves enough to allow for at least a little discretionary spending — and to remember that money is a tool, not just a goal. That attitude is key for part of a well-balanced life.
Do you have trouble splurging? What indulgences do you like?