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How to Stop Emotional Spending in Its Tracks

Emotional spending occurs when you buy something you don’t need as a way to ease your emotions during stressful and — even sometimes — happy times.

November 29, 2021

We’ve all been there. 

Whether it’s been a bad day and you’re blowing off some steam at the mall or you’re celebrating a major win and decide to splurge on a fancy bottle of champagne — emotional spending happens. 

In theory, it may not seem all that hard to keep your credit cards safely tucked away inside your wallet. But, when you’re feeling excited, sad, overwhelmed, or even happy, it can be a major challenge to curb impulse spending

Luckily, there are some things you can do to prevent emotional spending. Let’s take a look at what emotional spending is and how to stop a spending problem in the first place. 

What is emotional spending?

At some point in your life, you’ve probably felt a rush of relief from spending money to offset stressful times. You may have also experienced what it feels like when that rush wears off and you’re left with a purchase you regret. 

The first step to avoiding emotional spending — and the remorse that comes with it — is understanding what emotional spending is in the first place. Emotional spending occurs when you buy something you don’t need as a way to ease your emotions. Good emotions can also cause emotional spending, not just bad ones. Emotional spending often results in buying something you didn’t budget for or that you wouldn’t have normally purchased. 

While the occasional impulse purchase may not seem like that big of a deal, emotional spending can add up. A recent study found that the average emotional spending fueled purchase was $114.32. This means, if the average person engaged in emotional spending just once a week, they’d spend almost $6,000 annually on impulse purchases.

All that said, there’s no need to feel guilty about emotional spending. You’re far from being the only person who does it. About half of consumers say they buy a new product to feel happier and 25% report spending money when stressed. 

What causes emotional spending?

The name says it all, but let’s examine more closely what kind of emotions can lead to emotional spending. 

A NerdWallet survey pinpointed the most common emotions that cause people to spend more than they can afford: 

  • Stress (29%)

  • Excitement (22%) 

  • Sadness (13%)

The same study found that women are more likely to overspend due to stress (35% vs. 24%), whereas men spend more than women when they’re excited (26% vs. 18%).

Emotional spending can also occur when someone feels:

  • Bored

  • Under-appreciated

  • Incompetent

  • Unhappy 

  • Celebratory 

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself if you’ve had a bad day or were just promoted at work, as long as you can afford to make the purchase. It’s not worth going into credit card debt over purchases you don’t need to make. 

How to break the habit of emotional spending 

Figuring out ways to cut spending habits starts with creating good habits. Keep reading to learn how to cut unhealthy spending habits when emotions are running high. 

Acknowledge the emotions that trigger spending

Figuring out how to stop a spending problem often requires getting to the root of the emotions behind the spending impulses. Once you understand your feelings, it’s easier to determine your next steps, leaving you with less quick-fix impulses to spend money. 

Here are a few examples of how you can acknowledge the emotions that make you want to spend, so you can focus on managing those feelings productively. 

The emotion: Jealousy

Why you’re feeling it: Your peers seem to have all the latest status items and their new purchases tend to make you feel “less than.”

Why you spend: To keep up. 

The emotion: Nervousness 

Why you’re feeling it: Whether it’s a looming work deadline, a family disagreement or general anxiety, you’re feeling scared and uneasy due to not having a clear resolution to a problem. 

Why you spend: To distract yourself.

The emotion: Achievement

Why you’re feeling it: Accomplishing a goal makes you feel like you’re on top of the world and invincible.

Why you spend: To celebrate. 

Replicate this exercise when you realize you’re tempted to make an emotionally-charged purchase. Hopefully, pausing to do this will stop you from making a purchase you may regret.


Making healthy swaps

When you feel the need to spend from being stressed or excited, try making a healthy swap that acknowledges what you’re feeling. 

For example:

  • If you’re feeling angry, try heading to the gym versus your favorite store. That way, you’ll get a healthy endorphin rush and a sense of accomplishment instead. 

  • If you’re feeling happy and abuzz with energy before you go treating yourself to an online shopping session, sit down, gather your thoughts and write down five things you’re grateful for in a journal. Taking the time to reflect on the positives in your life will keep those good vibes rolling. 

  • If you’re feeling guilty after a fight with your partner, don’t rush out to buy them a make-up gift. Instead, jot down why you’re feeling guilty and some potential solutions for avoiding the actions that will lead to guilt in the future.

These swaps are just examples of how you can channel your emotions into something more positive than spending, but you can find the specific swaps that work well for you.

Find new ways to celebrate

Celebrating your victories is really important, but you don’t need to spend money on unnecessary purchases to do yourself justice. Next time you get a raise, finish a marathon or earn a degree, consider investing in your financial health instead of going out to an expensive dinner or buying a new designer accessory. Take the money you would have spent celebrating and put it towards your 401(k) or your child’s college fund. If you have credit card debt, consider making an extra payment. That way, you’ll pay off your credit card debt and have one more thing to celebrate. 

Pair this savvy financial decision with a complimentary celebration, like taking a day off work, having a relaxing picnic in the park or watching your all-time favorite movie. 

Figuring out how to stop emotional spending in its tracks takes work, but it does get easier over time. With practice, finding ways to cut spending habits might become second nature. You’ve got this. 

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