It will take more than willpower to get your spending habit under control

Helpful Tools for When Can't Stop Spending

by Gary Foreman


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Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I cannot save a single penny, even though I make a decent salary, because I am a terrible spendthrift, especially when it comes to dining out. So far, I have been able to stop using credit cards and to actually look for bargains when I shop for clothing, but the thought of clipping coupons, diluting bleach to extend the life of the bottle, and of not eating out for lunch makes me feel tight and stingy, which is not a good feeling for me (I actually get a stomachache). How do I get over this, and how do I stick to a decision to stop eating out every day when I've been doing this for years?
Rhonda N.

In a few short sentences, Rhonda has managed to summarize the problem that many of us have with money. We know that we should do a better job of managing the resources we have, but we really don't want to put in the effort and it doesn't take much to convince us to keep spending. In fact, it almost appears that some of us have an allergy to saving money!

But, as Rhonda points out, money is central to our lives. Not only does it affect our mental well being, it's possible to make ourselves physically sick over money. Money is so central to our lives that it's been said that the quickest way to really get to know a person is to take a look at their checkbook and credit card statements.

Spending money is a very emotional experience for most of us. A wealth of feelings precede most purchases. Take Rhonda's lunches as an example. Her letter indicates that she realizes that you don't need to go out for lunch to get a nutritious meal. Yet, her feelings prevent her from eating in.

Obviously, it would take a professional to fully understand what's behind her decision. But, if Rhonda looks back at her experiences, she'll probably find some of the reasons for the way she feels. It could be that in grade school she had to bring her lunch while all her friends bought theirs. Or maybe she really enjoys being part of the gang and lunch is the time when everyone catches up with friends.

Understanding her feelings could help Rhonda in two ways. First, it might help her to change her behavior without all the negative emotions. Or it could reveal why lunches are so important to her. She could stop beating herself up and begin to look for other places to save money.

Related: Understanding the Emotions Behind Buying Stuff

Another question for Rhonda to consider is why she wants to save money. If it's her rent money, she needs to remind herself that failure to get past her feelings could have her out in the street! From the tone of her letter, it appears less urgent. What would she do with the money that's currently going to local restaurants? It's often helpful to keep that goal in mind. I know of families that keep pictures of next year's vacation destination on their refrigerator. The pictures act as an encouragement to keep sacrificing for a desirable goal.

Imagine how much simpler life could be if
you were debt free.

Maybe Rhonda would like a new computer. It wouldn't take much to calculate how many lunches it would take to pay for one. A simple tally sheet in the kitchen could motivate her to bring lunch to work. The probability of success increases as she gets closer to her goal.

Frugality doesn't mean that you need to squeeze every nickel until it screams. Unless you're fighting for financial survival, it's OK to spend some money purely for enjoyment. Many of the smartest money managers save money in areas of their lives where a small sacrifice in quality, style or prestige isn't important to them. Does the money get squirreled under their mattress? Hardly! They spend it on something that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. If you love fashion, there's nothing wrong with driving an older car so you can afford to spend more on clothes. Obviously, you should only spend what you save.

Related: Take the Pain Out of Penny Pinching

Rhonda points to another problem. How do you go about breaking an old habit and creating a new one? As anyone who has quit smoking can tell you, it's easier to break a habit by replacing it. That's why so many of us gained weight when we stopped smoking. We replaced cigarettes with snacks! In Rhonda's case, she'd be wise to get in the habit of preparing what she'll bring for lunch at the same time every day. Set up a pattern and stick to it. Don't set yourself up to make a decision every day. If you've already make the decision, there's no reason to think about it. Just do it! You can expect it to take about 30days before the new habit seems fairly automatic.

Finally, it could be helpful for Rhonda to learn the difference between needs and wants. She needs a healthful lunch. But, she wants to go that local bistro with her buddies. If you can't afford to buy the things you need, it's foolish to buy things you want. Once you realize that a purchase falls into the "wants" category it's easier to make a calm, intelligent decision about spending the money.

Rather than be a slave to her habits, Rhonda is wise to consider alternatives. My thanks to her for a thought-provoking question.

Updated August 2017


Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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