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4 steps to overcome emotional spending

People shoping various shops
Emotional spending is easy to do - but there are ways to avoid it.

Most of us can relate to spending some cash to buy a little something to cheer ourselves up. From lockdown boredom to break up blues, sometimes an online order really does perk us up. That’s why they call it retail therapy, I guess.

And while the occasional little treat isn’t much to worry about, over time we run the risk of reaching for spending every time we need to feel better.

Also by Emma Edwards:

When it comes to the dangers of emotional spending, it’s less about isolated incidents and more about the compounding effect of repeated cycles of behaviour. Continuously feeding our feelings with spending can have serious impacts on our financial confidence, and the way we feel about money.


Here are four steps to help set yourself free from emotional spending.

1. Identify the signs of emotional spending

Firstly work out whether you are in fact emotionally spending. If you find yourself regularly regretting things you’ve bought; making purchase decisions based on things that will dramatically improve your life or fix you as a person; consistently pulling money out of savings and sabotaging your attempts at stability; or noticing that you reach for spending after a bad day or when you’re feeling down, there’s a good chance you’re harbouring patterns of emotional spending.

2. Walk through an emotional spending experience in your mind

The key to breaking up with emotional spending is first to establish the emotions that are at play for you. To do this, walk yourself through an emotional spending experience in your mind. Try to think of a time when you’ve spent emotionally, and take yourself back to that time.

Really think deeply about what you were feeling when you were spending that money. What were you hoping that purchase would achieve? When we’re purchasing from an emotionally charged place, we often over-inflate the value we think something will add to our lives.

Noticing what unrealistic expectations you set on your purchases can help uncover clues about your emotional patterns.

Dig deep on the emotions you feel when you’re turning to spending, and the feeling you get when you make the purchase. Often we’re trying to acquire a new feeling, like confidence, empowerment, joy, calm or relief. Other times we’re trying to erase an existing feeling, like shame, guilt, low self esteem. Both can be at play at once, too.

3. Audit your environment – what’s going on in the lead up to these behaviours?

The next step is to zoom out on that experience you’ve visually walked through, and audit your surrounding environment. What happened in the lead up to that emotional spend? These reflections can often point us towards our activators – the things that send us into that state of wanting to spend to feel better.

It can be a bad day at work, an experience of comparing yourself to others, seeing something on TV or social media, something someone said, or even certain people around you. The key is to unpack what creates the perfect storm for you to turn to spending.

4. Implement some circuit breakers

Once you’ve got an idea of the factors that cause you to turn to emotional spending, we can work on implementing circuit breakers that interrupt your usual pattern of behaviour. These cycles of behaviour eventually form a comfort zone that’s hard to break, even if we know we want to change.

Spending does temporarily make us feel better, so we need to circuit break and rewire our patterns of behaviour

We get used to spending to feel better, and what’s more – it works.

The surge of dopamine we get when spending money does make us feel better. The problem is, it’s only temporary. But, the fact we do feel better makes it hard to stop. By focusing on circuit breakers, we interrupt the behaviour pattern and find new ways to deal with our impulses to spend.

Circuit breakers work to give you an alternative to spending money when the feelings you identified arise. If your activating emotions come up and you feel compelled to spend money to feel better, choose an alternative activity that your brain can use to override the desire to spend. Things like taking a relaxing bath or shower, watching your favourite tv show, engaging in an activity, throwing on a podcast – anything that redirects your attention from spending.

Over time this reprograms your mind to deal with those activating events and emotions differently, and frees up money and mental capacity to focus on growing your financial confidence.

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