Why Your Emotions Are Making You Broke

By Michelle Smith

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) When you dig into your purse to make that next purchase, you may want to double check WHY you are making that buy. You may be surprised how often your emotions are driving your spending.


It’s no secret that people often spend money they don’t have. However, not everyone recognizes that a connection exists between emotions and spending habits.

For some people, failing to realize that fact means allowing their emotions to influence their decisions, including the financial ones. Moreover, certain emotions, such as envy, anger and even happiness, can lead people to develop bad spending habits and poor saving habits, both of which spell serious financial trouble.

“People tend to use money for the wrong reasons, and those reasons are often to cope with things,” said Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a New York-based psychotherapist. “Money isn’t a substitution for emotional well-being.”

Here are some ways your emotions can make you broke.

If you’re feeling lonely, depressed or just plain sad, you might be tempted to rely on some retail therapy to improve your mood. However, letting your emotions drive you to the nearest mall, or inspire you to open a search engine window, can be costly.

When you feel isolated and alone, buying things not only fill up your shopping cart, it might fill you up emotionally as well.

You might spend your money on things you don’t need because you feel empty inside. As Smerling explained, when you’re awake in the middle of the night, there’s no one to talk to, but there’s HSN and QVC ready to sell you something. So, you shop because you feel sorry for yourself.

“Retail therapy is almost like an addiction,” she said. However, buying things only makes you feel better for the moment. Soon, the feelings of emptiness will creep back in, and you’ll have to buy more to fill the dearth.

The fix: “Finances can’t compensate for the lack of real human connections,” said Smerling. “You need to find a way to connect with people.”

Growing up poor or suffering through hard times in life can lead people to overindulge themselves and their children. Perhaps this tendency stems from a fear of falling back into poverty or seeing your children go through the same experiences you did.

For whatever reason, you might start to believe that you deserve to have the things you want. And if you’re determined to prevent your children from suffering like you did, you might start to confuse their wants with their needs.

“It’s like a glut,” said Smerling. “It’s like when you’ve been starving, and suddenly there’s a banquet in front of you. At some point, you’re no longer hungry; you’re eating because it’s there and you can.”

But if you’re living this way, you clearly don’t have a financial plan. And nothing in life goes without a plan, said Smerling.

The fix: You have to start budgeting and getting organized. Otherwise, you’re likely to return to the impoverished state you worked so hard to put behind you.

People who share custody sometimes find themselves engaged in bitter bouts of competitive parenting. The underlying emotions can be bitterness, greed or a desire to control the kids. Sadly, this behavior is very common in divorce cases, said Smerling.

Parents sometimes pay excessive legal fees because they’re insistent on their custody terms. They overspend on nannies and daycare to limit visitation. And, they constantly try to outdo the other parent’s gifts and standard of living.

“When this is happening, the children have become chattel to you,” said Smerling. “It’s not that you’re looking after their best interests; you’re looking after the best interest of yourself.”

The fix: Consider getting a parent coordinator to manage the separation of money issues from child access issues, said Smerling. Otherwise, the spending habits associated with competitive parenting can result in emotional and financial ruin.

When other people in your life are struggling financially, you might feel guilty and obligated to lend a helping hand, especially if you enjoy a higher level of success and wealth than your friends and family.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with helping out your loved ones and others in need. But if offering aid means paying for something that’s not in your budget, you could be putting yourself at risk of financial insecurity. Success often presents a catch-22 that drives reckless spending habits and poor saving habits.

“You’re trying to assume too much responsibility,” said Smerling. “And you’re trying to be a bigger person than you really are.”

The fix: If you want to avoid going broke, set priorities and limits, and learn that there’s nothing wrong with saying no, said Smerling.

The phrase “money can’t buy love” might sound cliche, but it’s the truth. Still, many people try to solicit others’ affections with money and expensive gifts.

You might have tried to win back an ex-girlfriend with a diamond necklace or reconnect with your teenage son by buying him a new car. Or, maybe you’ve attempted to impress new friends with costly gifts. Unfortunately, trying to purchase other people’s affections can put your budget in jeopardy. Many people can’t see that until there’s no money left, said Smerling.

The fix: Realize you can’t buy love; you have to be worthy of it. The goal is to find another way to express yourself before you go broke.

A lot of people cannot bring themselves to stop supporting grown children. Even though they aren’t legally responsible for their kids’ living expenses anymore, these parents continue paying the bills out of love.

This is a major problem for people who are retired and approaching retirement age, said Josh Alpert, principal financial plan architect at Alpert Retirement Advising.

On average, a person who supports a family member has $100,000 in debt, according to 2015 data from TD Ameritrade. And more than 50 percent of financial supporters have either tapped into their savings or found it necessary to live more frugally and make sacrifices in order to pay the bills.

The fix: “If you’re going to help your kids, factor the amount of assistance you’re going to provide into your budget because, without a plan, you’re at risk of going broke,” said Alpert. “And if it comes down to choosing who faces financial difficulty, it should be the children. They have more opportunities to earn and to recover.”

Some days, you might feel inadequate or even worthless when you look around and compare yourself to others. However, you shouldn’t let those negative feelings and emotions drive your spending habits. If you allow your self-worth to be linked to your finances, the odds are good that you will never feel truly happy with yourself. Moreover, you will likely keep spending until your wallet is as empty as you feel.

You can buy nicer clothes, faster cars and bigger houses, but “you’ll never get the best, have the most, become the richest or anything of the sort,” said Alpert. “There’s no winner in this situation because you’re not actually competing against anyone. (There’s just) the prospect of spending yourself into oblivion.”

The fix: Fight the urge to view spending as a competition.

“If you don’t want to go broke, you can’t get confused about the purpose of money,” said Smerling. “Money is not a coping mechanism. It’s a means to manage your priorities and responsibilities. And you have to stay focused on that.”

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