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Daily Capital

How to Manage Emotional Spending

In 2020, I made one of my biggest emotional spending purchases –– and I mean physically big. After spending months in quarantine, I decided to purchase a Snoogle. Yes, I, a single very-not-pregnant woman, decided to buy a pregnancy body pillow. It wasn’t the most expensive item I’ve ever bought, but it is the most emotional purchase I’ve ever made.

Here’s a good reminder about emotional spending –– sometimes, it ends up being worth it, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of my pregnancy pillow, I can say with complete confidence that it was worth every penny. It’s in storage right now while I work as a digital nomad, and I miss it every day.

What is Emotional Spending?

Emotional spending is categorized as a purchase made more from an emotional standpoint than a practical one. Sometimes, the emotional and practical overlap, like in the case of my Snoogle. For many, though, emotional spending isn’t a one-time thing –– it can feel like a crippling problem where your emotions control your wallet.

It’s important to talk about emotional spending from a morally neutral place since it’s often always pegged as a bad thing. In reality, there are times when self-soothing or other emotion-driven purchases are perfectly valid, and there are times when those same purchases are deeply regretted.

In an effort to show the good and the bad side to emotional spending, I reached out to my Facebook group and asked them about their “emotional purchases” and if they thought they ended up being worth it.

“I did a quick one-day round trip flight from Arizona to California to visit my grandparents. They are older, so after about an hour, they got tired and ended our visit, and I still had several hours until my flight, so I went to Disneyland. I spent $100 to ride one ride and eat a churro. As I was leaving, I felt a little guilty for my purchase, so I justified it by putting the money towards an annual pass. Truly the best emotional, spontaneous purchase ever. I visited Disneyland – and subsequently my grandparents – so much that year!”

“My dog injured her CCL a couple of years ago, and the surgery cost over $4,000. She was already about 13 years old at the time, so the vet said we could just try to make her comfortable and help her live with it. I hated seeing her limp. She’s a puggle and loves going for walks, so I chose to have the surgery done in hopes she would return to her old self. That was two years ago, and we still go for a lot of walks. It was definitely worth it. I’m very frugal, but when it comes to her health, I’ll always spend whatever it costs.”

“I was leading a meeting to establish a plan of attack on a major project. I had a clear path and data-driven reasoning. The director of our engineering department interjected and steamrolled the plan I had spent days working on. I was frustrated and upset. I left work an hour early, drove straight to the mall, bought myself a soft pretzel and 4 Michael Kors bags. Do I love the bags? Yes. Do I think of how frustrated I was every time I see them? Also, yes.”

“My emotional purchase was my car. I graduated and thought that I needed a brand new car because I thought that’s what everyone does! My car payment went from $316 to $469 per month, and I love the car I got, but I had buyer’s remorse. I felt like I couldn’t go on trips, save money, pay off other debts because I was spending $650+ on my car (payment, insurance, gas.) I sold it in December and used the extra money to pay off my credit card debt. It was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I wish I had done it sooner! I had a case of Keeping Up with the Joneses, and now I’ve got money to save, invest and put toward student loans all while not feeling trapped by a payment.”

“I have ADHD, so emotional spending is SUPER common! It triggers dopamine production, and I have to be extremely careful not to get caught in a cycle. It’s mostly on clothing when I’m feeling down or home decor. But small things add up, and I feel like I have nothing to show for my money. Since I’ve been diagnosed and am in a better place with it, I have been able to cut my wardrobe in half. This year a friend inspired me to buy 20 items of clothing or less for the entire year, including shoes… I actually have found I get a similar dopamine response from saying no and walking away because I feel accomplished!”

“During a freezing cold winter while working through seasonal depression, I clicked “buy now” on a trip to the Dominican Republic on Groupon. Not add to cart, not save for later, but “buy now,” and instead of asking for a refund, I went on the trip. I initially regretted it because I was trying so hard to save money, but I had so much fun, and it was the first time I did anything unplanned and spontaneous.”

Emotional spending isn’t always the bandit we make it out to be, especially when you’re aware of how your emotions manifest in your spending.

Tips for Deciding on Emotional Spending

Here are three ways to evaluate if an emotional purchase might be worth it:

  1. In what ways is this purchase offering value? My Snoogle is a great example here –– even though I didn’t need it, it brought me comfort during a lonely time. So even though it was an emotional/self-soothing purchase, it was “worth it” to me.
  2. Does this purchase fit into one of your value categories? Nesting is one of my spending values, so purchasing something like a pillow is 100% aligned with my values-based spending I’ve also gone on last-minute trips because travel is a part of my value-based spending. However, if I’m tempted to buy a new purse or shoes or something clothing-related, I’ll really think into the purchase and ask myself if I’m just spending because it’s there. Clothes are not a part of my values spending, so I take a little extra time with those purchases.
  3. Try using the taco calculator. This is one of my favorite examples of measuring spending. Let’s say you love tacos. So when you’re thinking about purchasing something that feels like an emotional spend, think, “How many tacos is this going to cost me?” It helps put into perspective if this is a valuable purchase to you or not. You don’t have to use tacos –– you can use any other thing you love buying like a skincare staple, a round trip flight, a ticket to a show, etc. Tacos are just fun, delicious, and universally loved.

Finally, don’t let shame drag you down if you find yourself making an emotional purchase you don’t find worth it. We all make mistakes with money, and sometimes we don’t have clarity until after. Circle back to your values and your budget, think of the tacos, and keep moving forward.

Bonus tip: Personal Capital is the tool I check daily for tracking my net worth, keeping an eye on my spending, and hitting my big goals like (yes!) saving that first $100k.

Get Started with Personal Capital’s Free Financial Tools

Personal Capital compensates Tori Dunlap of Her First $100k (“Author”) for providing the content contained in this article. Compensation not to exceed $500. Author is not a client of Personal Capital Advisors Corporation. Additionally, in a separate referral arrangement between Author and Personal Capital Corporation (“PCC”), Author is paid $70 and $150 for each person who uses Author’s webpage (www.HerFirst100k.com) to register with Personal Capital and links at least $100,000 in investable assets to Personal Capital’s Free Financial Dashboard. As a result of these arrangements, Author may financially benefit from referring potential clients to Personal Capital and/or be incentivized to present blog content that is favorable to PCC. No fees or other amounts will be charged to investors by Author or Personal Capital as a result of the Referral Arrangement. Investors that are referred to PCC and subsequently subscribe for investment advisory services provided by PCC’s affiliated adviser, Personal Capital Advisors Corporation (“PCAC”) will not pay increased management fees or other similar compensation to Author, PCC or PCAC as a result of this arrangement. The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.

Tori Dunlap is a millennial money and career expert. After saving $100,000 at age 25, Tori founded Her First $100K to fight financial inequality by giving women actionable resources to better their money. A Plutus award winner, her work has been featured on Good Morning America, New York Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, and more. An honors graduate of the University of Portland, Tori currently lives in Seattle, where she enjoys eating fried chicken, going to barre classes, and attempting to naturally work John Mulaney bits into conversation.
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