Feeling Guilty to Spend Money on Anything

by David Ning · 26 comments

spending at end of tunnelI noticed the way I spend money changed. Not only am I spending less, but I feel pressured to not spend even for necessities. In short, I think I changed myself from frugal to cheap. A few weeks ago, I asked everyone whether I should celebrate on my big career accomplishment and splurge. I ended up not spending a dime. In a way, this is good since I didn’t waste my money on something I might regret later, but some might say that I have almost gone mad with saving money.

The argument is that I should reward myself for making such a big accomplishment with SOMETHING… ANYTHING. I agree with this somewhat, but when I think of all the things that I want, I just couldn’t get myself to purchasing any of it even though I can comfortably afford the bill. When I shop, I don’t look at the features or how it might be useful for me. The most important deciding factor of purchasing something has become the hit it will have on my bottom line.

“I want to retire early” I think to myself. But if I end up retiring early and do nothing at home every single day, would I be happy? I know I will just drive myself crazy if my day was too relaxing (maybe that is a problem in and of itself).

I feel sad about this sometimes. Isn’t the idea of saving money so we have some to spend? During the weekends, all I can think of is how much activity A is and how much activity B will cost. This is totally unhealthy but how do I get out of this? How did I get into this?

This seems to be a problem many people face, or have to deal with. How do we balance the current and future since they both compete for the same pile of wealth? Do you have a systematic approach to this or do you just go by feel?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim October 4, 2007 at 9:23 am

So, I guess I’m not the only one who feels unnecessarily cheap. I had a bad habit of blowing lots of money on frivolous purchases after I graduated college and entered the workforce, and after a few years of reality set in and having purchased a house a couple years ago, my feelings towards saving and investing have changed dramatically – for the better. So much so that I am also having the same feelings of being cheap, but I don’t look at that as being a bad thing – just the contrary.

Because of my newfound frugality, I’ve amassed a small, but respectable cash cushion and investment portfolio and I take tremendous pride in that. In fact, when I come across a windfall, I gladly sock it away into my investments and get just as much if not more satisfaction from that than going out and purchasing a Nintendo that may give me a few months of temporary enjoyment before I get bored with it.

The key for keeping my frugality in check is balance. There are certain purchases that I feel provide a worthwhile value that I really don’t think twice about such as nice dinners with my girlfriend or travel to visit family and friends.

My advice to you is to figure out your priorities and goals and develop a spending/saving plan with those in mind. Simple advice, I know, but it’s worked pretty well for me. Best of luck to you.

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MoneyNing October 4, 2007 at 10:26 am

Jim: Great to hear that I’m not alone and there is hope. :)

I am happy to say that I have had nice dinners with my fiancee because of this so maybe I’m not so cheap after all :)

Good luck to you too and thank you for your advices.

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Lise October 4, 2007 at 1:10 pm

I guess this isn’t really a problem for me yet because I don’t feel I’m at a point in my life where I *can* splurge. I very much feel like I’m “living on the edge” and I worry whether or not I buy a pair of jeans will lead me into a cycle that will have me falling into bankruptcy. I like to think I’m reasonably secure, but with only a very small emergency fund and no non-retirement investments, I still feel like all it would take is a job loss or a serious illness to ruin me financially.

On the other hand, I often what it would be like to HAVE to live with less… so I guess I’m not obsessed with this so much as concerned, as I feel I have the skills to deal with financial shortfalls.

I want to retire early, and for me, I KNOW that’s what I want to do. I am so full of hobbies, and interests, and intellectual curiosity that I often feel stymied by the fact that I spend the best hours of my day at work. So I guess I’m saying I haven’t reached that point yet, because I have a clear final goal in mind and I feel strongly about it.

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MoneyNing October 4, 2007 at 1:38 pm

Lise: Work towards your goal. As long as you have the desire to accomplish this, you will be able to do it.

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Carl October 4, 2007 at 1:45 pm

I used to have this problem, especially when I owned a house in Irvine. What I have found helps is to budget some “play money”. For example, my wife and I budget about $500 a month to do whatever with. We can go out to eat if we feel like it, she can buy some new jeans, I can get a new CD… it doesn’t matter since we already have a budget. This way you don’t need to feel guilty because you are still keeping to your sound budget

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MoneyNing October 4, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Carl: Good advice :) $500 a month is a good chunk of money to be able to spend it on anything.

Btw, you mentioned that you used to own a house in Irvine (I’m assuming Irvine, CA). Where do you live now?

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Carl October 4, 2007 at 2:56 pm

MoneyNing:

I sold my house in Irvine, CA and moved with my wife and dogs to Raleigh, NC in spring of 2006. I could see the writing on the wall, and wanted to lock in my profits. I think we will move back to Orange County in a couple of years, but there is no hurry.

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MoneyNing October 4, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Carl: Wow that was probably a better call than any stock will give you :) Congratulations on that and hope to see you back in a few years…

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Andrew October 9, 2007 at 10:25 am

I go by feel. If I feel like I really need a stress reliever (night out) or a reward (buying a coffee instead of using the company’s free tea) I do it.

Cost is not the same as value. I try to maximize (present happiness + expected future happiness). For example, I could buy really cheap toilet paper (that would make me unhappy many times a day) or I could buy a fancy brand (which would make me unhappy when I pay my grocery bill).

I’m happiest somewhere in between, e.g. good quality on sale for something I need. Or, if I need a new shirt for work, I find one at a good price (relative to the market) which makes me feel like it’s a deal (happy I’m saving), but ABSOLUTELY MUST fit well and make me look great (not just for my self-esteem, but my boss is happy to introduce me to other managers and clients because I make the office look good which helps at salary time).

Like Jim said, saving is only a means to an end not an end in itself.

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Jag May 31, 2011 at 7:31 pm

This is exactly where the problem lies: ” I’m happiest somewhere in between, e.g. good quality on sale for something I need. ” You buy something and enter into a loop thinking if you really need it, or if you need it; if it were really a bargain.. that is the problem….

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MoneyNing October 9, 2007 at 5:44 pm

Andrew: Actually what you said about the clothing is so true. So many of us don’t spend anything on our clothes and we don’t realize how much opportunity we’ve missed to present a good image.

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Mrs. Micah October 11, 2007 at 8:16 am

I sometimes even feel that way about food. Could I eat even cheaper? Could I eat less? It’s a hard mindset to get out of sometimes. But the point of saving, is , afterall to increase our quality of life, so it’s important to develop a good quality of life…a happy life (even if it’s on the cheap).

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MoneyNing October 11, 2007 at 10:08 am

Mrs Micah: I’m not sure if quality of life is the same as a happy life. I think a happy life is more important though…

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Stacey Grindal May 28, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Well I can completely relate to wanting to save up to 505 of your weekly salary. I think to myself well I am here for 40 hours a week every week except Christmas. Public Holidays.I have gotten to the point where I have told myself to stop. In a few years I have managed to save a significant amount of money for my future an amount most can only hope for when they retire. To me it is never enough. I feel gut wrenching guilt when I spend money on myself even for a trip to the salon. Now it has gotten to the point where I have nothing to wear literally as I have worn my expensive levis for so long they have a hole in it. Pretty much everything expensive has worn out at once and I have just reached my goal. I need these things. I am dressing like I am poor when it is the exact opposite. Its gotten to the point that I feel anxious and un deserving for something I have worked so hard for. So now I am trying to un do my harsh ways and get a healthy balance because this isn’t healthy. I don’t need to punish myself. The voice in my head is saying try harder don’t be so weak. So I am making myself fo these expensive purchases this weekend so I don’t have people pittying me. Ultimately it is my fault for letting it get to this extent. So to all those stresser you do deserve to have nice things for the amount of work you put in. If you have already put away enough for the year that you esitmated give yourself a break. Dont go without clohes. Enjoy life, live happy, if buying that nice dinner out will relieve a bit of the daily grind stress do it. Find a balance :)

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Emma July 25, 2010 at 11:09 am

I have this problem and i am only 13. I get £50 a month and for the past sixth month i have saved up £275. But everyday i think about that £25 i spend over the last 6 months. sometimes i hate myself for it. Once i bought a pair of shoes and i felt so guilty about it i returned them for the money. I need someone to tell me what to do about this becuase my lunch every weekend costs £3.45 and i stopped eating as much so it only cost me a pound. help..

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nate July 25, 2010 at 2:01 pm

@Emma

The fact that you have saved 92% of your income from the past six months is great, but what is it that you are saving for? I think your case is a little extreme if you are “hating yourself” for spending and eating less than you would want just to spend less. You are so young, please realize your money worries aren’t supposed to come until later. Try this: set a budget. realistically save somewhere from 25% to 50% of your allowance (if that’s what it is). Then you will KNOW you have 12.5 or 25 pounds per month to spend and you wont have to feel bad about it. 50% is a phenomenal savings rate by anyone’s standards. good job thinking about money so young but try not to be so worried about it…. good luck.

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Jag May 31, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I felt the same and couldnt bare it anymore, out of desperation, I searched the net and stumbled upon this blog, thank you so much Ning, for posting this, I glad to know that I am not alone… Yes, budgeting for “play money” seems to be the best solution for the problem I face and also trying to take things easy..Not to fear the unknown future.

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Emily August 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm

My husband told me that I needed to go out and buy myself some new clothes since most of mine are hand-me-downs and do flatter my figure at all. I’m feeling terrible because I know that the money he wants me to spend on myself could be going towards more important things like vacation, or something like that. I’m really terrible, because I’ll go out with my friends and family and have $100 to spend where $15 of that would go on a meal and the rest I would spend on them. I don’t know how to get out of this funk.

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Ivy August 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm

If you do anything at all purchase something nice to “go out in”. Going out is not something most of us do daily. It is a start. Split your closet, with one side 1) Nice and 2)Everyday. Saves time when your looking for what you need. Or just change your earings often. Less expensive and you feel great.

Good Luck

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HS September 4, 2011 at 8:52 am

I have been in this rut too far too long (saving, saving, not spending even though my circumstances did not demand it and I have amassed decent spending – and in fact, need some clothes and general personal maintenance like a decent car as I run my own consulting business and need to look good to clients) to the point where my husband informed me that I looked horrible. To save my marriage from sliding, I forced myself to go out and spend about four hundred dollars on a few selected high quality items… wow, finally having jeans that fit was a revelation (by the way I felt terrible about how much I spent and literally racked myself over it for weeks and weeks) – and now I realize that gosh, it’s good to spend on oneself strategically, plus high quality purchases last a lot longer and look better and are way more functional, thus enabling one to cut down on clutter… but yes, it has been a huge upward battle to spend money on myself whereas I have no problem forking out for friends & family.

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Witty Artist October 4, 2011 at 2:06 am

It’s good and healthy to save money. But when this leads to the extreme of feeling guilty when buying something you wish for, well, that’s stupid in my opinion. Of course we would all like to retire as early as we can; but that doesn’t mean we should turn into robots, without enjoying life. A little flexibility is more than welcomed in everyone’s life – not splurging, nor scrooging – just living life as it comes and as we shape it.

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Been There August 3, 2012 at 6:24 am

This original post was several years ago, I see, but there are some relatively recent comments, so maybe someone will still be around to read what I have to say about the topic.

First off, to the OP, yes, it sounds like you are definitely in “cheap” territory and quite possibly suffer from a type of cash hoarding disorder (yes, they do exist). Hopefully, in the intervening years you have sought help or figured a way out of this on your own.

In my experience, I believe at least part (perhaps most) of this kind of behavior trap comes from our upbringing, but I suppose there could be a genetic component as well. I say this because my dad behaves exactly like this, as well as one of my siblings. I too, leaned this way, but I have another sibling who appears to have escaped intact (as far as I know).

My dad practically lives as if he’s poor. All while we were growing up, and he was still working, he worked all of the overtime he could, and was extremely, extremely cheap, but he said it was for retirement. Well, as you probably have guessed, retirement came years ago and nothing has changed. My mother suffers because of this, especially because I think she believed that her life would improve post-retirement. My dad has admitted that he just CAN’T spend money even though he knows that his pension alone provides more income than he could spend–and there are many other retirement and non-retirement accounts in addition to the pension.

My sibling is actually worse. From a young age everything was about preserving every penny, even to the point of taking advantage of friends and family in order to come out just a little bit ahead. He continues to live this way, and with the same argument that it is so he can retire early. I do not believe he will be able to turn his behavior around without help. He is SO FAR on the other extreme that it would probably take years of therapy (or possibly something more extreme–see below) just to get him to baseline “normal” spending behavior.

I also suffered from this kind of mindset, although to a lesser extent than my father or brother. I would still spend, but saving/earning was too important to me. I realize now that no matter how much I would have saved, it would never have been enough. Money took on an identity that I can’t even explain, because I lost sight of its actual value.

What woke me up is losing everything. Ahh, the financial collapse of 2008…I’ll never forget it. 6 figures of savings gone in a heartbeat, and not just barely 6 figures either. I was extremely depressed for several months, but thankfully I came out of the other side with a much healthier appreciation for money and with a better understanding of how much is enough.

The accumulation of money lost it’s death grip on me and this has actually helped me become more successful. It was an absolutely horrible experience, but I’m not sure if anything else would truly have worked.

Money is a means to an end. It is a tool. Nickel and diming your way through life WILL NOT make you a richer person–metaphorically or literally. With that type of relationship with money, you are doomed to lose out in the long run, whether it is by cheating yourself of opportunity, being too risk averse, dying with a pile of unused cash while you’ve lived a life of poverty, etc.

I wish you a financial disaster and then a speedy recovery! Just like any other addiction, you must hit bottom before you can begin to rise and conquer!

Been There

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Felisha August 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I feel the same way. My problem extends to things that I actually need though. I am currently in a crazy cycle of paying down debt and I’m killing it. But, as one example, I need new glasses and new contact lenses. But I keep telling myself, “A few more months…after this bill is paid off…I can wait another month.” It’s a good thing and a bad thing.

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housewife February 20, 2014 at 2:04 pm

My husband and I have amassed almost $2 millions in net worth and yet I can’t get myself to buy a $30k car :( I truly believe that our childhood have a lot to do with it. I always felt insecure and scared growing up and I still feel like that sometimes. My husband is predicting that we will have millions (accumulating because we will have company pensions and investment income to live off and thus not needing to withdraw from savings) and yet I can’t feel free in spending JUST IN CASE SOMETHING BAD happens tomorrow!!! How do I overcome this fear? Help!!!

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Sarah Johnson May 7, 2014 at 11:23 pm

It seems like there is a common theme… Fear of the future. Once you can identify what saving gives you, then you can begin to look at the issue more rationally, and make the changes you need to live more balanced, more happy.

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A June 4, 2014 at 9:49 am

So glad to have found these posts. Most of the blogs about clothing on the web are “How to stop buying all the clothes that you don’t need” instead of “How to buy the clothes you actually do need without feeling guilty about them”. My husband has been helping me with this. He told me I HAD to, so I finally bought the prescription sunglasses that I need (sun was giving me headaches driving home from work) and the expensive sandals that I need (I have feet problems and have not worn skirts or dresses for years rather than invest in expensive shoes).

Now that I have purchased new shoes I am seeing the other gaping holes in my wardrobe but am still hesitant to spend money. I feel ungrateful. Haven’t I just spent a lot of money? My fear of spending money is not helped by my insecurity. I don’t really know what clothes I look good in and I hate buying something to try and realizing I’ve spent money unnecessarily (even though most of my purchases are cheap 2nd hand.)

Thank you all for your comments. It helps me not feel like such an oddball.

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