If personal finance feels like punishment, you’re doing it wrong. Ask me how I know.
Better yet, let me tell you.
As someone who would compulsively and mindlessly spend hundreds of dollars a month on unnecessary items at the mall and then rack up another hundred dollars each weekend at different bars, I know a lot about spending.
I know too much about spending.
And now that’s it been half a decade since I bought essentially anything that wasn’t a replacement for something I’ve worn out, I know a lot about something else: deprivation.
You thought I was going to say saving, right?
Yeah, I’ve been doing that, too. It’s part of why we’ve been able to pay down our mortgage so aggressively, and it’s also how I’ve been able to pay cash for graduate degrees to help double my salary.
But if you never spend money on yourself–or if you hardly do and you’re positively wrecked by it when it does come to parting with your coins–I have news for you.
You’re not saving your money; you’re depriving yourself. And that actually isn’t making you any better with money.
Forcing Myself into Financial Atonement
It is a lot of work to buy over 200 pairs of shoes and not notice. (I noticed the shoes, of course. They were really cute. And a pain in the ass to store. But I didn’t notice the problem behind buying the shoes.)
It was a lifestyle, really. And there are economic, environmental, social, emotional, and psychological repercussions to it.
When I stumbled upon the personal finance community and started studying savings rates, I slowly realized that I needed to make a change.
How did I know for sure? My husband and I got married, and we decided to mostly combine our finances. With an entire second income, surely our savings would grow. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The needle never moved. We spent it as fast as we could make it, and we didn’t even really notice.
There were no red flags. We paid our bills on time. We didn’t have consumer debt. Things seems fine. We just never had any extra savings.
Eventually, I stopped to do the math and realized how much money we were squandering. (OK. Fine. It was mostly me doing the squandering.) I had essentially allowed the latte factor to live in my closet unnoticed for
The math was indisputable, but money isn’t just about math. It took a long time for me to swap out the habits that I formed creating a lifestyle of rampant consumerism.
And I replaced them with new habits.
These habits seemed like the right move. Stop spending. It’s the first piece of advice most money gurus give.
At first, it was hard and then it became fun. It was a new kind of game. Could I walk through the mall and not buy anything? Could I call up my nana and tell her that no, I actually hadn’t be shopping in a while?
It became a point of pride really.
There were no rules except one: try not to spend. I never called it a shopping ban. I generally don’t track my no-spend days, even though they happen more often than I think.
But I honed in my spending hard. I was determined to make up for money sins by refusing to spend on myself. Of course, I would allow myself to be generous with others. We still bought groceries, and we fixed up our home when repairs were needed. My husband had his own spending money that he was free to use how he saw fit.
The money sins had nothing to do with family or friends, charities or students. I would still spend in those regards. But I stopped spending on myself to right the money wrongs I’d so freely committed.
When You Decide You’re Not Worth It
Not spending makes you good with money. It has to. After all, stop spending frivolously is the golden rule. Follow it, and you must be doing things right.
I felt this way for years.
Now I know the truth.
If you refuse to spend money, you’re not actually good with money. You just collect a bunch of it.
It isn’t just about being cheap. Certainly, turning into a cheapskate is a problem, especially if you mess with other people towels.
Restricting spending on myself to the point of deprivation is no different than the calories I cut all through junior high and high school. I have an impressive balance sheet—though I’m no longer scrawling it in the back of a notebook with looping letters and little hearts dotting every i–but the relationship I have with money is off.
Because the people in my life know me well, they do things like send gift cards for highlights and pedicures. They know that without them, I’ll pull on my purse strings long enough to convince myself that 5 inches of outgrowth and clomping around on hooves is actually what I want.
It’s not. Of course it’s not. Just like I don’t believe Scrooge actually liked darkness, it’s something we say to ourselves to justify not knowing how or when to spend on ourselves.
I Got a Pedicure and Everyone Needs to Know
Last October, my husband got me a gift card to my favorite nail salon. He thought that by paying for the services up front, surely I could be convinced to go.
What he didn’t anticipate, though, was that in addition to not spending money on myself, I’ve also decided to invest less time in myself.
That’s a powerful and sad combination.
Through a series of happenstance, I ended up with an extra hour of time last week. I knew the gift card was expiring (it is a piece of paper that is only valid for a year), and I was a ten minute drive from the salon.
So I went.
I stopped to get cash beforehand to tip 20%. I clicked it into my spending tracker. And I checked into the salon.
I didn’t blog, I didn’t freelance, and I didn’t grade quizzes (I tried, but I forgot them on the kitchen table).
I didn’t do anything besides sit in the massage chair, soak my feet in the warm water, and smile at the small talk. I simply got a pedicure.
Afterwards, I went back to work with a sense of relief. I didn’t let the gift card go to waste, and nothing bad happened when I spent a little money and a little time on myself.
The Guilt I Do Feel
I don’t want to give the impression that I now know how to spend freely and confidently on myself, the things I value, and what I enjoy. I don’t, but I like to think I took the first toe-polished step of learning how to do that.
I expected that spending to unlock a sense of guilt. It did, in a way, but not at all how I imagined it would. In fact, the only guilt I really feel is guilt for how poorly I’ve been treating myself. In the name of saving, in the name of personal finance, I’ve been depriving myself not out of necessity but out of a sense of not deserving it.
My savings, my investments, and my financial goals all deserved my money and my time. But I did not.
In an attempt to right a wrong, I overcorrected. Not spending isn’t the same as learning to save.
If personal finance feels like punishment, you’re doing it wrong. And now you don’t have to ask me how I know.