If Personal Finance Feels Like Punishment, You’re Doing it Wrong

Personal Finance isn't PunishmentIf 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 years decades.

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.



  1. Some people do just fine not spending though. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with miser-mom, for example, nor do I think she feels deprived. It isn’t about spending or not spending, but about being at where your preferences hit your budget constraints. Mindfulness. Getting in tune with your wants and constraints today and tomorrow.

      • That’s what the title of the post says, but several of the statements within the post are much more anti-not-spending. “If you refuse to spend money, you’re not actually good with money.” “But if you never spend money on yourself–…–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.”

        And there are deeply in high interest debt bloggers (not personal finance bloggers) out there who feel like not being able to spend because their credit cards are maxed out is punishment. They’re doing it wrong for different reasons. It’s not just about your utility functions, but also about your budget constraints. Most people, even the wealthiest (especially the wealthiest?) have more things they would like to spend on than they can “afford”, though I guess once you get to those upper levels of wealth you want to buy more politicians.

        I mean, I would like to buy a house in California but we can’t afford one, even though we could afford pretty much any small luxury you can think of these days. Living in a red state that sometimes feels like a punishment, but I also want to keep my job. So we don’t buy a house we can’t really afford in California. Some people really shouldn’t be spending more.

        • OK. But I’m pretty sure this post is framed within my own experience. In fact, I know it is 😉 Look at the second and third sentences.

          Plus, I’m not talking about not spending on houses. I’m talking about being unwilling to spend $5 on a tip and take an hour of time to get a pedicure.

          Money is transactional. It’s a tool. And if you never part with it ever, I don’t actually think you’re learning how to use it — at least not fully. Money is meant to be saved and shared, and it’s meant to be spent. It’s important to learn to do all of that healthfully.

          Long-term deprivation for the sake of deprivation is…not healthy. If you’re doing it out of necessity or to achieve a goal, sure. I get it! I *did* it. But depriving yourself of any pleasure or any real spending just because is not a healthy relationship with money.

  2. I deprived myself for over a decade, not to learn to do money better, but solely to build up the pile of cash I needed to protect ourselves and that never felt like punishment or like I was good at money. It was simply one of many tactics I deployed in executing my strategy. I was good with money long before depriving myself, and that period didn’t prove anything except that I could execute my strategy and attain my goal of getting out of debt and building a firm money foundation.

    My problem was that I didn’t account for how very deeply ingrained that specific habit would become! It’s not punishment for me mostly but it feels that way when I take my family with me so I had to learn to meet PiC in the middle while still hitting our goals (and he met me in the middle too). I think that compromise is the best approach so we are all happy. And that’s the real goal in the end, isn’t it?

    • It’s a hard, hard habit to break. My husband constantly has to say things like, “Stop acting like we can’t afford this” or “You work for your money.”

      But it feels…greedy? Weird? Like I’m not being as productive as I could be if I don’t save it. I don’t know. I definitely don’t want to go back to frittering away money on everything and nothing, but I also definitely know where I am right now isn’t a good place either.

      • Possibly it’s guilt? I have a feeling about spending my hard earned money too. It’s a SMAUG like feeling. Mine mine mine, don’t touch my hoard. And it’s still very difficult for me to agree that spending on anything is justified.

        Thankfully, my hoarding of money tendency grew at the same rate as my relationship with PiC and thanks to him helping provide some balance. He’s a spender and learned to save from me. I’m a hoarder and learned from him to keep my mind open to the idea that we can and should spend on important things within reason and be ok, even if emotionally I am absolutely not there. Which means I still won’t eat out alone (because frivolous!!!! I can make my own food!) but I will treat friends to meals and then I enjoy it too. Or birthdays. I actually pick nice meals for my birthday instead of insisting on spending half the day cooking now!

      • Reading this felt like I let out an exhale I hadn’t realised I was holding. And to Revanche too – I often find that my feelings about money line up with you two so I’m constantly grateful for your blogs!

        Having the Hatchling and even less time for myself made me realise how much of my free time I’d spent on others/not myself – there was still an unspoken expectation that I would do as I had done before but actually having a baby worked as a great excuse not to….now if only I could muster up the anti-guilt to let someone sort out my hair…

  3. I agree that feeling deprived due (when you do have enough) is a good sign you’re approach to PF is off-kilter. There is a lot of power in feeling content and knowing you have the self-control and the freedom to selectively splurge. I think having a 3rd kid really put us over the limit on what we were willing to spend time on in order to save money. Fixing the cars–yes, great value. Making homemade pizza dough every time vs. buying frozen or take-out pizza–not always worth it!

  4. Body guy in fl

    So here’s my problem. I don’t spend money on daily things but what I do want to spend money on I can’t afford. So i save to try to buy what I want but I can’t ever seem to save enough to buy said item therefore i feel I’m depriving myself. It’s a vicious cycle.

  5. I think your post hits on a much deeper issue of what we feel we deserve. So much advice out there for women is either about shame and guilt and self denial OR it is about complete over-the-top fantasy indulgence. The secret is knowing yourself well enough to know what is meaningful and valuable to you. Spend what you can on what you love, anything else let it go.

  6. I read this while I was getting a pedicure yesterday. A pedicure my husband sent me to get with cash in hand because he felt like I really, really needed that but I wouldn’t spend the money on myself. Many of us do not think twice about spending money on something our children, family or friends need, but feel so so guilty spending the time and money on ourselves.

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