In this post I want to talk about thoughts affecting the urge to spend. In previous posts I have talked about how I grew up in a family characterized by high levels of spending. My parents were big spenders. As a family, we were always going out to a fancy restaurant, going on an extravagant vacation, buying a new car, remodeling the house or buying a new house, and the list goes on. I received the message from early on that if you don’t have the newest and fanciest version of everything, then there was something intrinsically wrong with you. If you wanted something and didn’t have it, this was a real problem that required resolution in order for you to be okay. The message was linked very much to your basic self-worth: If you don’t have the fancy new clothes / hairstyle / etc., then you aren’t as good as everyone else. In fact, you might even be basically bad or inferior. Of course this is nonsense, but this was the message conveyed by my parents interactions with their money. As a child, this was a powerful message to receive.
Though I have worked a LOT on dispelling this myth for myself, its impact remains to this day, and it is something I have to continually work to be conscious of. I see this as one of the main reasons that I often feel compelled to spend. I have talked before about how I have tried to surround myself with frugal people. I talked about going grocery shopping with a frugal girlfriend when living in Hawaii, and trying to learn from her in terms of what she would and would not buy. I also previously wrote about the fact that I was looking for a frugal boyfriend, and I did eventually find one. He is in a higher income bracket than I am and he spends in certain areas that I do not, but generally he is very frugal. I continually try to learn from and emulate these frugal people wherever I can find them. One thing I find very impressive about both of those people is how they seemingly do not feel compelled to buy new things to wear or use. My boyfriend, for example, is still wearing most of his clothing from 15 years ago, and wears the same pair of sunglasses until they physically fall apart (read: 10 years later). I find this type of behavior to be awe-inspiring because as hard as I try, I still have my mother’s messages playing in my head that if something isn’t new or has a minor flaw, then it must be replaced, that I need a new version in order to be “okay”. I am continually working to figure out how to ignore and/or disbelieve these voices. Psychologically, I seem to have a belief that I must have new and nice looking versions of things or I am not okay. If I really dig down, I think that the belief is something like “I must have new and nice looking versions of things or others will see that I am inferior.” I don’t consciously believe this, and logically I know it to be complete nonsense, but that doesn’t stop it from creating the distress/discomfort I experience when I perceive a “need” to have something new and shiny. I even logically know that it is a perceived need and not an actual need, and yet the discomfort and need to “fix” it (usually by buying something) persists. Having these types of automatic beliefs or thoughts is actually something that everyone experiences to one degree or another, and working with them is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly referred to as “CBT”.
So if everyone has these automatic thoughts, how do you identify them? This is conceptually simple but difficult to practice. It is done by observing your emotional states, and asking questions like “What was I thinking just then?” when you experience discomfort or distress.
Usually this type of work (identifying automatic thoughts, intermediate thoughts, and eventually core beliefs) is done in therapy for issues like anxiety and depression, but here I am applying it to personal finance. For this purpose, the type of distress I am paying attention to is that which I experience when I want to buy something but I also want to save money, which results in an internal conflict. It usually looks something like this:
Me the spender: “Oooh I want this new pair of sunglasses.”
Me the saver: “I can’t buy that, I need to pay down my student loans and I’m trying to be fugal.”
Me the spender: “But I really want them! I need to have them so I will see better and people will think I look cool!”
Me the saver: “But I need to save my money or I’m never going to accomplish my goals and I’m going to be a failure!”
and so on….
This conflict usually results in distress. I start to feel stressed, unhappy, or uncomfortable. When I notice this uncomfortable feeling, I can task myself: What was I thinking just then when I felt that sadness/distress/stress/anger/unhappiness?
In cases where I am experiencing an urge to buy something, usually the answer is something like:
- I need that so that people will see and think that I’m cool and good-looking.
- I need that so that people will see and think that I am good at sports.
- I need that so that people will think I look professional and take me seriously.
If you try to find the commonalities among all these types of automatic thoughts, they filter down to an intermediate belief (or a core belief for personal finances) of:
- I must have new and nice looking versions of things or others will see that I am inferior.
If I were to create a more general “case conceptualization”, that is, not just in terms of personal finance, this would filter down to an overall “core belief” of feeling basically unworthy. For me, this core belief is likely something like:
- I am inferior to others.
- I am a failure.
For an explanation of what I mean about “filters down to”, here is a little graphic representing generally what a belief structure can look like:
So do I believe these core beliefs about myself? Of course not! I know that I am not a failure and that I am not “inferior” to others in any general sense. Usually we don’t believe our core beliefs outright, but they still deeply affect us in our daily thoughts, behaviors and actions. For me personally, these ideas of inferiority or unworthiness can result in me feeling like I need to buy things to increase my worth or to attempt to make others see me as worthy. This information can be very valuable for me in fighting the urges to spend when they do arise. Understanding our automatic thoughts and resulting behaviors, and then working to change those thoughts is the method by which change is created in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), so why not use it for behavior change in relation to personal finance?
What do you think your automatic thoughts or core beliefs around money might be? Are they useful to you in your pursuit of your financial goals? Or destructive? (like some of mine) How could being aware of them help you to conquer your financial goals?
In future posts, I will talk a bit more about some of the ways to alter automatic thoughts and core beliefs, and things that I am trying in my journey toward freedom from student debt.
As always, thank you for reading.