How to Make a Financial Relapse Prevention Plan

I need a spending relapse prevention plan.

This week my finances derailed in a pretty predictable way.  Lots of people in my office have been away for the last 3 weeks, and as a result I have been picking up a LOT of slack, and seeing a LOT more clients than I normally see.  This means that not only have I been doing more sessions (which takes it’s own toll), but I have then been trying (and largely succeeding) to do a LOT more work on projects and admin and all the background stuff.  Did I get it all done? Sure.  Did I come away unscathed? No.  I ended up coming away from these couple of weeks feeling really stressed out.  This has all kinds of effects that we are sometimes and sometimes not aware of, from stomach problems to muscle tension to skin problems, to just feeling like crap.  For me there were red flags and warning signs all over the place this week, including feeling more irritable, thinking about work around the clock, and starting to feel overwhelmed.  I quickly realized this was not good, and set about putting some supports in place for myself like pushing back on work deadlines and implementing more self-care, but the damage was done, and it made itself known in my spending.  My spending seems to correlate directly with my stress level.  I can go along for quite a while doing fairly well, putting money into my categories, planning ahead for my goals, but then a week like this where I get run down can cause me to do some serious damage to those category balances.  I sometimes wish I could have some other, more responsible adult hold on to my money for me, only giving it to me when it’s time to realize my goals.

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I used to work in a hospital treating substance use and so many of these patients somehow managed to quit using things like alcohol and methamphetamine, and when I struggle with things like spending or sugar consumption, I am truly in awe of their accomplishments! Seriously, if they can quit meth then surely I can get clean from spending, right?

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So how can I prevent this from happening in the future?  Well I have a number of ideas.

  1. Respond to earlier signs of stress by making changes.  
    • So I realized I was getting stressed out at work, and I made some changes, but I did it too late.  I tried to power through on caffeine for roughly 3 weeks and this resulted in my getting pretty burnt out.  We all know we are supposed to take breaks and do better self-care, but sometimes we can get caught up in trying to accomplish everything, and this is what happened to me here.
  2. Try practicing more mindfulness of urges to acquire things. 
    • This is not something I have written a dedicated post on and so maybe I will in the future, but what I mean by mindfulness here is:
      • Noticing and observing cravings to get something new, and
      • Attempting to observe that urge or craving itself without reacting to it.
    • Usually when I want to get something, I will first have an urge to acquire something new.  I might also have thoughts about that object that occur throughout the day, and the really risky behavior is when I start looking at it online (ex: social media) or on actual point-of-sale websites.  Ideally, if I was being mindful, I would observe the first cravings or urges to get something new, as well as the thoughts about why I think I need that thing.  I would attempt to notice these urges and thoughts for 2 reasons.  First: the idea is to tolerate the discomfort that comes along with the urge without reacting to it.  Second: the awareness of the thoughts can be used to prevent yourself from moving to the next step, which would be shopping for or actually buying the item.  In the process of this mindful observation, I might also notice that my general stress level had increased, or I might notice some other thing that was going on.  All of this information about what’s going on inside our heads is useful data for taking care of ourselves and working toward our goals.
  3. Make a relapse prevention plan, because sometimes life gets messy.  
    • Put simply this relapse prevention plan would be a paper / note in your cell phone that listed the following:

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So let’s break it down category by category:

  • Triggers: these should be things that cause you to move toward a spending / relapse.  For me these were things like stress at work, being too tired, being too busy, not having enough down time.
  • Warning Signs: these should be things that you see yourself doing/feeling/thinking that tell you that you are headed toward a relapse into spending.  For me, these were things like irritability, feeling run-down, exhausted, looking at products on instagram/facebook/amazon, etc. 
  • Risky People/Places/Things: These are people/places/things that you tend to spend around.  Do you have an “expensive” friend who you always end up spending money with?  Is there a store you can’t seem to get out of without spending a lot of money?  For me, these were actually primarily online things, like instagram, pinterest, amazon, and facebook marketplace.  Also on the list was Joe Fresh.  For those of you not in Canada, this is a clothing store that is inside the grocery store, so every time you go to the grocery store you have to walk past the clothing section, and they have a lot of cute stuff.  #Danger!
  • Coping Skills: These are the things you can do to protect yourself from the triggers and risky people/places/things.  What things have you done that help you to come back from the edge? For me this was stuff like take breaks, push back on workload at work, DO LESS at work, find free activities to do with friends, and don’t take my wallet if I go for a walk at lunch.
  • Supports to Call / Message: These are the names of people you could call / message / talk to / or otherwise reach out to when you’re standing at the edge.  If you have made it all the way to the point of sale with some thing you know you don’t need, you call these people for support.  You can also of course, and probably should, call them earlier.  For example, you could call them and say “I have been thinking about buying _____________ for a while, and I’m even looking at it on instagram, and I know I don’t need it.  Help!”  Sometimes talking it out, having support, and feeling less alone can help with our willpower.

One last motivation piece to add is the outcomes of a relapse into spending, and the outcomes of “sobriety” from spending.

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This is usually intended for substance use, but the principles work the same with spending.

  • Outcomes of Relapse: In this section you would write out what will happen in your life, for your goals, for your relationships with others and with yourself if you have this relapse into spending.  For me, this looked like I can’t accomplish my goals, I can’t pay off my student loan, my relationships suffer, I could fall on hard times. 
  • Outcomes of “Sobriety”: You would then write out the same consequences, but this time for what will happen if you stay “sober” from spending.  This is a principle taken from motivational interviewing for increasing motivation and decreasing complacency.  For me, this looked like, I can build the life I want, I can be proud of myself, I don’t have to fear the “rainy day”, I will feel safe. 

So that’s the relapse prevention plan. Basically this is something you would use with substance abuse, but here I have tried it out for spending.  I just filled one of these out for myself, and it actually helped me to identify an area of weakness.   I realized that when it comes to personal finance / spending, I really struggled to come up with “Supportive People to Call / Message”.   For stress generally or for needing support there are a solid list of people I could call, but for financial help and support I really struggled to figure out who I would call.  This will definitely be an area for improvement.  I decided on a couple of people who I will ask to be supportive of me in those situations, so I can reach out for their support when it happens.  I have already asked one of them at the time of writing this.

So what are your thoughts on preventing unwanted spending?  What strategies do you use to accomplish your financial goals?

As always, thank you for reading.

Debt Dummy

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