How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Spending

It’s up to us to regulate our purchases—dodging ads and dismissing temptations, while buying what we need to be comfortable.

Our concept of what we need to be comfortable is not only relative, but adaptable. Just as we can quickly adjust to a more indulgent lifestyle, it doesn’t take long to feel disinterested in that indulgence when we live more conservatively.

Not unlike our appetite for food, our degree of reliance on stuff is influenced by our social circles, upbringing, the media we consume, the amount of money we make, our awareness of environmental issues, the people we idolize, and our feeling of security in the world. If we become reliant on buying as a source of happiness—or display of success, expression of affection, fulfillment of habit, standard of comfort, feeling of competence, etc.—it may be important to cut back and re-adapt to a trimmer lifestyle.

I’ve written on how to practically buy less, but here I want to focus on how we can quell our emotional reliance on new purchases. 

In this post:

  • Make ethical restrictions on your purchases
  • Recognize ego depletion
  • Seek out novelty in other ways
  • Find internal satisfaction
  • Summon affection

Make ethical restrictions on your purchases

  • If you’re passionate about workers’ rights, aim to buy fair trade products. 
  • If you’re passionate about supporting the local economy, limit your shopping to local businesses. 
  • If you’re passionate about the environment, make guidelines around buying from green brands, buying organic produce, cutting out meat and dairy, and cutting down on what you bring home, shopping second hand. 
  • If you’re passionate about reducing waste, identify plastic-free products, and make rules around how many pieces of plastic packaging you allow into your home per week. 
  • If you care about bees, buy organic produce and local honey. 
  • If you care about local agriculture, join a farm share, frequent your farmers’ market, or purchase local products at your grocery store. 
  • If you care about food equity, purchase from stores that have food donation programs. 
  • If you care about food waste, prioritize food you know will be thrown away at the store: food near its expiration date, wonky or bruised produce, damaged packaging, cartons with a broken egg.   
  • If you care about animal welfare, make limitations regarding the animal products you consume (if going vegan or vegetarian is too daunting, try becoming a “flexitarian”), don’t purchase leather, feathers, fur, horns, or hooves, or research which companies source their products through humane practices, and limit cosmetics to those that don’t rely on animal testing.

This sounds like a list of things that only people in privileged situations can afford. To be sure, such choice is a privilege. But you don’t need to spend more money to live by your values. Reducing what you buy, while funneling your purchases toward a meaningful purpose is a great way to all at once support a cause, the environment, your budget, and your emotional wellbeing.  

Be specific with your focus, your intentions, and your guidelines. These rules don’t need to be hard and fast, unless that works best for you. Try keeping to your ethical restrictions 80% of the time to start. Progress over perfection

Recognize ego depletion before you buy

Ego depletion is a theory in psychology that suggests how cognitively-demanding tasks corrode our reserves of self-control. These corroding situations include ones that are emotionally fraught, present an abundance of choice, are unfamiliar, contradict your beliefs, require intense concentration, or engage your willpower. It is thought that low blood sugar also leads to ego depletion.

You can see how according to this idea, you can land yourself in an unfortunate cycle that is hard to break from.

Brownies soothe emotional distress, blood sugar needs, and your struggle against willpower (to resist the brownie). But if you’re trying to eat “clean” or lose weight, that brownie may be loaded with guilt and contradict your beliefs. It will then contribute to more emotional distress and consequently reduce your willpower, while simultaneously presenting a situation where willpower is required (to resist eating more).

The same thing can apply to soothing yourself with material objects. When your ego is depleted, it may be harder to resist impulses to buy. 

To break this cycle, reduce your exposure to situations that require self-control: remove that temptation! Engage in things that satisfy basic needs for “autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” as F. Martela, … R.M. Ryan write in their book Self-Regulation and Ego Control. “These invigorate the sense of self.” Internal strength and vitality is the anecdote to both ego depletion and over-reliance on external comforts. “Additionally,” she says, “exposure to nature, mindful attention to the present, and benevolent acts can similarly yield positive, energizing effects.” 

If all else fails, take a break: change activities, take a walk, sleep on it.

Seek out novelty in other ways

Humans crave novelty. One of the most convenient and intensive forms of novelty available to us is in buying new things. To damped that temptation, we can fill our novelty tank with more productive and natural changes to our routine.

  • Spend your money on experiences. “You can like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences are part of you. We are the total of our experiences.”  -Cornell University researcher Dr. Thomas Gilovich
  • Change up your environment. During the day, even minor shifts to your routine can make an unconscious difference: work in different rooms if you can, or turn your seat/desk so that light hits you from different angles. If you don’t work from home, take a different route to work. Change up what you eat. Hang out with different friends. On weekends, explore: take hikes, go camping, visit new restaurants. 
  • Learn constantly and get your creative juices flowing. Listen to podcasts, read books (or listen to them), watch documentaries, take notes on your observations and ideas. Work on a creative project, sign up for a class, join a social group, explore a hobby. Indulge your curiosity! 
  • Schedule in something to look forward to each day. Whether it’s cuddling your dog or attending a class, we need to know there’s something enjoyable awaiting us—everyday. Write your plans down at the beginning of a week, or every morning. For variety, try not to repeat the same activity two days in a row.
  • Set tangible goals. Set small weekly goals, larger monthly goals, and lofty (but possible) goals you’ll need to work hard to achieve. Accumulating possessions is often a way to fill a void. If you’re working toward something you’re passionate about, with a concrete plan for execution, a timeline, and milestones to meet along the way, you’ll feel a sense of purpose and worth that’s crucial to undermining your dependence on stuff.
    • Don’t be discouraged by the inevitable hiccups that disrupt your plans. Adjust your goals accordingly. If you drop your goal, it isn’t a failure, but perhaps a sign that it should be re-oriented.

Find internal satisfaction

Easier said than done, right? But as with most things, practice makes perfect: consciously discouraging our impulse to lean on the external supplements of “stuff” can help us feel experiences more fully over time. 

  • Do your best to live by your values: Care about the environment? Prioritize it. Care about kindness and generosity? Bring in your downstairs neighbors’ Amazon box even if they don’t do so for you. I recommend making a list of three things you value most and two concrete ways you can take steps toward living more closely by them. 
  • Make a list of non-material things that make you happy, and try to incorporate at least one each day. Plan something you’re looking forward to down the road—a vacation, read-a-thon, movie night, virtual game night.
  • Practice gratitude: Writing three things you’re grateful for everyday is a good way to train yourself to get in the mindset of focusing on what you have, instead of what you don’t. If you feel gratitude toward someone in particular, let them know. Keep those social ties alive.
  • Spend time with animals: Playing with an animal increases our levels serotonin and dopamine. Hang out with a friend’s animal, go to a dog park, volunteer at an animal shelter, say hi to cats and dogs you pass, bird watch. If you’re in the position to adopt a fuzzy friend, many shelter animals need a home.
  • Smile: It makes you happier! In addition, relax your shoulders, push them back, and tilt your chin up. A confident stance can temporarily enhance the feeling of confidence.
  • Help others: Actively helping others, whether you know them or not, actually boosts your emotional wellbeing. Tapping into your compassion and acting on it decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reach out to friends who are going through a rough time and let them know you’re there; send a care package; donate to a charity; volunteer.
  • Connect with others: We need social interaction, and we’re not getting much right now. See if your friends are up for a weekly or monthly activity—a virtual game night, movie night, or a socially distanced picnic in the park. Scheduling in a recurring activity lends some structure and predictability to our social lives, and reminds us that our friends are there for us.
    • Reconnect: When you happen to think of someone you care about or appreciate, shoot them a text to let them know. Check in on the people that matter to you. Share memes. Send a letter. Keep Zooming.
  • De-stress: Meditate, keep a journal, get enough sleep, exercise. 
  • Get out into nature: There’s nothing more energizing than being outdoors. Nature has a magical ability to rejuvenate, helping us gain perspective and a sense of peace. Even 15 minutes is said to make a difference for our wellbeing and creativity. Have a picnic, take a hike, read a book or do yoga in a park, stare at the sky, sunbathe. 
  • See a therapist: We could all use one! A therapist wants to hear you talk about yourself. They care about helping you through problems, big and small.
    • In our society, men are discouraged from sharing their emotions and expressing vulnerability. This is a human need that should be taken away from no one. If you have few emotional outlets, it’s even more important for you to work with a professional. Therapy is no longer viewed as taboo, but a healthy and mature avenue for self-exploration.
    • You don’t need to settle for the first therapist you meet with. Make sure they’re a good fit, and if not, keep looking—a good therapist can do wonders.

Summon affection

This morning while I checked my email in the front yard, I noticed an unattractive, wormy black bug crawling in the shadow of my laptop. I’m not a fan of bugs. I blew two hefty gusts of breath, to which it immediately reacted by cowering against the edge of my computer, body bent, and frozen in shelter.

This bug was doing exactly what I would do if a giant sent windstorms my way. I felt for it; I let the bug stay. I even blew off another bug that was headed toward my laptop, because two was too much. Bug 1 leisurely strolled laps around my computer, and I even helped it out from between two sheets of paper where it got stuck.

Moral of the story: you can learn to be affectionate for anything, because you see what you choose to see.

Have you ever learned to like something you dislike?

We’re used to tossing out the old for the new because it’s hard to ignite passion for something we see everyday. But is it because that item is valueless? If we observe what we might be overlooking about a possession, we can, without much trouble, summon affection for its merits and its quirks.

Sometimes we do need a change. Humans need novelty and stimulation, and I won’t suggest you should deprive yourself of that—even when it comes to buying unnecessary things. But do me a favor and before you do, try to look at your old things from the point of view of someone who dearly loves them. You might remember that you do.

• • •

Like eating, which we (hopefully) do everyday, our relationship with spending is not simple: we are expected to bypass the high definition rewards of an exceedingly advertised activity while still engaging in the it—in moderation—daily. It’s a huge ask, and many of us struggle.

To pinpoint your illusive definition of “enough,” consider that what you’ve become familiar with might not be what you need to thrive. Your adaptable self might have assumed the role of someone either living in or striving for a certain ideal of material comfort, when it isn’t optimal for you. Give the non-material areas of your life some love, and in the meantime, use the above tips to buy a little less. We are constantly searching for “more” to meet our “enough,” when I think for many of us, we’ve already bypassed it.


Shopping Addiction: Purge Your Urge to Splurge

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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