How to Escape the Trap of Emotional Spending

Cherie Lowe

The year is 1981. I’m wearing my Care Bears Velcro shoes and my best rainbow t-shirt with matching red track shorts. In our front yard was the biggest oak tree on planet Earth (or maybe just in small-town Indiana or maybe just our front yard). Hanging from its branches is my greatest delight and deepest nemesis – an old tire swing so enormous my five-year-old body can sit comfortably inside with my legs crossed. Around and around my brother whirls me until I begin to rise off of the ground. I watch the two individual ropes overhead become one in a tight knot, making it difficult to identify their unique strands. Wound together, they tighten and tighten until rigid. At that exact moment, my brother lets go and I spin wildly out of control in equal parts fear and glee.

Fast-forward more than two decades later and I’m equally dizzy, yet less elated, because our family has racked up over $127K in debt. How did we get here? What did we do? What was going to happen to our family?

It’s probably more difficult than we realize to extricate money from our emotions. Like the two ropes suspending my tire swing high above, they’re twisted tightly together. Some of us spend when we’re happy. Others spend when we’re sad. Our childhood memories remind us of how much or how little we had. We equate spending money with personal success or we err in the opposite direction, hoarding every penny. Personal finance is just that – personal. Since there are so many different feelings at play each and every time we engage in commerce, it would be wise for us to reflect upon practices to improve our financial emotional health.

Wait a Designated Period of Time Before Making Your Decisions

It’s easy to respond without thinking things through thoroughly. Sometimes waiting a day, a week or even a year will yield an incredibly different result. Set up a framework in your life that allows you to at least sleep on an un-budgeted purchase. Granted, this might mean that you miss out on a deal or your sought-after item may find a new home. However, your delay could save you both dollars and regret. For smaller items (a new pair of jeans, a new tennis racket, kitchenware or leaf blower) spend at least 24 hours before you make your purchase. For big ticket items (furniture, a car, booking a vacation) spend at least a week doing research and another day or two before you make your final decision. Purchasing a new home or deciding to change job? At a minimum, spend a month evaluating your current circumstances, setting a budget and investigating opportunities before you make a leap.

Talk to Someone Else

Merely speaking, our plan out-loud can sometimes cause us to pause and reflect on whether or not we’re reacting to an emotion or seriously contemplating our true motives. While you could certainly talk to yourself, it might make more sense to find someone you trust who can be a sounding board. If you’re married, this person needs to be your spouse. However, keep in mind that money can be equally emotional for your spouse and cause conflict. Seeking wise counsel is not an excuse to blame or accuse your significant other for their choices, instead it’s your opportunity to get his or her honest opinion. Be vulnerable and have an open mind because you may realize it’s not the best choice right now or at all.

Recognize When You Are at Your Weakest

Carefully observe your own patterns of behavior and habits. If you know you spend wildly during certain emotional seasons of your life, put safeguards in place to keep you from making an unwise decision. Times of grief, stress and lack of sleep can all influence the ways we approach money. When you are stretched thin emotionally or overtired, you almost always spend more than you would if you were well-rested and whole. Whether it’s choosing to only bring a set amount of cash or even leaving your debit card at home, placing a boundary or intentional practice in between you and an emotionally driven investment can avoid a myriad of mistakes.

Reverse Your Role

If at all possible, try to look beyond your own personal circumstance. Is the decision you are about to make one you would advise your children to make? Most of us would never wish upon another a poor choice we’d readily make for ourselves. Before you dive into a dire economic situation, pause and ask this question of yourself. If you wouldn’t tell someone else to make the same call, walk away as quickly as possible.

Don’t spin out of control in the emotional personal finance tire swing. Ask why you want to make that buy. Wait. Question your current state of being. Talk to someone else. And be sure you’d tell someone else to do the same thing. With each act of intention you come closer to a conclusion you can live with beyond today.

Cherie Lowe is an author, speaker and hope bringer. Her book Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After details her family’s quest to eliminate more than $127K in debt in just under four years. As her alter ego the Queen of Free, Cherie provides offbeat money saving tips and debt slaying inspiration on a daily basis. Discover more at