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4 Emotions That Explain Why You’re Spending Money

Sophia Surrett  |  August 16, 2022

If your budget has taken a hit lately, could emotions be playing a part? These 4 emotions explain exactly why you might be spending more.

Did your budget take a bigger hit than normal at some point over the last few months? Perhaps for several months in a row? If so, you’re not alone. Credit card debt hit record highs during the second quarter, according to a new report from TransUnion, indicating that many consumers may have turned to credit to help manage inflation’s impact on their budgets. 

No, this isn’t a good thing, but knowing that credit card debt is bad and actually putting away the credit card are two very different things. Why? Because we’re human, and all too often, our emotions  get the best of us. Our emotions can instantly inspire an impulse buy at checkout, or whipping into a parking spot at our local T.J.Maxx to kill an extra 20 minutes with some retail therapy. According to a survey from Intuit, 65% of Americans have no idea how much they spent in the last month, and it’s spending blindly that’s exactly how debt can add up fast. 

But here’s the thing: It’s only when we truly understand our emotions that we can break the habit of buying without thinking. It’s time to learn how to center ourselves before we indulge. 


Financial therapist Amanda Clayman says that the excitement of shopping is actually the anticipation of gaining something, whether that’s anxiety relief or a rise in social credibility. But of course excitement — that feeling of chasing a positive — can be a good thing, and in most other aspects of our lives, it’s a healthy thing. But it can quickly turn into the driver of a financial disaster. In other words, it’s okay to get excited, just make that doesn’t translate to “add to cart” every time you see a piece of clothing that’s your favorite color. 

Sales can also kick us into excitement overdrive, explains Doug Milnes, head of communications at Money Geek. He offers the the example of a 25% sale for an item that’s originally $100. Yes, you’re saving $25, but you’re still spending $75. (Reminds us of Jean Chatzky’s Money Rule #6: If it’s 50% off, it’s still 50% on.) Yes, we all love a good sale, but limiting your amount of purchases is important. Get that one thing that makes you smile, not a whole bag of things that are likely to end up sitting in the bag at home. 


Having some anxiety in life is totally normal. But financial problems can arise when we’re not in a good headspace.  “When emotions are high, spending concerns are low,” Milnes says. And this often means we may be tempted to turn to “retail therapy” to cheer ourselves up. Think about it:  If you’ve had a hard day at work and just want to feel better quickly, you might venture into the $5-and-under section at Target and quickly spend $100 to get your serotonin-boost. (And let’s be honest, it’s the $5-and-under section if you’re lucky. For some of us, it’s going to be the Whole Body section at Whole Foods, for which we’ll need a second mortgage.) The last thing you want to happen is for your credit card bill to come at the end of the month, and you find that your anxiety-induced shopping spree is now giving you an entirely new anxiety attack due to the debt you’ve accumulated.  Spending regrets can be such a terrible feeling, especially when we’re forced to sacrifice on another goal or outing because we went too hard with card in previous weeks. 


We’re all familiar with the fear of missing out, but it’s not just FOMO over lavish trips we can’t afford or perhaps a dinner out with friends that we weren’t invited to… It’s also easy to have FOMO over material goods. Unfortunately, most of the products that everyone is raging about usually come with a raging price tag to match. Clayman says that when we say “no” to certain things in life, when we’re finally able to say “yes” to something we want, it’s more meaningful for us. What does this look like in practice? For starters, it’s okay to “add to cart,” just don’t checkout. Keep the product in your shopping cart for at least 24 hours, and if you still want to buy it after sleeping on it and reflecting on it, go for it. Milnes says this technique will give your brain a “reset” and then only if you still find yourself thinking about it the next day should you pull the trigger. Best of all, some retailers will even send you a 15% off coupon when they see you’ve left something in your cart. (Just keep in mind that all bets are off during flash sales and sales like Amazon Prime Day, where you’re often left with 12 hours or less to make your purchasing decisions. In that case, take as long of a pause as you’re able, check your disposable income for the month, and make the best choice you can. in the moment. You got this. 


We all love getting our loved ones gifts, but when your budget is in jeopardy, it might be good to pass on that spontaneous gift. Or if you know your kid wants a specific type of Nerf gun and you see it at Target, you can feel good buying it, just save it for their birthday or for a good report card day or something else special — don’t give it to them immediately. Gift-giving is a love language, but it doesn’t have to be expensive; it can be grabbing someone candy on the way home from work or flowers from the farmers market. A small and unexpected gift can be more meaningful than a big and expected gift. Clayman says happiness is “experience minus expectations,” meaning that those small gestures can bring you just as much happiness. 

Remember that emotions aren’t bad — they are what make us human, and bring us joy. Clayman says your goal should not be to eliminate your emotions when it comes to your financial decisions, rather to just be careful when you notice your emotions start running the show. 

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