I’m An Emotional Spender – How Do I Stop?

Photographed by Kieran Boswell.
"Financial wellbeing is absolutely key to our general wellbeing; we can’t satisfy even our most basic needs without some level of financial security," says Dr Eleanor Seddon. As a clinical psychologist, she understands the complex and reciprocal nature of the link between what’s going on in our bank accounts and what’s going on in our minds. "Research shows," she adds, "that financial difficulty can both cause mental health issues – for example, through financial stress – and be caused by them, for example being unable to work due to depression."
As the charity Mind notes, money worries and mental health problems can form a vicious cycle: worrying about money can make mental health worse but poor mental health, in turn, makes it harder to manage money. 
Advertisement
For an aspect of our lives which has so much influence over both our mental health and our material circumstances, financial wellbeing is too often glossed over in our education system. Worse, it’s regularly contradicted in conversations about how we look after ourselves. This has been especially true during this pandemic. In among the discourse around adapting to working from home, staying healthy during lockdown conditions and the best skincare products to combat 'maskne' – all of which are legitimate concerns – something is being lost. 
I can personally attest to the importance of financial wellbeing for general wellbeing, having spent most of my 20s in a financial situation that was precarious at the best of times and completely debilitating at the worst. By March 2019, I had accrued over £27,000 of personal debt through a combination of poor decision-making, big life milestones like getting married and having children, and what I now recognise to be a spiral of emotional spending. I don’t think there was a day during that time that I didn’t go to sleep worrying about money and it took a huge toll on my happiness. I was either frantically juggling small amounts of money from one account to another, trying to plug gaps in my budget that were just too big, silently resenting my job for not being better paid or browsing Trouva for something to make me feel better. The worry started in my bank account but as time went on and things got worse, it began to seep into my wider life until I was anxious, ashamed and unhappy in general, rather than just with my finances. 
Advertisement

When the arrival of a parcel is the only dopamine hit you're getting amid a sea of Zoom calls and bleak news updates, it's easy to see how our bank balances are being depleted as we try to manage our emotions. 

It’s taken me a little while to understand why, despite money being the source of my unhappiness, I continued to use spending as a crutch to manage my emotions. Dr Seddon describes emotional spending as "when we spend money, buying something we do not need as a means of making ourselves feel better." 
We can practise all the self-care in the world but if we’re not looking after our financial wellbeing, we’re going to struggle to feel healthy, happy and secure. 
Many of us are living through a time of unparalleled financial insecurity, with little idea of when we’ll feel solid ground below our feet again. We know that young women are particularly affected by this. Whole industries have been damaged, possibly irreparably, by months of lockdown and many of us are having to completely re-evaluate the ways in which we earn, spend, save and invest our money. For the first time in our lives, some of us might be relying on government support in the form of furlough, universal credit or other government-backed initiatives like mortgage holidays, which, Dr Seddon explains, can "perpetuate feelings of anxiety, worry about the future and low self-esteem." With the withdrawal of the furlough scheme planned for the end of November and many fearing for their job security thereafter, it’s easy to see how this is true. 
Dr Seddon adds: "Growing up, our brains develop a ‘soothing system’ that helps us to respond to difficult emotions and to feel safe and calm. It helps us to generate ways of coping but the problem is that our brains are hard-wired to take decisions that benefit us in the short term but may make things worse in the long run." 
Advertisement
One of the real difficulties is that the consequences of our spending habits can, in turn, make us more susceptible to further emotional spending. When our impulse purchases result in a depletion of our savings, or credit card debt, we experience low mood and the cycle starts all over again. 
And so emotional spending is another serious way in which the pandemic poses a threat to our financial wellbeing. Feelings of boredom, loneliness and anxiety have swelled, with many left without the coping strategies that they normally use to assuage those feelings – things like meeting friends, going to the gym, or just a hug. "Emotional spending is actually one of few coping strategies available to people during a time of national stress," says Dr Seddon. When the arrival of a parcel is the only dopamine hit you’re getting amid a sea of Zoom calls and bleak news updates, it’s easy to see how our bank balances are being depleted as we try to manage our emotions. 
In addition to these internal processes, never before have we been faced with more opportunities to spend without needing to leave the sofa. As businesses have conducted a massive pivot to online, their marketing budgets have followed, leaving us bombarded with consumer communications, offers and ways to pay at a time when life is overwhelming enough. Many people in my Instagram community tell me that they managed to save or pay off debt during the first months of lockdown but, as the pandemic has dragged on, have found their resolve wavering as they feel pressure to "keep the economy going" or to somehow compensate for the time they’ve missed.
Advertisement

Growing up, our brains develop a 'soothing system' that helps us to respond to difficult emotions and to feel safe and calm. It helps us to generate ways of coping but the problem is that our brains are hard-wired to take decisions that benefit us in the short term but may make things worse in the long run.

Dr Eleanor Seddon
"At first I was spending hardly anything, but now I feel like I can’t stop," one woman tells me confidentially. "I feel like we’ve been through so much that I deserve to make up for lost time, but I’m also really nervous about my job security, which makes me feel guilty for spending."
"I’ve just started using my credit card again after having paid it off, I’m so annoyed at myself," says another. 
Others still describe saving every penny in an anxious attempt to safeguard against income loss but feeling that they’ve left it too late – another way in which money worries can tip the equilibrium of our sense of wellbeing. 
Much of this pandemic, and also our broader social and political landscape, is out of our control, but in order to protect and promote our own wellbeing – both financial and general – we need to focus on what we can influence: our own behaviour and how we respond to certain triggers. 
"Generating alternative ways of managing distress is one way that we can reduce emotional spending so that it doesn’t become (or remain) your only way of responding to difficult emotions," recommends Dr Seddon. "Creating a personal list or toolkit with things like exercise, listening to podcasts, yoga and meditation is a great idea, so that you have some strategies that you can easily access instead of spending money."
At the same time, it’s important that we are able to practise mindful spending if we want to create and sustain a more peaceful relationship with money, because we can’t simply opt out of managing money or making financial transactions altogether. The biggest gift we can give ourselves when it comes to spending consciously is time. Time to decide, time to consider, time to save for the things that we want. Marketers want us to make decisions quickly, which is why we’re served time-restricted offers and options to pay later, but sleeping on a purchasing decision is one of the best financial moves that you can make. We can also add in 'circuit-breaker' questions to our shopping experiences, such as 'Do I really need or want this?', 'Have I already got something similar?' or 'Can I afford it?' in order to break that vicious cycle of emotional spending that’s so detrimental to our wellbeing. 
Although a key part of financial wellbeing, overcoming emotional spending is not the only way that we can get more financially ‘fit’. Coming to terms with past mistakes, opening up to those close to us about money and overcoming any shame that we feel is vital, while living with a budget is also an important part of looking after ourselves. Financial self-care is your key to wellbeing – don’t neglect it. 
If you find yourself completely consumed with worry about your finances, or are concerned that it’s significantly affecting your mental health, you can reach out to your GP, to a money charity like StepChange, or to Samaritans on 116 123.

More from Living

R29 Original Series