'Why Do I Keep Buying Stuff I Don't Need With Money I Don't Have?'

Despite the best financial intentions, there are always things we want to spend money on that feel very important, like fall candles and sweatpants.
October 20, 2020, 1:30pm
Smiling man shopping online on tablet while lying on sofa at home
Collage by VICE staff | Photo via Getty
How to actually stop doing the things you know aren't exactly good for you.

From our teen years onwards, we’re constantly being told that saving money is good, and spending money on shit you don’t really need (when you could be saving it) is generally… not great. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Somewhere between knowing how much money you have coming in each month and your list of recurring can’t-skip expenses—like rent, health insurance, and bills—is a muddy middle section where a lot of us lose track of our cash. Despite the best financial intentions (Save a month’s worth of wages! Have no student debt!) there are always other—often more exciting—things we want to spend our money on like, you know, cute shit from Target, fall candles, and sweatpants.

Regardless of how much or how little you have, everyone’s relationship with money is both complex and emotional—meaning “just stop it” advice about “frivolous” spending isn’t particularly helpful. So, if you’re stuck in a never-ending loop of spending money and then wishing you didn’t, here are a few reasons why you might be having difficulty saving.

You’re relying on willpower alone.

Many of us assume that if we’re lucky enough to pay for all our essentials and have some extra cash to spare, it should be easy to put our future selves first and start steadily growing our savings. But it isn’t always the case, because willpower—the desire to save—just isn’t enough.

You’re viewing shopping as problem-solving.

Thinking of ways to spend money is, I’ll admit, an enjoyable and satisfying past-time—as is actually spending it. And an easy way to alleviate the guilt of shopping is by treating our not-exactly-essential purchases as the solution to a problem, like a new set of glass containers that will help you cut down on single-use plastics, workout gear that will mean you can keep running outdoors once the weather cools down, and… almost all skincare products.

“Shopping can feel productive. And when there’s a problem that we’ve solved by buying something, it gives us an additional emotional zing,” said Clayman. “Money is almost always limited—to some degree or another—but our feelings, desires, and impulses are limitless.” Even if you’re aware that you often shop to improve your mood, it’s good to be conscious of the fact that shopping to solve a problem (or “problem”) very much falls into that same category of emotional spending.

You don’t really know how much money you have.

Ignorance is bliss—especially when it comes to money. As bad as it is to realize you can’t afford something you want to buy, over-estimating the amount of money you want to save is another easy way to set yourself up for disappointment and guilt.

“A lot of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, not because they are irresponsible, but because their paychecks aren’t big enough,” said Joy Liu, a certified financial trainer at The Financial Gym. “This is exacerbated with wage stagnation, shortage of affordable housing, and gender and racial pay gaps.” So, before you start beating yourself up about not being able to save a certain amount each week or month, look at your finances and be realistic about how much you need to spend to get by—including the literal essentials, but also things like hobbies, social commitments, and other stuff that genuinely makes you happy.

“Dedicate time to sit down and evaluate your cash flow,” Liu said. “How much money flows into your accounts and how much flows out?” In doing this exercise, she said, you might realize that you actually don’t have much money in your budget to be able to save; if you can decrease big expenses (like housing or student loan payments) or bring in extra money, that might help… but doing either of those things simply might not be possible at the moment. Even if you end up learning that you don’t have enough money to be saving much (if anything) right now, knowing exactly where your money is going each month is still important.

If you determine that you do have enough room in your budget for some frivolous stuff after essentials and savings, Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, says that you don’t need to worry about getting too granular about how you spend that money. In essence, expenses like restaurants, Ubers, candles, and skincare can all come from this part of your budget. Instead of only budgeting essentials and then saving whatever is left over at the end of the money after all your discretionary spending, you can budget out essentials and savings first, and possibly fret a little less over whether your designated “guilt free spending money” goes to restaurant dinners or candles.

You assume you’re in the same financial situation as your friends.

Most of us have friends we know make a lot more money than we do. However, it’s also important to remember that even our peers who have jobs similar to ours and who live in the same neighborhoods as we do may have totally different financial situations than our own. Without acknowledging this fact, it’s easy to assume you should be buying, doing, and saving just as much as the people you compare yourself to.

You’ve convinced yourself that you’re just “not good with money.”

Maybe you’ve made big money mistakes in the past, or maybe you’ve grown up being told that you (or people in your family) make terrible financial decisions—either way, know that even the worst habits can be unlearned and replaced with better ones.

Follow Gyan Yankovich on Twitter.