Negative Emotions and Financial Self-Control

Guilt. Shame. Embarrassment.

Those feelings often drive us towards particular behaviors in our life, some positive and some negative.

We call our mom because we feel guilty that we haven’t talked to her in a while.

We skip meals because we feel shame at our overeating and our body shape.

We never invite people over because we feel embarrassment at the disorderliness of our home.

Maybe those things describe you or maybe they don’t, but I’m willing to bet that for most of you, at some point or another, has had a negative feeling drive your financial behavior.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s happened to me, more than a few times. I’ll be feeling glum about something that’s happened in my life and I’ll convince myself, somehow, that spending money is a solution to that problem.

I’ve signed up for gym memberships because I was frustrated and ashamed of my physical fitness and then never used it enough to make it worth the cost.

I’ve gone out to eat with people because I didn’t want to bother cleaning up my own home and was embarrassed to invite people over to see the mess.

I’ve bought myself a treat because I felt sad and I didn’t want to feel sad any more.

Negative emotions have triggered a lot of impulsive, useless spending in my life. At times, it still does. It has taken me half a lifetime to get some grip on it.

So, what have I learned about negative emotions and financial self-control?

First, throwing money at a negative emotion virtually never makes it truly go away. It might pause that feeling for a little while, but that feeling comes back – and it sometimes comes back in force.

A purchase doesn’t make guilt go away. It doesn’t make shame go away. It doesn’t make embarrassment go away. Those things persist, and they’re sometimes made even worse if you simply throw money at the problem.

Second, having a toolbox of tactics to help resolve negative emotions really helps. Quite often, when that wave of negative emotion is washing over you, you want to do something to feel empowered, to take control of it. Buying something to make it go away temporarily is definitely one action, but, as noted above, it’s not the best action. It often has financial consequences.

Instead, I have a handful of different tactics that I deploy when I’m frustrated or angry or sad and that feeling leads to a temptation to spend.

I go on a walk outside, preferably in nature. Simply being in a natural environment seems to elevate my mood quite easily. It’s some combination of having nature around me and natural sunlight on my skin.

I do some intense exercise. It really doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I get myself out of breath and sweating. That’s enough to bring out a big wave of endorphins, which are a natural mood lifter.

I spend some time making something. I find that channeling a negative emotion into making something is a great way to defuse it. I’ll make an elaborate soup or a loaf of homemade bread. I’ll write a short story or make a video. The act of creating something often puts negative feelings in check without cost.

I get in contact with an old friend. I’ll simply look up a few old friends and send them a positive message. Something about that process really erases negative feelings for me, leaving me feeling like I’ve sent out a positive message into the world.

Third, a frequently occurring negative emotion probably has something causing it, and it is very much worth your time to figure out that cause. Sometimes, that cause can actually be a condition like depression, but quite often, melancholy or other negative emotions are brought on by some aspect of one’s environment or one’s regular life routine.

Spend some time figuring out exactly what’s driving that negative feeling, and then commit to alleviating that cause. Make the elimination of that cause a goal in your life. It might be a short term goal or a long term goal, but it should be something you’re working toward with daily effort.

That way, when the negative feeling comes around, you can tell yourself it’s getting better and have actual evidence for that. Over time, you may in fact entirely eliminate that negative feeling.

If your home is cluttered and messy, for example, start getting rid of stuff. Organize all the stuff you have and make a big pile of stuff to downsize, and then sell it on Craigslist. You can even just toss some of it or give it away if it’s not going to return much to you.

If you don’t like how you look, commit to a better diet and exercise regimen. Make that your main focus for the next several months. Just simply cut back on the calories and add an exercise routine to your life, and make those changes an enormous focus.

If you’re unhappy with a relationship in your life, work on it. Spend more time on it, or figure out new ways to interact.

If something is generating negative feelings in your life, make it a priority to figure out how to solve that “something,” whatever it might be. Those negative feelings are the result of your life telling you that this area needs more attention. Give it more attention.

Finally, making a routine out of preventative measures goes a long way toward keeping negative feelings from cropping up. This is a mix of tactics to keep specific negative feelings at bay along with some general tactics that can help keep you from being too hard on yourself.

There are a lot of little things that people can do to cultivate a more positive mindset about the world as a whole, and such a perspective can take the edge off of the problems that we all face, tuning them down from generators of negative feelings to minor problems.

Here are some things I do on a daily or weekly basis that really seem to help.

I keep a gratitude journal. Each day, I write down five good things that happened to me that day that I’m grateful for. It’s a steady reminder that I have a lot of good things in my life. I can always use the archives of that journal to remind me of the absolute abundance of good things in my life.

I go outside for a sustained period each day. Maybe I’ll go on a walk. Maybe I’ll work on some kind of project. Maybe I’ll go to the park and sit on a bench and read a book. I do something outside, something in a different environment that provides sunlight and fresh air.

I meditate. This one’s really simple, but it takes the edge off of anxiety like nothing else. For ten minutes, I just close my eyes and focus on my inhaling and my exhaling. If I find my mind drifting to anything else, I gently bring it back to my breathing. That’s it!

I drink lots of water. This is surprisingly effective at keeping my mood up and keeping negative thoughts at bay. I can literally feel it when I’m not drinking enough water.

I plan a social event at my house. I’m an introvert, so social events have their own kind of stress, but planning some kind of social event that’s oriented around interacting with people I care about is almost always a mood lifter. Plus, it often provides direct motivation to take care of things that would have otherwise caused negative feelings.

It is incredibly easy for negative emotions to grab us by the collar and direct our thoughts in a direction that isn’t very useful for our finances or for any other aspect of our everyday life. We can easily be steered down paths that don’t help us achieve the things we want to achieve.

Having a toolbox to deal with those feelings when they pop up is immensely helpful, and having some regular tactics that help keep those feelings from turning into a downward spiral is incredibly valuable.

If you find yourself making personal and financial mistakes due to negative emotions, consider using the tools above to find a better path forward. Your wallet and your life will thank you.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.