Feeling Good About Bad Financial Decisions

A few weeks ago, I had to go inside to pay at a gas station. A lady in front of me in line purchased $20 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets and began scratching them immediately, moving off to the side to let me pay. I’m of the math-oriented belief that lottery tickets are not worth your while, so I was just polite when I asked the lady if she has good luck playing the tickets.

“Not really,” she said, “but it’s just so much fun.”

On some level, I understand that reason. The rush that a person gets from an exciting moment is a powerful one, and in this case, it was obvious that the lottery tickets created an exciting moment for that lady.

The problem is that the cost of that exciting moment is quite high. She spent $20 – with a slim chance of recovering some of it – for a five minute endorphin rush.

That can be fine on a rare occasion, but when you make a routine out of it, you’re damaging your family’s financial future.

It’s also important to note that I’m not just talking about playing the lottery. The same idea holds true whenever you spend money on something you don’t need and feel a huge emotional rush from it. It can happen when you buy books, when you go clothes shopping, when you buy a video game, anything.

When you have that type of pleasurable peak tied to any activity, you’re going to want to repeat it. It is in that repetition of a negative activity that you can find some real financial problems. Even if you can “afford” it, you’re still sacrificing your future for a rush.

I consider it a waste of time to tell people to stop chasing that rush. It feels good. It’s not inherently harmful, either, except for the costs associated with finding it.

The key, then, is to not walk away from that sense of feeling good. The key is to find that same rush in things that don’t cost money.

This was a long and arduous process for me. There was a time, not long ago, where my rush came from opening packs of trading cards. It came from buying several books at the bookstore. It came from opening the package of a new gadget.

The rushes I would get from these experiences were powerful. I’d ride the crest of pleasure from buying the item, but the resulting valley was painful. The new would wear off and I’d realize that all I was left with was less money.

It was very hard to break that connection, though. In fact, it was probably the single hardest thing I’ve done during my financial recovery.

How did I do it?

How I Broke the Connection from “The Rush”

Quite simply, I replaced the rushes I got for poor financial choices with rushes I got for choices with no real financial impact. Here are some examples.

1. I started exercising

Although my exercising routine comes and goes, when I am actively exercising, the rush at the end of an exercise session (once I catch my breath and towel off) is enormous and more than a little addictive. It also has the kicker of not costing too much and it helps with my long-term health.

2. I built a regular “game night” with some competition

Once a week, I play games with a few friends. Those games are competitive (but still friendly) and we all strive to win. Because of that, the gameplay becomes much more of a rush than before. Even better, because we’re usually playing board games or card games we’ve all played many times before, there’s almost no cost to this.

3. I started setting aside time solely for other people

Volunteering for community groups. Playing with my kids. Playing a game with my wife while we chat. Over and over again, I find that when I set aside time solely for others, I feel tremendously good at the end of those periods of time.

4. I spread out the material peaks

This doesn’t mean I abandoned the rushes I used to get. I just started spreading them out. Instead of going to the coffee shop each day, I go maybe once every two months. What I’ve found is that the rush of these experiences are much more intense than before because they’re not something I do regularly. It’s a lot more fun to do these things because I don’t do them very often.

Even if the peaks aren’t as high, the valley is certainly not as low. Many people argue that making such choices is not as fun as the rush they get from buying. For me, honestly, I can’t really tell at this point. What I can say, though, is that the “valley” after the peak is gone. I no longer feel bad or regret what I’ve done. I no longer have a sense that I’ve made a mistake or that I’m digging a hole I can’t escape from.

Find a new channel for your emotional highs that don’t involve money and you’ll soon find yourself in a much better financial place.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.