The Things Money Can’t Fix Are Often the Ones That Drain Our Finances

Whenever I find that I’ve made a spending mistake and spent money foolishly, I find that it was some kind of an attempt to use money to fix something that can’t really be fixed by money.

I’ll spend unplanned money on hobbies sometimes because I’m frustrated at not being able to give that hobby I care about the time I want to give to it, and a purchase feels like a substitute for that lack of time.

I’ll spend money on convenient food because I’m lazy, and sometimes because I lack dietary self-discipline.

I’ll spend money on things because I’m impatient, or because I’m lonely, or because I’m feeling sad at the moment.

What do you think happens in each of those situations when I spend that money?

I remain frustrated about my lack of hobby time. I’m still lazy. I’m still undisciplined. I’m still impatient, or lonely, or sad.

Spending money because of those feelings and impulses does absolutely nothing to curb those negative feelings and impulses. Over the very short term, it gives me this little boost of happiness that makes that negative feeling disappear for a very brief while, but that respite never lasts. Soon, that negative feeling returns, and it’s coupled with a sense of guilt over having spent money on something wastefully.

If you’re feeling negative in some way – lazy, undisciplined, sad, frustrated – and your reaction to that feeling is to want to “cure” it by spending money and buying something, you’re virtually always making a financial mistake and you’re likely not curing that negative feeling in any lasting way. Most likely, you’re just compounding the problem and making it worse.

If I spend unplanned money on an impulsive hobby buy, not only am I not getting the time I want to devote to that hobby, I’m probably not purchasing something I’ll actually be able to use any time soon, plus that money’s gone and can’t be used for other things that might bring me value. Nothing improves in terms of my hobby, but my bank account is emptier.

If I spend unplanned money on convenience food like a fast food drive-thru, I will probably sate my momentary hunger at least. However, that food that just went into my gut is almost guaranteed to be salty and unhealthy and greasy, not making me feel better in any lasting way, and it’s definitely doing me no favors in terms of long term health. My health probably gets worse rather than better and my bank account is emptier.

If I jump the gun and buy something I don’t need at full price or at a premium price just because I’m impatient, I’ve done nothing more than lose money. I didn’t shop around. I didn’t give it a little breathing room to make sure it wasn’t an impulse. My bank account gets emptier.

If I’m feeling lonely and I buy something to distract myself from the loneliness or sadness, like picking up a computer game on Steam or something like that, I might be distracted from the loneliness for a bit, but it’s going to come right back very soon. I still feel lonely, and my bank account is emptier.

If I’m feeling sad and I buy something to make myself feel better for a while, one of two things is virtually always true. Either the sadness is temporary and would have passed anyway, or I’m feeling some sort of deeper issue that I should talk to a professional about. In either case, the thing I bought isn’t doing a thing to help with that sad feeling, but it’s certainly emptying out my bank account.

Are you seeing the theme here? All of these situations are things that money can’t really fix, but it can feel like spending money will somehow help, especially in the short term. We buy into that feeling because we want a quick fix, but it doesn’t work.

There’s a much better approach to the problem, one that keeps money in your pocket and actually addresses what’s going on. Whenever you feel an impulse to buy something you don’t need, ask yourself “why,” then ask yourself “why” about that answer, then do it again, and again, and again. Keep asking “why” about each answer until you’ve dug right down to a raw issue in your life.

Then, start taking action to address that raw issue in your life in a way that doesn’t involve spending money on stuff.

Are you feeling as though you never have any free time? Put in some extra time today and tomorrow to complete some things that you know are coming down the pipe. Don’t wait until Saturday to buy groceries – fit it in this evening instead of watching television. Don’t wait until the weekend to clean out the car – do it this evening. That way, when Saturday comes, you can devote a few hours guilt-free to that hobby you feel like you’re missing out on. Maybe you’ll curl up with a book, for example.

Are you feeling lonely? Then get on your phone and start talking to your actual friends. They’re not available? Then find a community event of some kind that’s going on right now or in the very near future. Start by looking at Meetup, but also check out your community’s website and see what’s on the calendar of events.

Are you feeling lazy or undisciplined? The solution to that is either genuine rest or genuine action. Either actually go get some sleep or get up and do something. If you’re hungry and lazy, eat something healthy and convenient (like a banana or an apple or something) and go take a nap.

Are you feeling sad? Go do something fun that doesn’t involve spending money. I find that doing something that requires some physical exertion almost always helps with the blues, as does eating something really healthy if I’m feeling hungry and sad.

If you’re experiencing a lasting and deep sadness, loneliness, or some other deep negative feeling you can’t shake, schedule an appointment with your doctor and figure out what’s going on.

In any case, most of the negative feelings we have are ones that money can’t really fix, at least not with an immediate purchase. Rather, what fixes those negative feelings and long term problems is sustained action and effort.

If you want to change your life, the solution isn’t sold on a store shelf. The solution is in your behavior, choices, and actions.

You won’t find free time by buying something. You’ll find free time through better time management practices.

You won’t fix health and diet issues by buying fast food. You’ll fix them through making healthy dietary choices as easy as possible.

You won’t become more disciplined and less lazy by buying stuff, either. You’ll fix them by finding small habits and routines that work for you.

You won’t find friends by buying cool things that other people will ooh and ahh over. You’ll find friends by actually talking to people, starting conversations, and presenting yourself well in public with good hygiene and reasonable dress.

You won’t find energy in some product. Rather, you’ll find it by eating a consistently healthier diet, getting some exercise, and getting better sleep, and if that doesn’t work, visiting a doctor may help, too.

You won’t find happiness on a store shelf. You’ll find it by getting outside more, getting some more exercise, eating better, and getting better sleep. If those don’t work, visit a doctor.

There is no magic product that will make those things happen for you. You have to find answers for those things within your own life. In fact, spending money chasing an answer to your problems in the form of a product, or spending money to temporarily make problems go away, will almost always just make them come back with a vengeance, making things even worse by adding financial difficulty to the mix.

Fix your problems. Don’t patch over them with spending and little treats and temporary patches.

Good luck.

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.