Updated on 08.29.08

How to Avoid the Trap of Splurging as a Reward for “Being Good”

Trent Hamm

Before I got control over my spending, I used to splurge all the time on small things that I wanted.

I’d buy a new book (or three) every Friday in order to “reward” myself for getting through another work week.

I’d often buy a new CD or DVD whenever I received a paycheck.

Whenever I’d hit a personal or work milestone, I’d usually buy a video game as a reward for myself.

It was easy to justify these purchases. I worked hard and earned a good salary. I deserved some of these items, particularly after getting through some obstacle in my life – even the routine ones, like finishing a work week.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but when you step back and look at it from a wider perspective, it’s clear how big this “reward splurge” problem really was.

Let’s say I bought $25 worth of books each Friday. Let’s also say I received two paychecks a month and bought a DVD for $15 with each one. And let’s also say I’d buy a new video game once a month, for $50.

Right there, $180 gone each month. Boom.

Do that month in and month out for four years and you’ve spent $8,640. Just on silly little “rewards” for ordinary life accomplishments.

The amazing part is that I know of people who are far worse. One of my closest friends in my college years went on to buy a new video game every weekend (about $50 a pop) and about twice a month would buy a box of trading cards (about $100 worth). Another lady I knew used to spend about $200 on new clothes each Saturday afternoon – it was her way of “release” after a week of hard work.

This is the worst type of financial leak – unnecessary spending that’s become a part of a routine and tied to a sense of accomplishment. Not only does it cost a lot of money over time, it also reduces the actual good feelings a person gets from the accomplishments themselves.

One of the best personal finance moves I’ve ever made was breaking this habit. I stopped buying things to “reward” myself and instead started putting that money towards repaying debt. I didn’t let my reading down, either, because I started getting heavily into the local library and the amazing usefulness of interlibrary loans.

It’s not a simple routine to change, though. Here are four tactics to use while breaking yourself of this costly habit.

Find non-purchase methods to celebrate your successes. Instead of heading out to buy something expensive, why not go home and have a nice romantic dinner with your spouse? Spend some time playing with your children, or spend some time doing something personally important and enjoyable. I often find a bigger positive rush and “rewarded” feeling from

Always ask yourself why you’re making a purchase. If the reason revolves around a routine or a self-reward, that’s a sure sign that you shouldn’t be in the store. It’s fine to occasionally buy yourself unnecessary things, but if they’re tied to a part of your routine, that’s dangerous and should be avoided.

Break up the part of your routine that causes you to splurge. If you find yourself stopping each Friday to pick up some sort of splurge item, do something else on Fridays that takes you away from the temptation. Take an alternate route to work on Fridays – or use Fridays to find a better optimal route to and from work (preferably one that doesn’t take you close to the places you might stop). If you go out on Saturdays to shop, instead stay at home and find a personal project to work on.

Keep an entertainment portion of your budget. If you still want to splurge but want to control it, keep a portion of your budget for entertainment and make all splurge purchases come out of that portion.

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  1. plonkee says:

    Trouble with splurging, is that everyone deserves it, but not everyone can afford it.

    At the moment, if I make money (get a bonus from work or something) I’m spending some of it, and otherwise just adding *treats* into my budget.

    Otherwise, I guess it might be more helpful to tell yourself that you are great. If buying things improves your self-esteem, that’s nothing compared to really believing that you’re worth it.

  2. There’s that word again. “Deserve.” It’s a pernicious one to those of us trying to get our spending under control. I think your post really speaks to the dangers of this train of thought. A lot of frugality, for me, has been unlearning the sense of entitlement that I cloaked under the exact phrase you used, “I deserve it.”

    Nice post.

  3. K says:

    I agree. It’s so easy to justify spending because “I’ve saved so much this week or worked so hard.” And the sense of entitlement is something people need to get over.

    But I find myself having the opposite problem a lot of times. One night after a long week I was at the mall, which stresses me out even more, so by the time I was ready to leave I was in a pretty bad mood. I passed a pretzel shop and thought “I want one of those,” but immediately told myself out of habit that I don’t need to spend ridiculous prices on food that’s bad for me just because I’ve had a bad day, so I kept walking. But then I realized, a pretzel would make me feel better and it’s $3 that I can easily part with so I turned around and bought it. I know you are talking about much larger sums of money, but sometimes people have the opposite mentality and need to realize it’s ok to splurge once in awhile. My point is that if you cut out little luxuries on a regular basis, they mean more to you when you really do “deserve” them and can enjoy them to the fullest extent.

  4. Kevin says:

    My ex-wife used to do this, which in turn caused me to spend more money to keep up – I didn’t want to feel like all my income was going towards bills while hers was on “her”. It started a vicious cycle that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Eventually we decided to divorce partly b/c of this and I was able to turn my finances around pretty quickly. It was a hard lesson to learn, but could have been much worse.

  5. J. Money says:

    I love splurging on little things every now and then (if you can actually call it splurging) but to keep happy, not because i’m “rewarding” myself.

    I find the longer i go trying to save every single penny, the crazier/bored i get. if i don’t purchase something where i don’t have to account for that money at least once every 2 weeks, i’ll go insane ;)

  6. I would suggest setting up some kind of system to get that money you save to actually reward you. Invest it and over time see how not spending can accumulate into a large pot of money.

  7. Melissa says:

    Golly, my idea of splurging, rewarding myself, is to buy a bag of Cheetos.

    Getting through the workweek is not my idea of a splurge-worthy achievement. Or not worth more than a few more Chardonnays than I usually drink. I’ve been putting off buying any new clothes until I get below 140 lbs. Except now my clothes are all totally wearing out, and I’ve been forced to buy some. Just a few.

    Trent, you’d be proud of me. I started a goal of getting off one bus stop sooner than normal and walking the extra distance, and pocketing the savings. 75 cents! A trip!!! Encompassing two (2) virtues at one blow.

  8. Joe says:

    It’s like you read my mind – this is one of the things I still struggle with. For me, it’s books and food. I used to reward myself for traveling to a client by getting candy outgoing & ingoing and of course going to a nice restaurant at lunch. Bad on the wallet / bad on the waist.

    Fortunately, we don’t get what we “deserve”.

  9. Kate, I agree with you. I’m really not sure that I “deserve” a treat for doing what I’m supposed to be doing anyways(working, taking care of the kids, etc). If we get a surprise in the form of some extra money, we might do something like ordering a $5 pizza when normally we’d eat in, but we don’t do this kind of thing under normal circumstances, with normal monye.

  10. CD says:

    I am currently struggling with this issue since trying to embrace a more frugal lifestyle when taking on freelance 1099 work. This summer my husband and I have both been working long, long hours – me under constant client deadlines – him under product release deadlines. We have small children and I care for my elderly Mom who live with us too.

    Just this week all the cooking from home just….stopped. We had burgers one night ($8) with fruit, bean burritos with carrot sticks, ravioli (Costco) with salad, and one night we both worked till midnight (from home) DH bought a full quart of Ben and Jerry’s and we commiserated over our misery.

    The lack of cooking and cleaning made a huge difference this week – as well as having hired a housekeeper.

    But now I feel incredible guilt over having spent that kind of money.

    It’s really a hard time, someimtes, to know when you need to lighten up for sanity’s sake (is that entitlement?) vs just push yourself harder.

    I am sure a lot of working parents feel the same way, especially the “sandwich generation” with not only young kids, but elderly parents at the ame time.

    When is a splurge worth it? What IS a splurge, and how much is your sanity worth?

  11. MoneyBlogga says:

    I used to do the same thing too – spend money all the while justifying the expense by thinking that I “deserved” it. When I began to see the stuff that was piling up and the cupboards that were full to bursting, I realized I had to stop it. I do still reward myself but nowhere near as often and it has to be something I really need as opposed to knick knacks or other junk.

  12. This one is such a killer! What helps me is avoiding spending situations (like you mentioned) and also keeping my core values in mind. If what I really want out of life is freedom, then the true reward is getting myself closer to that goal.

    As a compromise, smaller treats can be fun. $200 worth of clothes? Nope. I’m happy with a peanut butter cup and watching a movie on the couch. By setting aside some favorite things, they can become frugal, truly enjoyable rewards when you do actually deserve or desire a treat.

  13. Eric says:

    Trent, I have to agree with Sara – if you can keep the splurge small and not make it a huge thing, that’s an ok thing – it’s kind of like dieting. You don’t want to starve yourself of spending, because then the urge to splurge builds up.

  14. NYC reader says:

    When I finally got my finances under control years ago, I decided to allocate some of my monthly splurge money (usually spent on a few books or dinner and movie) to investing in a mutual fund. It was only $50/month, but 15 years later I have a mutual fund account with five-digit $, and don’t miss the dinners and books one bit.

    It was a little bit hard to get used to not rewarding myself with the immediate gratification of a purchase of some kind, but I got over that quickly once I saw the dollars add up in the mutual fund. After the first year, I was hooked.

    Try redirecting some of your splurge money to savings or investments. When you see the dollars add up, you may find you don’t miss buying all that stuff or spending money on ephemera.

  15. jessica seck marquis says:

    now that i think about it, i seem to PLAN my “splurges” — which i suppose may not be a splurge if you think of it as impulsive spending!

    for example, if i know i have a big project coming up & i am really craving a starbucks soy no-water chai latte (my favorite!), i’ll plan to buy one for myself once i’ve reached a specific point in the project. that allows me the time to save/allocate the money AND the reason to reward myself…which, in turn, motivates me to achieve more.

    thanks for the great food for thought, trent!

  16. resonanteye says:

    I splurge at the used book store. I couldn’t imagine spending more than a few dollars there, twice a month. I don’t usually do it to reward myself. To me, sleeping in is the reward I deserve. Sleeping in, and not doing the dishes for a day!

    And $200 is close to my yearly clothing budget. To spend that much every week- I can’t even imagine who has the time to wera that many clothes, or read that many books.

    This makes me feel extremely frugal in comparison!

  17. Kristine says:

    I have taken this idea to the extreme, and have been much happier for it.

    There is a group that started in Southern CA called “The Compact”. The idea is to stop the relentless flow from factory to landfill. It was started by professionals very concerned for the environment, trying to shun mindless consumerism, as opposed to necessary consumerism. There are now factions all over the country.

    To join, all you have to do is take a vow not to buy 1 more “new” thing for a year, except for food or medicine. It is to break the consumerism “habit”. you talk about.

    So far I have been doing great. I ony apply it to myself, not my family-though I will only buy them necessary things, say, like school supplies, or bassoon reeds. My lapse was a bunch of file folders and blank CDs for myself to prepare for school (I am a teacher). I worked full-time over the summer, and knew that developing the content of my lessons was a better use of my limited time than networking for the second hand or hand-me-down supplies. (Like all initiatives, it has to make sense or you stop.) And Hubby made the purchase, so I did not get any “purchase high”.

    Recreational shopping has disappeared from my vocabulary- Barnes and Noble was my weakness as well. I have also joined the freecycle network, and found that just about everything I could need or want is already out there, and being passed along. You just have to be patient. So if I really want to splurge, I scan the freecycle posts for something fun and unecessary. And I get more staisfaction now passing along what I no longer use, than I ever did buying anything.

    I find I now spend much more quailty time with my kids playing games, hanging out, and doing anything but shopping!

  18. Camilla says:

    I never even honestly thought about it really as a problem. Just..something that you were almost supposed to do. It’s amazing how many forced habits people get into not even realizing that it’s not required. I’m glad you touched on this. Helpfull.

  19. nuveena says:

    Ever since I started watching my finances and living more frugally, I’ve been paying extra attention to commercials. This probably sounds odd for someone who is trying to learn to save more and spend less, but language and the psychology they use is very clever. The word “deserve” is used a lot. “Indulge” is another one. I really believe that we’ve been so used to being marketed to for so long that we all have that sense of entitlement because we’ve been basically programmed by marketing and advertising to think we deserve things we really don’t need.

    It’s okay to use rewards to motivate yourself. For example, I’m trying to use a reward to get my husband to go back into the gym. I stopped going because I had a particularly severe muscle spasm in my hip and when I was working my way back to the gym after recovering from that, I broke my toe. (The toe is healed, and I’m working my way back to the gym. Hopefully, I don’t break anything else.) When I didn’t go, my husband stopped going, even though he really had no reason to. The reward is a backpacking trip, because that’s something he’s always wanted to do with me, and I’ve never gone backpacking. But as it was mentioned in earlier comments and this post, when you really think about it, it’s a bit much to always be rewarding yourself for accomplishing things that are part of ordinary life.

  20. Pam says:

    A good thing to do is to look at such things as “treats” instead of “rewards”. It’s a treat – something special. And treats can be most anything. And sometimes the most mundane act – buying food for instance – can be a real treat.

    My favorite “treat” of the week is going to the Farmer’s Market. I recently took my college-aged son with me (his first time). He moaned and groaned the whole time we drove there. “The grocery store is so much closer.”, he whined. Oh how his attitude changed when we got there! Local musicians playing their music, friendly vendors, being outdoors on a sunny day, the rainbow colors of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. We bought corn, blueberries, green beans, tomatoes, and so much more, our arms laden with treasure!

    That night he told his father when he shared how enjoyable this was he added “And we bought the whole world for less that $20!”

    Perspective is everything. That in itself is reward.

  21. "Mo" Money says:

    The way to handle this problem is to set up a category in your budget. This is money that you have allocated before hand, and can be spent for anything you want. Putting the money in an envelope is better still. You will know how much you have available, and you don’t have to account for it.

  22. Christine says:

    I used to do a lot of “treating myself” and would be stunned when the credit card bill arrived at the end of the month, not even remembering many purchases. I’ve since realized that spending was symptomatic of my being very unhappy at my previous job. When I started my new job, I made a resolution to control my spending on these “rewards,” but it turned out to be really easy since I am so much happier in my current position and I no longer feel like I’m “getting through” each week and deserving a reward.

  23. Oh yeah, it happens to do more than we think it does. It starts out innocently, but it can turn into a real vice. I think it’s easier to just buy things we need, and budget for things we think we might want.

    It’s all about this: Curb your consumerism, spend TIME doing things you love. That handles the reward and the money aspects. ;)

  24. Mary Burkey says:

    For those of you that “reward” yourselves with new books, audiobooks, DVDs, or CDs – reward yourself with a FREE public library card instead! Take advantage of the fantastic resources available from your tax dollars at work. You don’t even need to set foot in the library – check out your local library’s website for downloadable videos, audiobooks, and eBooks on every conceivable topic. Not to mention the concerts, discussion groups, storytimes, teen activities, craft programs and more – all for free. Check out what’s waiting for you!

    Mary Burkey

  25. Robyn says:

    I never found rewarding myself to be a good motivator. It is sort of like buying yourself a Christmas present. If it isn’t a surprise what is the point?

    Restautrant Coupons, Freebies and More.

  26. D.B. says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I used to justify overeating and sweet treats or take-out food because I “deserved it” after a hard week. Now that I am trying to lose weight and practice frugality, I am more aware about what I spend and what I eat. I’ve been able to set and stay under or close to budget on grocery shopping and dining out for 6 months now.

    It’s hard to defeat those long-standing habits and brain messages. I’ll remember your story to help me through the temptation.


  27. Francine says:

    When did shopping become a pastime? I remember being dragged to the store as a kid. My brother, sisters, and I hated it.

    Since I have no extra money right now, I am not looking at the Labor Day sale papers. What a relief!

    Some will point out how much more I could be saving, but my boyfriend and I each have $10 a week set aside as “walk-around” money (for the occasional coffee, etc) It keeps me on budget, I am not miserable, and I am less likely to “binge” on unplanned purchases.

    I have friends who have so much money each month set aside for something they enjoy – movies, clothes, DVDs, etc. Once it is gone for that month, it is gone. They do not feel deprived.

    Best wishes and Happy Labor Day.

  28. Interesting post; made me think. I’ve been trying to get away from the “I deserve it” mentality. I swing back and forth between the “I can buy this, I deserve it” mentality and the “It’s silly to pay $x for this thing I will really enjoy, even though I do have the money”.

    @Pam (#20): I like the idea of thinking of it as a “treat” rather than a “reward” (or as something that’s “deserved”). I could go with “I’m going to treat myself to X” instead of “I deserve X”. Hmmm…

  29. saro says:

    I am trying to wean myself off of thinking like this. I’ve been fighting the ‘must by a book’ urge at the bookstore. Instead, I went down to our local library and splurged – lots and lots of great books for free!

  30. Amateur says:

    It’s hard not to spend while being outdoors. The only way of saving money is being home with a stocked fridge and plenty of home-related things to do. I don’t quite get why people like to shop on their days off, recreational shopping does not really make sense to someone like me. The stores are usually crowded and when it’s a sale, it looks like a madhouse with everyone and their corresponding stroller pushing and shoving their way around displays and aisles. It’s the little things that count like the woman and her pretzel, it won’t break bank to buy a $3 pretzel but she didn’t technically walk away from a mall with nothing or an empty feeling.

  31. paula d. says:

    Suddenly I don’t feel so guilty about the $3.17 designer chocolate that I had today! I guess since I am happy with my job too, that I don’t feel that I need a reward on a weekly basis.

    I have to admit, I did get caught up in the yarn sale at work. At least the yarn purchased will make nice Christmas gifts : ) !

  32. crystal says:

    Did this tonight :( EVEN though we didn’t have the money to spend. We felt so deprived ALL WEEK. And that ended up spending 14.00 for pizza. BUT – we came off eating out EVERY DAY a month ago. We’ve been eating at home, except for today and one day last week when my mom took us out to dinner. I’m talking EVERY DAY. We used to eat out 2 meals…NOT anymore. If I could only have ALL the money we have wasted in the last 5 years on eating out. Some of the meals being in the 100.00 range on the weekends when we worked…it was our reward for a long day. We can only start here.. For the most part, treats now are time spent with our dogs and each other.

  33. Maggie Shaw says:

    I’m sorry but I have to disagree with “Not only does it cost a lot of money over time, it also reduces the actual good feelings a person gets from the accomplishments themselves.”

    Last year, I made a bet with myself that I would not have soda for one year, except for Ginger Ale when I was sick. When I reached that milestone (right now, it’s at almost two years), I bought myself a Burberry trench coat. Yes, it was quite expensive, but I didn’t feel guilty for spending that money and my sense of accomplishment was not diminished in any way. In fact, it encouraged me to set more reward goals, such as not stepping foot into Starbucks for one year (I was spending almost $25/week) and competing in the Men’s Health Urbanathlon. After all, if I can reach one goal, why not reach them all?

  34. goldsmith says:

    I wonder, Trent, whether you could explore a related problem: Buying long-hankered-for durable consumer goods earlier than one can strictly afford them. I really like fine furniture, for example, but I never manage to do as planned and save up for it. I generally buy the item six months to a year early. These are generally long-considered purchases and I am always very happy with them, and I do not spend myself into huge debt (my internal psychological limit for credit card debt, as a single with no dependents, seems to be about half of my monthly take-home pay).

    Still, the regularity with which I fall short of my own good intentions is annoying me. Anyone else here who experiences this?

  35. PiFreak says:

    I agree with sleeping in. That’s a huge “reward” in and of itself, and something I feel I “deserve” on saturdays after a week of school. (Pulling straight A’s, taking college classes, and playing a sport, spending 12 hours a day at school is tiring, then homework on top of it all) However, on Sundays, I get up early again (though still about a half hour later) and start my week early. My “treats” are usually buying fast food (I consume close to 5000 calories a day, though I’m underweight and can’t gain weight, my friends joke that I have a tapeworm in me) and spending $3-$4 on a meal. Usually this is done at Taco Bell where I get 2 orders of three layer nachos (79¢ each) and a burrito of some kind (usually an 89¢, sometimes an expensive one up to $2, skipping a nacho) and it all depends on what I feel like I deserve/need to eat. If I’m celebrating a week of being totally undefeated(boys/girls, JV/Varsity, usually 8 games) in water polo, and I contributed greatly to that fact then I’ll splurge for that $2 monster burrito if I’m hungry enough. If it’s just a treat for making it through school for a few weeks, and nothing more, I’ll only get one nacho and a small burrito. All in all, we only eat fast food probably once a week at most (polo season makes it tough) and once a month at the least) spending a few bucks on a meal to treat myself seems reasonable. My goal is that there is less than one of these a week during polo season, and less than 1-2 a month otherwise, and that they stay (usually well) under $5. My last ‘treat’ was for surviving a grueling 6hour practice/scrimmage, where I had my head beaten in several times($3.56 at Taco bell) and my last before that was for 2 weeks of not missing practice for anything, and I spent $0.50 on lip gloss.

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