Updated on 07.29.14

Misery is not Miserly: Breaking the Connection Between Spending and Sadness

Trent Hamm

One of my readers recently alerted me to an interesting article at CNN.com entitled Why Sadness Can Blow Your Budget. The article discusses the “misery is not miserly” phenomenon, where people who are experiencing sadness tend to be much less in control of their personal spending, prone to splurges and poor consumer choices. Even more interesting: most people aren’t even aware of it, as they believe that their emotional state doesn’t affect their buying decisions.

Intrigued by the idea, I kept digging and came across the scientific literature that this article is based on, Misery is not Miserly: Sad and Self-Focused Individuals Spend More by Cynthia Cryder, Jennifer Lerner, James Gross, and Ronald Dahl.

Their study involved having people watch various movie clips with different emotional content – some watched neutral clips and others watched sad clips. Afterwards, they were given money and allowed to buy products with it. The people who viewed sad clips were willing to spend significantly more money (as much as 300% more) to buy the same items as the people who watched a neutral clip. In effect, the study demonstrated that sad people spend money frivolously.

For a lot of us, the idea that sadness leads directly to spending isn’t a surprising conclusion. I can say that I’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon – I used to regularly go on a buying binge whenever I felt sad about something, and quite often that would lead to initial elation and a sense that things were better. Over time, though, the bills would come in, triggering the same issues all over again. That’s a very vicious cycle, indeed.

It’s easy to offer the usual advice on how to break it – substitute other mood enhancers for shopping, avoid opportunities to shop, reduce the influence of marketing in our lives, and so on. These are tips I talk about all the time on The Simple Dollar – they’re powerful techniques that can really make a difference.

Unfortunately, those solutions are just the steps to follow once the problem is recognized. As the study shows, most people don’t even realize they’re buying because they’re sad. Is there any wonder why advertisers want to link their ads to strong emotions? Strong emotions drive us to irrational behaviors, and one of the biggest ones in modern life is spending more than we should.

The real challenge for solving this problem is simple awareness. When that moment of sadness comes and you are suddenly urged to buy something, what will help you remember that maybe you’re not making the best choices – that maybe right now isn’t the best time to buy?

Remind yourself. Do something very basic and silly, even something like placing a smiley face sticker on the front of your credit card. Try to remind yourself of this regularly, particularly when you are about to shop – ask yourself if you’re in a good mood before you bust out the plastic just to protect yourself.

Have others remind you – and remind others yourself. Send that article around to your friends and talk about it with them. Get the idea flowing among all of you that it’s a really bad idea to shop when you’re sad, and then when you’re trying to cheer someone up, don’t suggest shopping – or point to that article as reason not to go.

It’s not a willpower issue or a common sense issue – it’s a psychological predisposition issue, something most of us are prone to. It might seem obvious now when you’re in a good mood, but think back – have you ever bought something when you were sad or upset and regretted it later?

The key thing is to realize that when you’re sad, you’re quite liable to make bad buying decisions even if you’re not realizing it at the moment. Emotional purchasing is simply dangerous to your pocketbook.

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  1. Kim says:

    “some watched neutral clips and others watched sad clips”

    This might be the scientist in me coming out, but has there ever been a study that tested the different emotions? It might not necessarily be a link between sadness, but any emotion (anger, excitement, happiness)..
    Just a thought..

  2. Susan says:

    That makes sense, much like emotional eating or emotional drinking. I had a roomie who was a bonefied shopaholic and would go on a whirlwind of maxing out her cards when she was upset.


  3. Minimum Wage says:

    I have solved it!

    If you are sad because you don’t have money (or credit), you don’t spend! Funny how that works!

  4. Classic coping mechanism. I feel one of the keys to happiness is getting money out of the way. If you focus on money and buying things too much you will always be discontent with what you already have.

  5. Barry says:

    This exact thing happened to me last night. I was mailing my taxes and the post office didn’t have any stamps, so I bought a soda and a candy bar. Only $3, but I regret it today.

  6. Frugal Dad says:

    There are a good number of compulsive shoppers who spend when they feel any extreme in emotions. If they are depressed, or sad, they buy stuff to make them feel better. If they are excited, or happy, they buy stuff to celebrate. My parents were in this category, and it rubbed off on me. I frequently catch myself heading towards a store to soothe a particularly rough day. Once you are concious of what’s happening you can start to change your habits, but it isn’t easy.

  7. Seems like a downward spiral. Sadness begets poor financial decisions which makes you even more sad because you have nothing.

    If you base your happiness on your possessions, you’ll always be sad because you’ll always want more.

  8. I really like the smiley face on the credit card suggestion. Having a physical artifact to prompt mindfulness is a great technique.

    When people are working on thinking more positively, I often recommend that they wear a rubber band or bracelet on their wrist. Whenever they become aware of negative thoughts, the rule is to simply move the bracelet to the other wrist. It’s amazing how quickly this works. I suspect the smiley face sticker or something similar could have the same effect.

  9. steve says:

    +1 for “why didn’t they test other emotions?”

  10. threadbndr says:

    When I was newly widowed, the BEST advice I got was “don’t make ANY financial decision (other than keeping the bills paid and the funeral expenses) for 6 months to a year.”

    The study is right, you get a little (and sometimes a LOT) irrational in the grieving process.

    Luckily, I headed the advice for the most part (we had been in the middle of refinancing the house to make some needed repairs and I did take care of that.) But there was one lady in my widow’s group that blew completely through her late husband’s insurance in just a few months!

  11. d.a. says:

    It’s not called “retail therapy” for nuthin’!!

  12. GTS says:

    Tyler Durden:
    “The things you own end up owning you.”

  13. This is one of those things that is so obvious once it’s pointed out, but all truth is.

    I just left a comment on another PF blog about gas and spending less on gas. I made the observation that when I was unhappy and lonely and mildly depressed, I had to leave the house every day. So I spent more money (gas, coffee, eating out, misc).

    Now that I’m happier I’m loathe to even leave the house. I love being at home. So I save more.

    We’re probably either seeking to medicate our feelings with STUFF or trying to at least be around other people – and an easy way to do that is to shop. But it’s not the solution.

    Great post!

  14. Andre K says:

    From the film Roger Dodger:

    Nick: Like, what do you do all day?
    Roger: What do I do all day? I sit here and think of ways to make people feel bad.
    Nick: I thought you wrote commercials.
    Roger: I do. But you can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad.
    Nick: Why not?
    Roger: Because it’s a substitution game. You have to remind them that there’s something missing from their lives. Everyone’s missing something, right?
    Nick: Well, yeah, I guess.
    Roger: Trust me. And when they’re feeling sufficiently incomplete, you can convince them that your product is the only thing that can fill that void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they run out and buy a stupid pair of cargo pants.

  15. overcoming overspending says:

    No wonder I got myself into so much consumer debt in the last 5 years, being in an unhappy and unfullfilling marraige. Now that I am separated, on the way to being divorced and am MUCH happier, I am spending way less!! Ah HA! I see now that I was trying to fill my life up with spending to make up for being unhappy.

  16. Tyler Corlen says:

    I think a lot of people turn to buying for the same reason people turn to eating. That intial “high” felt when eating a donut (when they shoudn’t) or buying something that is not needed is probably very similar!

  17. Dee says:

    I liked to go shopping when I was sad/lonely because in the mall it was ok to be alone, shopping, but I was still surrounded by people and felt like I was part of something.

  18. kj says:

    i am another person to whom the article reminded “emotional eating”. it makes percet sense if it is put this way – just needs thinking when the actual situation happens.

  19. Matt says:

    I don’t think they really needed a big study to come to these conclusions; there’s a reason it’s called “Shopping Therapy”. I know I’ve done it in the past and I’ve recently started stopping my purchases before they were made. I just ask myself do I really need this item? If I don’t I reason myself into not spending the money; now if I had money to burn this might be a completely different story.

  20. dislike statistics says:

    I’m guilty of this. I got my poor midterm score back today, and instead of going to the library to study, I went off to the department store and shopped. I ended up spending $22(cash) on two pairs of career slacks. I, however, don’t think I wasted any money… I see today’s spending as some kind of investment.

  21. RC says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head that “awareness” is the key. If you don’t know that you are in that state of mind, you will probably not realize you are spending more.


  22. phoTomatic says:

    I thought they did a study previously that showed spending released endorphines. It’s like fat people eating sweets. They know they shouldn’t..but if feels soooo good.

    When I’m sad, I exercise. I get endorphine release, stress reduction, and a much tighter butt.

  23. Lenore says:

    I wish I had known this when I was clinically depressed, before I maxed out my credit cards and had to file bankruptcy. I felt so dismal that I dined out all the time and bought cute, childish things in a vain attempt to cheer myself up. My house was overflowing with pets, toys and expensive dolls, yet I remained miserable most of the time. I hated spending money on psychiatric help, but it’s the only thing that got me out of that rut. I still struggle with cravings for “retail therapy,” but resources like The Simple Dollar help me stay on track and out of trouble. Thanks, Trent, for providing this forum and sharing your inspirations. You’re saving a lot more than money.

  24. jm says:

    “Afterwards, they were given money and allowed to buy products with it. The people who viewed sad clips were willing to spend significantly more money (as much as 300% more) to buy the same items as the people who watched a neutral clip. In effect, the study demonstrated that sad people spend money frivolously.”

    Not that I don’t believe there is a link between emotion and sadness — I do, but if someone gives you fake $300 in an experiment, wouldn’t you have less qualms in general about spending it than if you had earned that money yourself for real? It doesn’t sound like they had the option to keep the money, or use it to pay bills or something. In that situation, I would probably spend it all too.

    The fact that the sad people spent more on the same items could also easily be explained by simply watching The Price Is Right — most people have no idea how much any given thing is supposed to cost.

    Seems like a flawed study to me.

  25. Ashley says:

    jm, first of all if you read the article, the subjects involved got a real $10.00 for thier participation…

    I think I just need to take more vitamin D, lol!

  26. Hi Trent,
    This article did bring up a good point. That people attempt to solve their emotional problems by either spending money, eating or indulging in doing a certain thing that doesn’t really serve them, but makes them feel better.

    I think the sad people were spending more money, because spending more money made them feel better.

    Or maybe, watching the sad movie, created a certain emotional need in them. It caused them to want something and spending on certain products could relieve that.

    isn’t that what advertising is all about anyways? Creating or defining a problem and then helping the customer to solve it? Are sales men just problem solvers?

    With that being said i think people that have problems with emotional spending, should resort to other means of fulfilling that emotional need, that doesn’t cause so much damage to their lives.

    Young Investor


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