Some Thoughts on Moods and Spending

For me, September is the unhappiest month of the year.

Sarah, after being off all summer, returns to work at the end of August, leaving me alone at home many days with my thoughts and my work. This also means that the children’s daycare attendance increases as well.

The house goes from noisy and happy to empty and quiet. Even as I attempt to fill it with music and NPR, it still feels somehow vacant and still. The liveliness is gone – no more children’s laughter floating up the stairs to cheer me while I’m working and no more occasional interruptions by Sarah just to let me know she’s thinking of me.

Unsurprisingly, my mood slips a little bit. I tend to get more caught up in details – and I also have a greater tendency to get distracted.

Perhaps most worrying is that I have a greater tendency to spend without really thinking about it. It’s the old “comfort” thing – I’m unhappy with the way things are, but if I buy something, I’ll feel better about it.

Over the past few weeks, that feeling has manifested itself several times. I bought a few books and a couple board games that I would have never bought.

On Monday, it manifested itself incredibly clearly, in a way that almost shocked me. My kids both needed some new socks and perhaps a few new pairs of pants, as fall is coming on and their supply of well-fitting long pants is pretty small. Buying the socks and pants wasn’t the problem, though.

After I left the store, I stopped by a gaming shop on a pure impulse. I was just walking past it and it crossed my mind to stop in and say hello to one of the employees that I knew.

Almost before I thought about it, I left with a game under my arm.

Many people might say, “So what?” I don’t buy myself many items. The few things I do buy myself are bargain-shopped to death. So why not live a little?

Here’s the problem: the game doesn’t solve the problem that is making me unhappy – in fact, it just makes it a little worse.

The piece of my situation that makes me unhappy is not seeing my wife and children as much as I’d like. I love spending time with them and, after spending so much time together with them all summer long, I miss them.

Buying a game is a short term panacea – it might bring me a fleeting sense of enjoyment, but in the long run, I could have easily just played one of the other games in our board game collection in the basement closet.

I know what the solution to that problem is. If I keep my nose to the grindstone each day, I can take more time off and go do fun things with my children. If I take advantage of the writing and presentation opportunities I have, perhaps my wife can take a year or two off from her job while the children are young (I know quite well that she’s doing the work she loves and that she simply wouldn’t permanently choose not to do it). If I’m careful with my spending, I can open the door to some amazing experiences in my children’s future.

If I had chosen not to spend the $30 on the game, I could have tossed that money into a savings account. If I had simply chosen not to wander into that store, I would have had an extra hour to focus on finishing up my book or writing a stellar article.

It’s easy to say that I’m being too hard on myself. On the other hand, if I don’t keep an eye on the little choices, the big dreams start to float away.

In the end, the truth is simple: if you’re buying things to console yourself, ask yourself if that purchase is really going to solve your problem. Is buying a new video game going to make it easier for you to interact with people socially? Is buying a new wardrobe going to help you get into better shape? Is restocking your liquor cabinet going to make it easier to actually invite people over? is buying a new car going to help you get a date?

The answer to each of these things is “no.” The solution to these problems doesn’t come from buying things. They come from making authentic changes in your life – how you interact with others, how you work, and how you take care of yourself. They might put a little bit of grease on the skids, but if you can’t get the engine moving forward on your own, all the grease in the world won’t make a difference – and you’ll find, in the end, that you wasted a lot of time and money and energy on that useless grease.

Put your wallet back in your pocket and ask yourself one thing: what is it that you really want? The more of your energy you put towards that real goal, the better off you’ll feel about yourself over the long haul.

(The Simple Dollar podcast is on a one (or possibly two) week hiatus while I finish my book. It’ll return to your Tuesday afternoons shortly.)

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