Updated on 09.28.09

Some Thoughts on Moods and Spending

Trent Hamm

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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  1. NMPatricia says:

    This is an incredibly well timed post for me. One I was hoping would just go away and solve itself. But it doesn’t, does it? It is figuring out what to do about the problem that is hard. And filling the emptiness is difficult – especially if it is a long term solution. I see that I am justifying here. Thanks for the post, Trent.

  2. Dan says:


    You need a social hobby. One that takes you out of the house and around a group of people. I have mine…it’s a poker club. True, gambling isn’t the most frugal thing, but I set aside $20 a month for this hobby. It takes up several hours a month and makes me feel the fun I felt back in college (which is really what you are missing)

    You used to have no responsibilities. College was all about fun, socializing, etc, and some studying mixed in there.

    You are in the real world now. Your old “fun” is replaced with a new “fun” being family.

    Thing is, the new “fun” doesn’t suffice like the old one did because of the responsibility thing.

    Do something irresponsible for a change. Nothing damaging, but something where you can feel like that college kid again.

    Trust me, it works.

  3. lurker carl says:

    Just a couple of comments.

    “Gaming” is the term now used to describe all forms of gambling, now that the word gambling is commonly used to describe a destructive and addictive habit. It’s an interesting word to apply to board games if you consider Trent’s seemingly addictive parallel.

    Empty nest syndrome is a common cause of depression. Performing engrossing and productive duties while the house is empty helps tremendously. But your nest is empty for only a few hours each day during the week, not for weeks or months at a time and you’re working doing something you love. Perhaps something else is causing the depression?

  4. Gwen says:

    Thank you very much for this post, Trent! Today I was at a house that was furnished absolutely lovely, for a job-related party. It was such a nice place that I considered also upgrading my furniture – and that´s not what´s important to me. Thanks to your post I feel again happy. So thanks again.

  5. Kate says:

    I can understand the point behind your post, Trent. But I also wonder why there is no suggestion to just take the game back after you realized it was an impulse buy?
    I know compulsive shoppers who buy to fill a void and I can never understand why they don’t just take some of the stuff they compulsively purchase back to the store and get their money back.

  6. Emily says:

    Why don’t the kids stay at home with you instead of going to daycare? I forget how old the cherubs are, but if they aren’t school-age yet, they can keep you company :-)

  7. Not enough toys makes for restlessness.

  8. Manshu says:

    Very insightful post, and I do think its better to have a hobby that lets you interact with people rather than being at home all the time.

  9. Kevin M says:

    I wondered how the no book buying plan was going, or were they purchased with gift cards?

    Everybody slips Trent, don’t feel too bad about it. You do sound pretty down though, maybe you should talk to someone or find an activity to get some human contact.

  10. Patty says:

    Everyone get’s the blues – even me. Give yourself a pat on the back, it’s okay and look to tomorrow. When I get one of these days – I take a walk – take a drive – enjoy the day. Somehow it gives me a jolt to make the rest of the day go well.:) :)

  11. Jeroen says:

    I have the same problem, both with my diet as with my spendind. I blame it on sunlight deficiency and lack of sleep, because those are the only things that have changed this month. I can sleep more, but I can’t let the sun shine longer.

    BTW, I hope you bought Dominion: Intrigue. If you’re splurging on board games, you might as well splurge on a good one. :)

  12. I’d say one little indulgence to solve a blue mood is OK, as long as its not 50 of them, and as long as it solves the blues.

    To me, “Buying for the sake of buying” solves nothing.

    If one is going to buy something to occupy their time, and it really does, then great.

    Otherwise, you’re just pushing the feeling to the back of your mind rather than experiencing it.

    Good stuff

  13. Cheryl says:

    My kids are 15-24 and I still get kinda bummed out when the school year starts. It takes about a month for me to get into the new routine and feel normal with it. But that first month, I have time around the house where I putter around but don’t feel like I accomplish much. So I can really relate. Take some time to get some fresh air, or take a walk. I’ve been making a trip to the ocean, it really recharges my batteries. (And I know, it’s impossible to write with little kids in the house when you are their source of food and entertainment, so don’t feel bad about daycare). Just do what you need to when they’re gone so you can enjoy them when they’re home. Great post!

  14. Denise says:

    Trent, I really enjoyed this post. Why don’t you get out of the house and do some volunteer work while the kids are away? Do something that is hard to do when the kids are there. You will get some social interaction as well as help someone else and it will help you feel better about being alone. Also, why not take up a hobby that is hard to do while the kids are there, or take an adult education class and learn woodworking, cheese making, soap making or something that you can do to improve your skills. You have said before that many forms of social interaction don’t come naturally to you and it is hard when a comfortable, fullfilling one is gone. The kids will be gone more, in the future, so this is worth some thought.

  15. Rachel says:

    Nice post, Trent, I definitely have more urge to spend when feeling low.
    As you say, one splurge isn’t the end of the world, both because you can afford it (despite your discussion of how it could have gone into a savings acct, it is still a small sum, as long as it’s one-off), and because everyone slips up.
    What is worrying in these situations is how easily you justify it to yourself, and how it happens, as you say, almost without you noticing.
    That is the part of these slip-ups that makes me worried – not the one slip up, but the ease with which I slipped, and will slip again if I don’t tighten my own rein…

  16. Ryo Vie says:

    Great post, Trent!

    I tend to have this problem with CDs (instead of games). Every time I feel depressed or down (which is a lot in September and October), I get the urge to run to Best Buy or another CD store and buy new music.

    Thanks to articles like this one, I am (mostly) able to stop myself.

  17. Caroline says:

    I think I spend most money when I’m feeling lazy (like when I don’t want to cook). Sad doesn’t make me spend or eat. I wonder why some of us are wired to consume more (money / food) when sad, while some consume more when happy.

  18. reulte says:

    Hmmm, kind of reminds me of The Feminine Mystique (the whole “I buy, therefore I am” symptom of the 50’s housewife). Might want to skim through it when you’re at the library one day.

  19. Steffie says:

    So you fell off the wagon, but the good thing is you realize why you did it. As with any habit changes you are not going to be perfect all of the time. Ask anyone with an addiction like alchohol or drugs, it doesn’t always stick the first time and slip ups happen. Try to find something to do that will give you the chance to have some time for yourself to recharge. September thru March in cold climates are rough for anyone, especially those who enjoy the summer time activities. Interaction with ‘grown ups’ that are not family might help. And you might get ideas for future posts so its a double benefit!

  20. Amanda says:

    I agree with the other posters…you should get out a few times a week to be with other people. It’s so very important. What about a yoga or tai chi class, or another fitness class or group activity? You don’t have to join a gym for any of those. Budddhist temples often have free group meditations & talks if you’re into that sort of thing. Good luck!

  21. Carol says:

    I think the shorter days has something to do with this as well. I find myself feeling a little down also. Then I met an old friend for lunch and as was our previous habit (pre-frugality) do a little shopping for recreation. Found myself purchasing something utterly ridiculous. Thankfully I was able to return said item a few days later and get a grip. I guess the real problem is having a fun afternoon with a friend, but somehow this old friend isn’t fitting into my new lifestyle.

  22. Nancy says:

    Go down to the animal shelter and adopt (or borrow) a dog. You need company.

  23. Kenny says:

    Yes, but if Scribblenauts was the game you bought, I am sure you’ll get your money’s worth!

  24. Jason says:

    This is a little off the point of the article but as a fellow board game player/addict I was curious as to what game you purchased? There are a few new ones out there that I am trying really hard to keep my hands off of.


  25. Pattie, RN says:

    Great post, Trent. I have experienced the opposite, especialy when my kids were at home. I loathe the heat and humidity of summer, and will go to my grave on an academic schedule that says the first day of fall semester is the first day of the New Year!

  26. Lindsay says:

    So, return the game already (if it really bugs you that much)!

  27. Craig says:

    I tend to spend more in the summer as well more so on activities and things like happy hour than actual items. The seasonality play does have a factor on my spending.

  28. Bavaria says:

    Thank you for being open about your struggles–I can identify with you on the ‘fall thing’. My old habits were not working, so I developed a few new ones that are healthy for me. Taking a walk, doing some yoga stretches, volunteering at the library, organizing and cleaning the house, making a call to friends who live far away, etc. When those moody feelings come along, it’s good to have a plan.

  29. tentaculistic says:

    Yeah, I’m an emotional spender as well. Rough day at work or home, I go out and go clothes shopping. I always have a hard time finding clothes that fit (super tall, plus sized) so it’s a never-ending battle, but I don’t ever really want to do it except when I’m feeling sad. Plus I’m having a hard time now in my marriage and after years of never buying DVDs, I have bought about $200 worth of DVDs over the past month. Yoiks!

    One thing I do when I feel really alone at home and have work to do is to pick up my laptop and go to Starbucks. I know you struggle with not picking back up a coffee-shop habit, but for $4 it might be worth the human company. Or $2 if you get tea. :)

    In all though, I think you have really put your thumb on something a lot of us do. Thanks for sharing with us your struggles, we’re with you!

  30. Anne says:


    Great post! Sorry you are feeling lonely when your family isn’t around. I agree with the other posters about doing volunteer work or joining a club etc.

    Don’t beat yourself up about buying that game. It’s just a small misstep on your way to your financial goals. You have to treat yourself sometimes. It’s not like you bought a new car or ran up a bunch of debt on your credit cards. Forgive yourself and move on.

  31. friend says:

    Trent, here’s another idea for getting out of the house/being with people a time or two a week. See if your community has an adult literacy program. It can be very rewarding to help someone gain basic reading or math skills. You will feel very appreciated, you’ll have some scheduled time in your week, and you’ll also gain new perspective on lives that are different from your own.

  32. Holly says:

    This is an insightful post – and timely and pertinent for me too. I work alone at home and sometimes feel isolated and bored. It’s easy to slip into reading blogs – which can be a time-waster…or worse, start shopping online for things we “need” which wastes time AND money. I find it helpful to set little goals and boundaries. For example, I allow myself to read your blog and another I like – but not anything else until I’m done working. Or, I have to work until 4:40 and then I’m free to read whatever I want til 5. The social outlets are important – mine is a little group of women I know and interact with professionally. We’re all photographers on the side and we get together to talk shop and just hang out.
    I think your point about spending to feel better being better handled by addressing what’s got us down is such a good one. Thanks for the window into your head.

  33. Tara says:

    I finally figured this out for myself about a year ago. So now when I feel that bored, sad, restless feeling and want to buy something, I remind myself that buying the thing will not make me happier, just more broke, and I should take the time to think through what is making me sad. My bank account is doing a lot better as a result!

  34. jreed says:

    I’m with Lindsay # 26…take it back and don’t give it another thought. Honestly, you need to volunteer for a charity…you have too much time on your hands if this is a big deal to you. Or, have the kids stay out of daycare more.

  35. Lee says:

    Are you going to return the game? I would like to hear a follow-up post on whether you decide to keep it or not, and what was behind your choice. When I make mistakes like that, returning the “excess” item is a humbling (read: humiliating) gesture that further pounds it into my skull.

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