Updated on 07.31.14

Stress and Overspending

Trent Hamm

Lately, I’ve been under a lot of stress – perhaps the highest level of stress I’ve been under since switching to a full-time writing career. I’m in absolute crunch mode with my second book, with a manuscript due in a few days. I’ve also been slowly moving into public speaking – and I certainly get a healthy amount of stage nervousness. There have been multiple medical issues with my family (two different child illnesses, plus an issue with my wife that I’ll post about in great detail later this week). There have been several family-related demands lately as well.

Add that all together – plus the usual issues with a busy household with two young kids – and I’m feeling the stress. I’ve not had time as of late to exercise with all of the demands on me, either, which is something that really has been useful over the last year for keeping me energetic.

One major thing I’ve noticed is how this has all directly affected my personal choices when it comes to spending. To put it simply, I’ve been more tempted than I have been in a long time to spend money without really thinking about it. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I wrote about one experience along those lines.

I’m not alone in noticing this phenomenon. In an article on MoneyCentral about stress and spending, the author makes the astute point that we often spend to relieve stress in the short term, but it adds up to additional stress in the long term.

I’ll absolutely agree with part of that. Overspending today will unquestionably lead to more stress in the long term. If you spend money today on something purely impulsive, you won’t have money to spend tomorrow on something genuinely important to you. That $30 impulse buy today means you stay in debt for a little longer and pay a little bit more interest along the way.

However, I think there are at least two more connections between stress and spending not addressed in that article that I’ve noticed in my own behavior.

First, when you’re stressed, you’re simply not as mindful as you might otherwise be. Normally, when I’m in a buying situation, I’m pretty mindful of the situation. I recognize the temptations around me and the subtle cues I’m being fed to buy more than I should.

When I’m stressed, though, I’m distracted. Stress is caused by something that’s on your mind, sapping away at your consciousness. When that happens, those subtle buying cues become radically more effective. Instead of rationally looking at the situations you’re in, you look at it with less than your full attention – and those subtle little cues take over.

Second, stress pulls you away from those important to you, and sometimes you overcompensate. While finishing up my manuscript and rushing to make my deadline, I’ve found myself working into the wee small hours of the night many nights. This leaves me exhausted the next morning – and I recognize that I’m not quite as “there” for my children as I normally am in the morning.

Then, when my son, who’s been wonderful through all of this, will innocently turn to me and ask, “Dad… can we go bowling?” or something similar, and that perfectly plays on my desire to do fun things with my children combined directly with my sense that I’ve not been doing quite as well as I have been lately. The end result? I’m far, far more susceptible to saying “Sure!” and going bowling than I would be under less stress.

To put it simply, a higher stress level makes it more likely that you’ll spend unnecessarily. Thus, the reverse is true: if you can reduce your stress level, it’s likely that you’ll also reduce the prevalence of frivolous spending in your life.

Having said that, here are the five stress-reduction techniques that work best for me.

Focus on what’s stressing you. I find that distraction and avoidance usually make me more stressed out. Instead, if I actually focus on what’s stressing me and attempt to come up with a real solution for the problem, I not only feel better in the short term, but I also contribute to a better long-term solution as well.

Talk about what’s stressing you. My wife is a wonderful listener. Find someone who will listen to you rant and rail about what’s bothering you. It’s cathartic.

Meditate. Spending twenty minutes praying or meditating deeply can really clear your mind of a lot of detritus and put you in a much calmer place. I find more rest in meditating for twenty minutes than in sleeping for two hours.

Exercise. Whenever I consistently exercise, my energy level is significantly higher, plus my stress level is naturally lower. I find that I feel much more able to deal with the challenges of life.

Eliminate a less-important life element. One big cause of stress is an overstuffed schedule. If you’re in this situation, seek out an element of your life that you can let go for a while and just let it go. Perhaps it means withdrawing from a community group. Maybe it means slowing down your schedule of washing the carpets. Whatever it is, step back and give yourself some breathing room in life.

The lower the stress, the less you spend.

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  1. Ali Hale says:

    Trent, these are some great tips and I can really echo them (and empathise). I end up dropping exercise when crunch time hits, and I always regret it — it’s a sure-fire way to feel destressed and regrounded.

    Hope things calm down for you soon, and hope you can take a well-earned break once you’ve got the book done. (Looking forward to reading it, by the way, though I know it’ll be a while with the publishers yet!)

  2. Rick says:

    Sorry to hear you are so stressed out. Hopefully, things will calm down once the manuscript is turned in. Sleep is a big stress factor for me- if I don’t have enough sleep everything else just seems to become much worse!

    -Rick Francis

  3. Kevin M says:

    Totally agree, when we get stressed (for time usually) we tend to automatically say “let’s pick something up for dinner” which usually leads to fast food and guilty feelings later – both for eating unhealthily and going over our self-imposed one-meal-out-per-week limit.

    Good luck finishing the manuscript and to getting some much needed free time, Trent.

  4. Michelle says:

    I feel you on this one. the only way I’ve really been able to put a stop to stress spending is working out. I saw myself spending a ridiculous amount of money one semester when I was taking a particularly stressful class. I studied at least 8 hours a day for that class, and I came out on top. . . but the only way I de-stressed was by going shopping with my classmates afterward. Bad move on my part. I’m trying to go work out with my boyfriend more to dispel the school stress. Having a workout buddy motivates me more, and we schedule time to work on schoolwork together to keep each other company. that way we can take breaks to talk or eat.

  5. Ken says:

    Hear hear.

    It’s a cycle that is easy to slip into.

  6. Brent says:

    Count me among the guilty.

  7. Leah says:

    I know this isn’t the issue of this post, but I dare say that bowling is one of the most frugal forms of entertainment there is. (That’s true in my neck of the woods, anyway.) A family of four can bowl a game for what, $15? I can’t think of much that’s cheaper than that. Batting cages, maybe.

    I strongly agree on the stress spending, though. The kicker is that when that stress is caused by medical issues and illness, you’ve got those related expenses to worry about, too. Best wishes to you & your family during this stressful time!

  8. Robin Crickman says:

    Hope everything improves for you very soon.

    A problem I have noticed from estate sales and
    dispersement auctions after death is the amount
    of “things” that were purchased to make the ill
    or elderly person feel better. Sometimes just
    small things like the telephone with the huge
    dial buttons and sometimes very expensive things
    like a fancy ATV that grandpa could use to get
    around the farm. In years past he never had one
    and probably would not have purchased a brand new
    one himself, but the kids had to get him a really
    fancy new one when a used model would have served
    just as well. It is very hard not to want to
    throw money at a health problem hoping the the
    items purchased will make the situation more
    comfortable. Sometimes it actually does help
    but often it is a desparate effort on the part
    of a loving family or friend to believe they
    can improve the situation. Very hard to resist
    these expenditures; very, very hard to make a
    rational decision on what to purchase.

  9. cv says:

    One thing I try to remember is that I am frugal most of the time so that I have the freedom to be less frugal when the need arises. If the way to get through a period of high stress is to spend a little money, and you have the money, then do it, and go back to normal frugality when the stress has passed.

    For me, I just try to be sure that I’m spending money to save myself time and stress, and not just to make myself feel better. So takeout or a cleaning service or food bought not on sale at a more expensive but more convenient store are fair game, but books I want aren’t.

    Remember that personal finance is about spending on things you value. If a little bowling that allows you to reconnect with your son after a really busy week fits with that, and the money is there, then relax and enjoy it.

  10. I’ve never really suffered from stress-induced overspending. But I can definitely sympathize with those who do. Everyone has certain outlets where they channel their stress. Some eat… some drink… some spend… good tips on how to deal with it constructively!

  11. Broke M.B.A. says:

    I often feel that I only have so much will power to spread across the multiple facets of my life. For example, I might be able to summon the will power to lay off desserts for an entire month, but not during the same month that I’m trying to save an extra $500 by reducing my spending. There’s just not enough will power to go around.

    What’s worse is the zapping power stress has over the will power needed to accomplish one’s goals. Your tips are a great way to deal with life’s stresses, and increase the odds that you can move forward. If stress isn’t dealt with, it will continue to zap will power and prohibit people from reaching their goals (i.e. not overspending in your case.)

  12. Greg says:


    Time to change your perspective… All the hard work on the book is almost behind you. Congratulations, we look forward to another great book!

    Public speaking is a challenge all by itself. I once heard that 8 hours of facilitation takes as much energy as a 10 mile run!

    Take a look at the Dale Carnegie Course. It was worth every penny helping me to deal with stage fright and gaining confidence. It made all the difference in the world and was worth every penny.

    I now tackle groups up to 200 at a time without flinching and I love every minute.

    Keep up the great work!

  13. Tizzle says:

    I’ve been stressed lately, and just today I stopped to buy something. But, it was something I’ve had my eye on and I bought it at a thrift store. In fact, it was the first time I saw the item in a box (which made it seem nicer, psychologically).

    So I satisfied my urge to spend, but only spent $10. The item was a breadmaker (so then I went out and bought ingredients, too) which may, providing it works well, cut down on future spending.

    Spending isn’t always bad and if done the “right way” even in times of stress, could be good. When I do this kind of stress spending, it’s literally cheaper than 2 or 3 drinks at the bar.

  14. I can relate to the stress.

    Sadly, my husband isn’t so understanding when it comes to my need to hash everything over with someone. I’ve noticed that he’s pretty stressed too, but it’s been building up for a while. (He doesn’t tell me these things sometimes because I tend to get worse.)

    If I can survive until the end of the semester, it’ll be a miracle I swear. I’ve got one big project to do this week, plus two other assignments (at least), a test and plenty of work! Fun fun fun. I ought to work on my nasty procrastination habit a bit more, but allowing myself fun time is all that’s keeping me focused on the fact that this won’t last forever.

  15. Kathryn says:

    I wish folks would realize stress effects them in different ways as well. Many years ago i was in a car accident that was my fault & the it was the result of not being attentive enough because of stress.

    I know of several other folks who have had similar situations. And last December i was in another accident (not my fault) where a lady backed into me without looking. Her son had died a few weeks before & her dog had been run over by a car the day before. Frankly, she should not have been driving.

    It is my belief that driving while stressed (or at least highly stressed) is as bad as drunk driving or while texting. Just wish folks would keep this in mind.

  16. littlepitcher says:

    Trent–Get some B vitamin supplements, try to get that 15 minutes of sunlight a day, and meditate–preferably all at once, for time management, since you have little to spare.

    And try not to spend on junk food when stressed–(do as I say, not as I do…)

    Rootin’ for ya.

  17. Lana says:


    Studies have shown that we have a limited amount of willpower, too. (WebMD) So if you’re using that willpower to knuckle down and finish your book, it may be why you feel interested in spending more money when you normally wouldn’t. I get the same way – if my work life is hectic, I become more interested in material goods, I eat out more often, and look for ways to have fun that cost more than I would usually spend. But this too will pass, if you can just wait it out or trick your brain into believing you’ve treated yourself, even if you’re saving money. Like taking a break to buy an 89-cent slurpee, or hiding your wallet for a few days. Whatever strategies work – it’s just like tricking your brain into wanting to eat less or exercise more.

  18. Tammy says:

    Thanks for this post, it was very timely for me.

    We’ve really blown the budget this past month, and I think it is just because we have too much going on…leading to “well, let’s just swing by McDonalds” (which breaks our eating out allowance) or “let’s just run to Walmart and get a few things” (which turns into getting a LOT of things–which is why I hate Walmart).

    I think I have good willpower about spending for myself but I struggle with saying no to my husband and my daughter. I will buy things and go places for them that I wouldn’t for myself.

  19. Little House says:

    I completely agree, stress affects how well you can focus and think clearly. Your mind easily wanders or is stuck on that thing that’s stressing you out. For some people, shopping alleviates that stress temporarily, for others it’s eating, and still others, it may be insomnia.

    It sounds like you are nearing the end of one of your stressors, the completion of your book. Keep it together for a little longer, and I’m sure you won’t be nearly as stressed.

    Take care!

  20. karyn says:

    I tend to overspend when stressed because I “reward” myself. IE, it’s a stressful day so let me reward myself with an extra large mocha latte with whipped cream so I can get through the day!

  21. tentaculistic says:

    Sorry to hear things are stressful! Hope they improve :)

  22. MelodyO says:

    Boy, did this post hit home. My husband and I run a full-time business out of our home, we have two kids with all the accompanying stress of that (plus one has H1N1), and we just bought a vacation property in Arizona that we completely furnished this month (we’re in Canada) and are now trying to rent out. We have no downtime to speak of unless we stop doing ANY housework. I know this is all self-inflicted, which makes me feel guilty that I’m not handling it better. The worst part is this might not end for years and years. And years. Woe. It’s a classic example of finally having enough money to have a good life…but no time to actually live the good life.

  23. Christine says:

    I totally find this to be true. I developed a health problem that ended by career, then the financial problems started. I still have to live, earn a living, try to get some enjoyment out of life but now it’s so much more difficult.

    There are times I would go shopping or out to eat to just get out of the house. For someone who is just barely paying the bills, that causes more financial stress. When I ask my family for help, I was frequently insulted, espcially when they had access to my accounts.

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