Stress and Overspending

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.