Updated on 09.19.14

Feeling Good About Bad Financial Decisions

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I had to go inside to pay at a gas station. A lady in front of me in line purchased $20 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets and began scratching them immediately, moving off to the side to let me pay. I’m of the math-oriented belief that lottery tickets are not worth your while, so I was just polite when I asked the lady if she has good luck playing the tickets.

“Not really,” she said, “but it’s just so much fun.”

On some level, I understand that reason. The rush that a person gets from an exciting moment is a powerful one, and in this case, it was obvious that the lottery tickets created an exciting moment for that lady.

The problem is that the cost of that exciting moment is quite high. She spent $20 – with a slim chance of recovering some of it – for a five minute endorphin rush.

That can be fine on a rare occasion, but when you make a routine out of it, you’re damaging your family’s financial future.

It’s also important to note that I’m not just talking about playing the lottery. The same idea holds true whenever you spend money on something you don’t need and feel a huge emotional rush from it. It can happen when you buy books, when you go clothes shopping, when you buy a video game, anything.

When you have that type of pleasurable peak tied to any activity, you’re going to want to repeat it. It is in that repetition of a negative activity that you can find some real financial problems. Even if you can “afford” it, you’re still sacrificing your future for a rush.

I consider it a waste of time to tell people to stop chasing that rush. It feels good. It’s not inherently harmful, either, except for the costs associated with finding it.

The key, then, is to not walk away from that sense of feeling good. The key is to find that same rush in things that don’t cost money.

This was a long and arduous process for me. There was a time, not long ago, where my rush came from opening packs of trading cards. It came from buying several books at the bookstore. It came from opening the package of a new gadget.

The rushes I would get from these experiences were powerful. I’d ride the crest of pleasure from buying the item, but the resulting valley was painful. The new would wear off and I’d realize that all I was left with was less money.

It was very hard to break that connection, though. In fact, it was probably the single hardest thing I’ve done during my financial recovery.

How did I do it?

How I Broke the Connection from “The Rush”

Quite simply, I replaced the rushes I got for poor financial choices with rushes I got for choices with no real financial impact. Here are some examples.

1. I started exercising

Although my exercising routine comes and goes, when I am actively exercising, the rush at the end of an exercise session (once I catch my breath and towel off) is enormous and more than a little addictive. It also has the kicker of not costing too much and it helps with my long-term health.

2. I built a regular “game night” with some competition

Once a week, I play games with a few friends. Those games are competitive (but still friendly) and we all strive to win. Because of that, the gameplay becomes much more of a rush than before. Even better, because we’re usually playing board games or card games we’ve all played many times before, there’s almost no cost to this.

3. I started setting aside time solely for other people

Volunteering for community groups. Playing with my kids. Playing a game with my wife while we chat. Over and over again, I find that when I set aside time solely for others, I feel tremendously good at the end of those periods of time.

4. I spread out the material peaks

This doesn’t mean I abandoned the rushes I used to get. I just started spreading them out. Instead of going to the coffee shop each day, I go maybe once every two months. What I’ve found is that the rush of these experiences are much more intense than before because they’re not something I do regularly. It’s a lot more fun to do these things because I don’t do them very often.

Even if the peaks aren’t as high, the valley is certainly not as low. Many people argue that making such choices is not as fun as the rush they get from buying. For me, honestly, I can’t really tell at this point. What I can say, though, is that the “valley” after the peak is gone. I no longer feel bad or regret what I’ve done. I no longer have a sense that I’ve made a mistake or that I’m digging a hole I can’t escape from.

Find a new channel for your emotional highs that don’t involve money and you’ll soon find yourself in a much better financial place.

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  1. Lauren says:

    I, too, have found that spreading out the peaks makes all the difference. A couple years ago, I wanted to drink less caffeine. So I gave myself permission to have a soda only 4 times a week. And, you know what? Those 4 sodas taste SO much better than they ever did when I drank them daily.

  2. Johanna says:

    You’ve set up a false dichotomy here, with “acquiring things for the sake of acquisition” on one hand and “doing things that don’t cost money” on the other. What about the pleasure you can derive from using the things you’ve bought (even if they’re not things you’ve used many times before, like your board games, so the cost of using them is not “almost zero”)?

  3. Josh says:

    Trent I think you use too much bold. I know you love using it to try to make points but when almost every other line is bolded I find the article much harder to read. Maybe my eyes just work funny but it might be something you want to consider as I have been noticing it more and more lately.

    That being said I enjoyed the article. Thanks!

  4. Troy says:

    How do you know the “lady” buying the lottery tickets wasn’t loaded?

    Maybe she is a multimillionaire and $20 is nothing to her.

    Don’t judge. It clouds your point.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I actually like Trent’s use of bold fonts. I often do not take the time to completely ready every article. Especially one such as this that I don’t have a big interest in. I like being able to skim the article, reading the sections in bold to get a general idea of what Trent is saying.

  6. Astreil says:

    This is so true. I’m sure I could make a long list of these “rush inducing” activities that are not good for me financially, physically, or emotionally. Cokes and coffees would probably be my #1. Add to that the fact that my husband just lost his job and you have the makings of true financial pain. My new gym is now my backyard. Hopefully the sunshine and exercise I get outside will help me to overcome those addictions.

  7. Tracy says:

    I absolutely disagree with this post, I see nothing wrong in spending money that you have on things that you enjoy.

    This post just feels very superior and judgmental, particularly since Trent doesn’t know a single fact about this woman other than she has fun scratching off lottery tickets. He doesn’t even know if this is a common routine or a special treat for her!

    And the cost may NOT be high to her, as in it may not even be a noticeable portion of her income.

    This post would be much better if it drew entirely on experiences you KNOW about rather than mean-spirited conjecture about somebody else.

  8. katie (another katie) says:

    I think Trent was just using the woman as an example. He knows she *might* be a millionaire, but we all know many people play the lottery and do other financially silly things. He’s suggesting that we recognize what we do that costs us money and doesn’t benefit us. I know I have had a problem with “retail therapy.” I have found volunteering and school are much better for me (and I’d say my wallet, except medical school is TERRIBLY expensive and I’m so busy it’s hard to earn a lot of cash on the side).

  9. valleycat1 says:

    Trent, I think it’s a little extreme to say that spending to get a rush (at least, based on your examples here) is damaging one’s financial future. Unless it’s truly an unaffordable addiction, I’ll agree that it may be money wasted that might have been put to better use. But rarely are these kinds of expenses damaging, at least the way I think of ‘damaging.’

  10. Tracy says:

    I have to post a second time, because I just got more annoyed.

    “Even if you can “afford” it, you’re still sacrificing your future for a rush.”

    This is an annoying sort of doublespeak. By putting afford in quotes, you’re implying that people really can’t afford anything they think they can. Because if it’s actually enough to sacrifice your future, you obviously can’t afford it – but there IS the case where you can afford something and you’re NOT sacrificing your future in any way at all. It is, in fact, very common.

    The real issue is – are you buying something you don’t need and don’t really WANT for the rush of spending money. Or spending money that you don’t have. Either of those are issues. Buying something you want, can afford and will actually use and get enjoyment out of? That’s part of the whole POINT of financial security.

  11. Nancy says:

    I only buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot is over $200 million. Then I will open my classes with “What would you do if you had that much money?” I start first by telling them that I would start a laptop/iPad program and scholarships for every student in the school. Their eyes get wide and then they discuss their own goals for philanthropy. I definitely get my dollar’s worth!

  12. Julie says:

    I am amazed at how sensitive readers are about the possibility that Trent might be “judging” others. He can barely use any kind of example without someone assuming he is passing a judgement. Trent was kind and respectful to the woman. He isn’t out persecuting her or trying to take away her human rights. He was merely using this little story as a launching point to a post.

    What I fail to understand is how some who seem so fearful of those that they have accused of “judging others” tend to not recognize how overly judgemental they themselves are of those who they believe (rightly or wrongly) are judging others…

    So you don’t agree with Trent’s post. Fine. Probably 50% of the posters will and 50% won’t. But I think there might be some confusion as to who is truly acting self-righteous.

  13. Interested Reader says:

    This sort of sounds like Trent is trying to address compulsive spending but not really hitting the mark.

    i don’t get the kind of rush when buying something that he talks about and the only people I know who talk in terms of the rush and chasing the next rush are those who have spending addictions.

    I think JD did a better job on this topic on Get Rich Slowly a couple days ago. For one he was clear that he was writing as a recovering compulsive shopper and emotional spender and that this information is about his experience and to help people the same issues.

    Trent seems to be addressing everyone as if everyone has the same problems.

  14. kat says:

    I think we are all somewhat “emotional spenders”
    I understand That everyone has different things that give then that rush. I have great difficulty to pass up fabric-even though I have tons of it to use for projects. The feeling of excitement and thoughts of what I will use it for are quite enjoyable. Since I now only get to a real fabric store every six months or so, I have not been stockpiling anything else and have been using up my stash. I am saving change for my next trip, and will use only that amount for new purchases, trims and so on.

  15. Nate says:

    Lots of people do things we see as stupid to get a rush. Some of those people buy lottery tickets, some gamble, some smoke, some get drunk, some have sex, and some use drugs. It all has the same effect of our endorphine and dopamine levels. IT FEELS GOOD!

  16. Nate says:

    ^^ (somehow I posted before I was finished typing)
    Lots of people do things we see as stupid to get a rush. Some of those people buy lottery tickets, some gamble, some smoke, some get drunk, some have sex, and some use drugs. It all has the same effect of our endorphine and dopamine levels. IT FEELS GOOD!For some people the dopamine and endorphine release outweighs common sense and leads to their downfall. Overcomming any sort of addiction, no matter how serious, is difficult and all you have to do is attend an AA meeting to see people who’ve fallen off the wagon numerous times.

    I like the post and Trent has some good points but I think there may be a whole other issue he’s not addressing here or maybe it didn’t occur to him. I agree that finding other ways to get a rush or high is probably in our best interets.

  17. Kate says:

    Have to agree with #Julie about people judging Trent for being judgemental. I take it as he is making an observation and taking it from there.
    This post hit home with me–I know people who go shopping when they are down because it makes them happy. And those same people grumble at the end of the month because they don’t have enough in the bank to cover their bills.

  18. Rap says:

    I think perhaps, both sides on the “judging” issue have a point. I don’t think – and Trent can correct me if I am wrong – that Trent meant this as an inditement towards everyone who likes the occasional scratch off ticket. On the other hand, I know Trent and I definetely have different views on “what has value” and I can understand how the tone of this article – “How Trent has replaced the rush of shopping with frugal activities” can come off a bit holier than thou.

    Because unfortunately, a lot of frugal advise can come off as “holier than thou”. For example “Don’t waste your money on cable tv, tv garbage, I *read*…” like anyone who does watch tv is an illiterate drooling moron wasting money and brain cells. I mean, let me be honest, the idea of a weekly game night bores me to utter tears. I get that it’s frugal but really, one person’s “value packed activity” is another person’s “waste of time”.

    Am I a loser because I am debt free, have a healthy emergency fund, a healthy retirement fund… and I am not making every single activity packed with intellectual value? Sometimes, reading this site and the comments, I definetely feel like I’m a monster for *gasp* purchasing high tech toys – despite not using credit cards or incurring debt. I should be grimly studying physics or music or tending an extensive organic garden and any fun activity has to be free. All activity must have long term value!

    I’m frugal so I can afford my splurges without guilt. Its ok to have fun with one’s money as long as you are budgeting and not overspending.

  19. Daniel says:

    Josh (comment #3), you’re right – the bold is tacky and completely over-used. Makes the article very difficult to read. Bold is usually used to highling *2 or 3* high points of an article, not 20 or 30.

  20. Daniel says:

    * highlight. D’oh!

  21. Julie says:


    And it is also OK to eat meat. (in moderation)

  22. Dash says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The key is not to eliminate things completely just realized that you will actually appreciate it more when it’s done rarely as opposed to frequently, and save yourself a lot of money in the process.

  23. Glen & Shirley says:

    Trent, This article really hit home with me…I have done that so much in my life, and it helps so much to address what is of real value! I will now plan my “indulgences”, and re-think some “free” things I can do that will become a new “rush”! Thanks, Shirley

  24. littlepitcher says:

    People who can afford indulgences can do it. This column is targeted to those of us who cannot afford indulgences,who might use the endorphin rush/antidepressant effect three times a day, or to financial near-ruin.
    Lottery tickets, I’m told, are a tax on the mathematically illiterate. Even at a dollar a ticket, I can make more money, long term, on dollar garage sale or flea market purchases which can be repaired or marked up to retail discount value.

  25. jean says:

    I think Trent was actually less judgemental about the woman with the lottery tickets than I might have been, since most of the people I know who regularly buy them are those who can least afford them or are living way beyond their means already.
    So, yes , they are a tax on the financially illiterate. And how much fun can they really be? Gambling as in poker or blackjack I can almost understand because there is some strategic thinking going on, and the thrill of competition, but I cannot see any fun in scratching off a piece of paper! That being said, i too have been guilty in the past of spending for the rush–but have found that if I confine my recreational shopping to garage sales and thrift stores, it’s a lot less damaging!

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