When stress levels rise, some people reach for a doughnut; I reach for my wallet. When I’m running late for an appointment, I take a cab. When I don’t have time to make dinner, I go out or order in. When I want a pick-me-up after a stressful week, I buy a dress or book a facial. A lot of people do. But they’re probably not spending the equivalent of their rent—more than $1,000 each month—on stress-related purchases. My stress spending has a cycle: I feel stressed, I spend money. I peek at my bank balance and feel faint. Bottom line: Stress is making me pay.
The risks of stress—particularly on the health and beauty front—are well known. A study published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community found that even mild stress can cause hypertension, angina or even a stroke. Stress-induced cortisol levels can also h lead to everything from dull hair and brittle fingernails to acne and premature aging. The relationship between money and stress is equally well documented: In 2010, the average American household carried nearly $6,500 in credit-card debt, while a recent study by the American Psychological Association found that 76 percent of people cited financial worries as their biggest source of stress.
I started by keeping track of every cent I spent in a money journal. (See sidebar.) I have always been attracted to the quick fix of the movie montage, so I imagined calculators and furrowed brows and then scenes of financial responsibility and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. What I discovered was that I spend $75 each week on cabs that usually take me within a six-block radius. Was I really that lame? Money journal says yes. Darkness fell.
TRIGGER 1: FACTS OF LIFE
Identifying my major triggers helped nudge me out of it. The easiest one to identify was convenience—the money I fritter away on taxis, takeout and 24-hour passport renewals because I’m always crunched for time. Part of that is inevitable. This past year has been the busiest of my life: I started my own business, got engaged and wrote a book. But in my new spirit of self-awareness, I realized that I’ve never managed my time properly. I’ve been running 10 minutes late since junior high. The time crunch creates a domino effect: I’m always behind, I always feel guilty about it, I’m always stressed.
TRIGGER 2: CHEERS
When you feel bad, you want to feel good, right? My second trigger was clear: I spend money to escape stress. Researchers at Brunel University in London, England, found that pleasurable experiences like shopping dramatically increase levels of dopamine in your brain, but I didn’t need a study to know that buying a $300 vintage Yves Saint Laurent jacket made me happy, while thinking about my $300 phone bill did not. I was also hooked on the reward system I’d set up for “surviving” stress. My journal illuminated my distorted thinking. For me, as a writer, finishing an article has become akin to finding Nemo. That means that I’ve earned a $5 latte instead of a plain cup of coffee, right? “We tell ourselves ‘I work hard; I deserve it,’” says Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada. “We’re given those messages all the time: ‘Treat yourself; give yourself a break.’ It allows us to get off the hook and justify our purchases.”
TRIGGER 3: WHO’S THE BOSS?
The psychology of stress can also get tangled up in how we think about ourselves. I turned to Serena*, a family friend who estimates that she spends about $800 each month going out after work to blow off steam. “When I’m not stressed, I don’t feel the need to go out,” she says. “But when I am stressed, going out is a way to normalize my life. If I go out, that means I’m not a workaholic.” Serena’s statement hit me with the shock of recognition. But how did we get here? Campbell says that the seeds of financial sabotage can be sown early. “Responses to stress can be ingrained from childhood,” she explains. “My daughter’s friend Amber* has parents who have serious financial problems. My daughter and Amber were at the mall and Amber said ‘I’ve got to spend all my money today so it doesn’t burn a hole in my pocket.’ At 12, she has already adopted her parents’ approach to money—even down to their vocabulary.”
TRIGGER 4 : FAMILY TIES
Campbell’s comments sent me to the proverbial couch: Both of my parents grew up without much money, so, in our family, the focus was on paying down the mortgage and plumping up university funds, not on extras like eating out or taking taxis. During rare Harvey’s outings, we would split two orders of fries among the four of us. More than once, the whole family shared a single ice cream cone. My sister has followed in my parents’ thrifty footsteps, sticking to a conservative monthly budget and saving for a downpayment on a condo, which she’ll move into next spring. I have clearly gone in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to be the type of person who only ate out twice a month and never ordered an appetizer, so I became the person who went out four times a week, took cabs both ways and insisted on covering the tip. Appetizers were only the beginning.
Campbell says that Credit Canada’s success rate for people overcoming money issues is about 60 percent. “The key to success is reaching the point where you truly want to change your life once and for all,” she explains. “Once you’re at that place, it’s considerably easier to change your habits and how you react to stress.”
These days, my spending habits reflect my burgeoning financial responsibility. When the month was up, I put my money journal on the fridge and then created a budget and a schedule with lots of time set aside for grocery shopping and the realities of public transit. I invited friends over for dinner instead of meeting them in restaurants. I turned down invites if my day was already full. In short, I grew up a bit. But it’s one thing to change a schedule; it’s another to change a mindset. Resisting the urge to hail cabs at the streetcar stop or putting on the kettle instead of visiting a café gave me a kind of high—it was a choice between two things, and choosing wisely made me feel good. But resisting the urge to congratulate myself with a treat (or five) was considerably harder. To stay strong, I’m focusing on how much money I’m saving. Within a few months, I’ve cut my “extras” tally in half, which means that $775 a month goes straight into my new savings account. A sobering thought: If I had done this five years ago, I’d have about $45,000—enough for a downpayment on a condo. These days, I’m saving for a honeymoon—not real estate—but working toward a financial goal is surprisingly comforting and a lot less stressful than the fallout of spontaneous splurging. The allure of stress spending is always there, but I’m resisting it. I’ve finally seen that there is a better way to spend my money—and my life.
*Not her real name.