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How Your Mental Health Impacts Your Spending

Did you know there’s a direct correlation between your mental health and spending money?

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Last Updated: 11/21/2023
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In my therapeutic practice, I’ve seen depression result in lower productivity and lost wages. When it comes to spending, I’ve also witnessed clients rack up debt during manic episodes before they were properly diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. One woman bought a horse, a car and a boat in one weekend — none of which she could afford. She was mad at her husband, so it’s interesting that the purchases were all modes of transportation!

Just as you’re told not to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, the same applies when it comes to making purchases. Mood issues associated with your mental health can affect your finances in ways you might not be aware of. Instead of letting your emotions drive what you buy and when you buy it, aim for level-headed spending habits that allow you to check on your mental health, regardless of external circumstances.

Know Your Impulse Purchasing Triggers

An illustrated person holding multiple shopping bags as they are leaving the store.

Impulsive buying is nothing new. A study showed that 88.6% of Americans have succumbed to the temptations of impulse shopping, spending an average of about $81.75 at a time. Americans also make up to 156 impulse purchases every year, spending up to $5,400 annually, or $324,000 over their lifetime. Some behavioral and mental health conditions make people predisposed to impulse buying. Here are a few to consider:

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  • Addiction: Addiction can make it difficult to regulate behaviors, which creates poor impulse control. The good news is addiction is treatable, and financial recovery is possible.
  • Substance abuse: When under the influence of drugs and alcohol, people tend to be less inhibited and more likely to spend. Usually, they aren’t thinking about how to control their spending habits.
  • ADD/ADHD: Those With ADD/ADHD are more easily distracted. Often, that means they are susceptible to buying the next "shiny object" that grabs their attention.
  • Anxiety: People with anxiety disorders experience worry, restlessness, nervousness, panic and catastrophic thinking about the future. All of these can fuel a desire for services, products and resources in an attempt to alleviate the unease.
  • Depression: Depression is associated with lower self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. This feeling can make you more susceptible to marketing efforts which try to convince you that having the right clothes and material possessions will make you worthy of love and success.
  • Personality disorders: Deep-rooted personality issues may cause people to spend more. Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorders suffer from grandiosity and may feel entitled to spend beyond their means. Others with Borderline Personality Disorder may feel positively empty at times and turn to spending to fill that need.

Even if you aren’t dealing with a clinical diagnosis, you can probably relate to some of the symptoms associated with these disorders. But your mood or mental health status doesn’t need to dictate how you spend your money.

Avoiding Impulse Buying: Ask Yourself, "Do You Really Need That?"

At times, splurging on an item can make you happy. If your financial decisions result in overwhelming debt or you feel buyer’s remorse, however, you may be able to re-think your strategy.

Several years ago, I had an experience that opened my eyes to my spending habits. Between two meetings in the suburbs, I spent more than an hour mindlessly shopping at a home-furnishing store the size of two football fields. I loaded my cart with candles, throw pillows, kitchen knick-knacks, toys for my kids and more.

When I got to the checkout line, it was about twenty people deep, and I realized I had to leave shortly to make my meeting. I left my overflowing cart at customer service so I could come back to pay for my items later. After my meeting, I realized I truly didn’t need anything in that cart.

Since that event, my mantra when I go shopping is, "I'd rather have cash than crap." It helps me mindfully stick to my list of necessities and avoid extraneous spending.

Three Tips to Reign in Impulse Spending

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    Develop a relapse prevention plan

    Identify the people, places and things that are triggers for you when it comes to impulse buying. Maybe it’s trying to impress somebody, being at the mall, using the retail apps on your phone or following influencers on social media.

    Make an effort to avoid those triggers. When you encounter them, make a support plan. Call an accountability partner, make an appointment with your therapist, go for a walk, or attend an online twelve-step meeting such as those offered by Spenders Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous.

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    Consider a financial cleanse

    If you spend more than you should, consider a financial fast! Choose a spending ban anywhere from 7 to 21 days. By doing so, you’ll increase your spending awareness and save some cash. During your financial fast, do not use any credit cards or go to any malls or retail stores, if possible. Delete retail apps on your devices and do not purchase any restaurant food or coffee. Make everything at home and pay for your groceries in cash.

    If you need a gift for a friend, consider making a homemade present, re-gifting an item you haven’t used or being honest with them about your cleanse. This cleanse allows you to become more mindful about excess and develop healthy spending habits.

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    Spend mindfully

    For at least the next week, keep a log of your spending. Before you spend money, ask yourself:

    • Is spending money on this item or service absolutely necessary? If not, can I afford it?
    • Will this expense bring me closer or further away from my personal, professional, and financial goals?
    • Does it feel aligned with my values?
    • Do I feel clear about this purchase in my gut?

    I suggest doing this practice for a week. At the end of the week, journal about anything you noticed, such as catching yourself spending less money because you were being more conscious.

Keep the Momentum Going

An illustrated person locking up their credit card in a cage as they continue to build their finances.

In our instant gratification society, it’s so much easier to reach for a temporary pain reliever like "retail therapy" when our mental health is suffering. Develop regular mindful spending habits where you question yourself before you spend money.

If impulse buying is something you’d like to curb and you are having trouble holding yourself accountable, you can take the short quiz, "Is Your Spending a Problem?" to determine if you have out of control spending habits which are leading to a shopping addiction. I encourage you to also select one of the three above-mentioned tips. Your mental health will thank you as you see your financial resilience grow.

For more guidance and resources, consider working the mental health and financial health program in my book, The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life.

Experts' Advice on Your Mental Health and Spending Habits

  1. In your experience, what are the most common psychological factors that influence an individual's spending habits?
  2. Can you discuss the role of emotional regulation in managing spending habits?
  3. What are the long-term consequences of impulsive buying behavior, both financially and emotionally?
  4. How can individuals better recognize and resist impulsive buying urges?
John Carlson
John Carlson

Professor of School Psychology at Michigan State University

About Joyce Marter

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Joyce Marter is a licensed psychotherapist with 25 years of experience and entrepreneur who founded and successfully sold Urban Balance, a national outpatient mental health company in the U.S. Marter is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, international speaker, blogger for Psychology Today and mental health thought-leader specializing in the psychology of money.

Joyce Marter is routinely consulted as a mental health expert in the media, featured in such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and MTV. Her book, The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life, was published by Sounds True in July of 2021 and has been featured in Business Insider, MoneyGeek, US Weekly, Thrive Global, Forbes and more.