I would love to enjoy a guilt free life when it comes to spending money. Ever heard the same voice rattling around in your head that I’ve heard in mine. It usually says something like, “Why did you spend that money? That was stupid! You know you shouldn’t have done that.”
When that thought occurs it’s typical to spend the rest of the day kicking yourself and feeling like you’ve done something wrong. That same night might be spent seeking forgiveness from your spouse, while the rest of the month you struggle to figure out how to make the budget cover for your spending decision.
Guilt is powerful. But have you ever stopped to consider why?
6 Possible Origins of Our Guilt
Why do we get so wrapped up with guilt when it comes to spending money?
I think the root of guilt can be traced to several factors, some of which may have started long ago in our childhood.
1. Because of upbringing
Many children have watched parents scrimp and save to put food on the table, buy clothes and put them through college. There was little room in the budget for extras. What extras did come – like vacations – were diligently planned for and money was saved over time. Rarely were spur of the moment purchases made and never, ever did parents buy something unless they absolutely needed it.
Kids were taught – and rightly so – to cherish and value what money can do.
With the advances in technology, the rise of incomes and the growth of investments, many children have reached a higher socioeconomic status than their parents. Therefore, they have more disposable income available. When the excess (defined as that money not needed to cover basic living expenses) is spent on pleasures that might not be 100% necessary, that guilt surfaces because it conflicts with the values they were taught as a child.
2. Because others are being frugal
Here we fall into a comparison trap. We see our parents not changing their value structure or spending money even though they are better off financially than they used to be. We read personal finance blogs espousing the virtues of living a frugal lifestyle by searching out the best deals on all products. We watch as our neighbors spend hours clipping coupons to save $50 at the grocery store.
It all looks so good and perhaps we really do try. But then when our efforts and deals don’t quite live up to the frugal level of others we feel guilty that we are not doing our best.
3. Because others are less fortunate
Everyone can look around and see someone who is in a less fortunate situation. Even the poorest in the United States are rich compared to those in other parts of the world. When we hear about others who are less fortunate and see the state in which they live it does cause us to reflect on our own spending patterns. This is yet another comparison trap issue. Whether it’s justified or not it can lead to feelings of guilt.
4. Because of religion
Being a person of faith this is a tough one for me to admit. I could write a whole post about this, but for now I see guilt being fostered from two angles as it relates to religion and faith:
1) A personal misinterpretation of theology. Many simply don’t truly understand what their faith teaches about the wise use of money. They have not taken the time to study and develop a clear understanding of how faith and money intersects with life. If verses or teachings are cherry-picked here and there without the proper context some really warped views can be developed.
2) The church. Sadly, in some circles, the church has deliberately taken verses and teachings out of context and used them to further the church’s agenda. Churches “guide” parishioners into how to spend their money using phrases like “that’s not what God wants” and “you’re not a good Christian if you don’t give your 10%.” So guilt develops if your money is being spent in ways that the church would say “would not honor or advance the kingdom of God.”
5. Because it wasn’t earned
This might not make initial sense. Hasn’t everyone earned the money they possess?
Not necessarily. Sometimes money that works its way into a family is generational.
Consider the case of someone who receives an inheritance. They didn’t earn the money themselves. It was given to them. And often with such money comes strings – both literal and emotional.
Literal strings would be written down expectations (including those required by the will) for how the money is to be used. Guilt would surface if the recipient can’t or chooses not to live up/follow those expectations.
Emotional strings produce an even more powerful form of guilt. Though the loved ones have passed away, the recipient of the money still feels connected to them. Guilt might surface if the heir doesn’t spend the money the way they think mom or dad or grandma and grandpa would have liked.
6. Because it was a bad expenditure
Let’s face it…sometimes that expenditure was just stupid. There was no reason we should have spent that money. We didn’t think it through, it was completely emotional and it led to some nasty consequences.
This is probably the easiest route to guilt. We really can beat ourselves up over poor decisions.
Having the Right Mindset about Money
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could spend money like the government? They don’t seem to care at all about how much money they spend or where it goes. Spend, spend, spend – totally guilt free with no remorse in sight.
While we don’t want to throw money around like that, I believe we can experience a guilt free existence when it comes to spending. But first it will require the proper mindset about what money actually is and how it should be properly used.
Have you ever tried to remove a bent nail with pliers? Doesn’t work very well. In my construction days I tried this on occasion when I’d left my hammer on the ground and didn’t want to climb down the ladder to get it.
Truth is the only tool specifically designed to drive in and remove nails is a hammer. That’s its job and why it was designed.
Money also functions as a tool. It helps us manage our day-to-day lives. Without it we’d have an awfully difficult time securing the basic necessities to live.
That’s why everyone should be guilt free when it comes to spending money on the basic necessities. Necessities are by definition indispensable. We require them to exist – well, at least in any reasonable fashion.
What might qualify as a basic necessity?
For starters that would include food. If we can’t eat we can’t survive.
We need shelter to protect us from the elements.
In that shelter we need heat, electricity and running water.
A reliable means of transportation would be another must have item.
And it would be an odd society if we didn’t provide ourselves with clothing.
In a nutshell that’s it as far as absolute necessities go. We could call these the five pillars of a budget – food, shelter, utilities, transportation and clothing.
No one should ever feel guilty about spending money on things essential to survival.
6 Tips and Strategies to Live Guilt Free
As our financial lives have progressed, my wife and I have developed a few practical strategies to live guilt free. In fact, we are working hard to remove spending guilt entirely from our lives. Here is what’s working for us.
1. Spend purposefully
I can be guilt free when I’m spending my money purposefully. What do I mean by that? Well, it all has to do with knowing exactly where my money is going and why it’s going there.
I’d experience some guilt if I spent $5,000 in a month but had no record of where the money went. I might have a vague idea about how much went where but nothing concrete to wrap my mind around. This is why budgeting comes in handy.
My wife and I prepare a budget before the month begins. Since we’ve been doing it for years our budget almost runs on autopilot. Now it usually takes less than 10 minutes for me to put it together.
But when it’s together we both know where our money is going for the coming month and we’ve decided before hand why it’s going there. So during the month when it comes time to spend the money on that thing we have no remorse or regrets about it. We’ve already planned to spend it that way.
2. Blow money
Within our budget my wife and I have a category we’ve named “Blow Money.” It’s named that because this is money we can use on absolutely anything we choose, even if it’s something spur of the moment.
Each month my wife and each get $50 in cash. She can spend hers on whatever she wants and I can spend mine on whatever I want. No checking in with the other person. No going back to the budget to “see if we can afford it.” No caring if the money is spent on something deemed unessential. It’s blown on whatever we choose.
Some months I spend all of mine. Others I spend none of it. But each month I get an additional $50 to use for whatever I wish.
We don’t consider this frivolous spending because we’ve budgeted for it. But I’ll tell you it absolutely helps offset guilt.
How often did you buy something not in the budget and then felt bad about it? Or worse yet, were caught by the one handling the household finances? Then you had to apologize for the 10 Starbucks coffees you bought that month that wrecked the food budget.
Blow money eliminates all that because you spend however you please without financial repercussions. It’s completely guilt free spending.
3. Spend on value
Within our budget we also try to spend on things of value. Outside of our blow money, nothing gets spent in a frivolous manner. Beyond the necessities we need to cover, we look for ways to use money to enhance our lives.
So this could include things like vacations, hobbies, recreation league sports for the kids, entertainment, paying for services (like lawn care or housecleaning) that free up our time, home improvements or even pet supplies.
Basically we are looking at anything that makes life more pleasurable or meaningful for us or that produces quality memories for our family.
What things bring you value? That’s for you to decide. But when you spend money in a way that gives you a meaningful return you’ll experience less guilt in the process.
4. Spend to impact others
Again within our budget we allocate a specific amount of money each month to be given away. For us that money goes out to support the ministry of our local church. It’s a planned giving strategy that helps us impact the world around us.
When you are being intentional and consistent with your giving it helps remove the guilt you might have from spending money on yourself.
But it doesn’t have to be about giving money to a church or a charitable organization. There are other ways to use money that can have an impact on people.
You could purchase a gift for a friend’s birthday. You could take a trip to see a relative you hadn’t seen in a long time. You could spend money to provide a meal for someone who just came home from the hospital. You could help fund a person’s college education. You could…the list really could go on and on here.
Impacting others with your money is such a guilt buster because the focus is not on you.
5. Practice targeted savings for purchases
A great portion of our guilt comes from spur-of-the-moment purchases. The worst are the really BIG ones prompted by a special sale or promotion that “we just couldn’t pass up.” It’s not that we really needed the item we just wanted it and got caught up in the emotion of the moment.
To avoid this practice and the guilt that comes (known as buyer’s remorse) from it, we learned how to save for big purchases well in advance. We anticipate what the need will be, when it might come to fruition and then begin saving money ahead of time to use for the eventual purchase.
For example, my wife and I are currently saving for a new-to-us car. We’ve been saving for over two years, putting aside some money each month. That money is parked in our savings account.
All the money we have in our savings account we allocate for a specific purpose and keep track of our progress in an Excel spreadsheet. So in our savings account we have money designated for the car, our emergency fund, our summer vacation, and a dozen other expenditures we know are coming in the future.
This takes a good deal of planning and discipline to not use the money on something else. We won’t purchase that item until we have met our savings goal, no matter if we see a deal in the meantime. Then when it comes time to buy it we can do so guilt free knowing we’ve planned for the moment a long time ago.
(Here is a downloadable .pdf document of how our Excel spreadsheet looks.)
6. Forgive yourself and let go
We are all going to make a spending mistake at some point. Whether it’s a big one or small one we’ll inevitably mess up at some point. We cannot be on top of our game 100% of the time.
When that happens it will be vital that you not let the guilt foster. You may feel it come but you can’t dwell on it. You can’t let it begin to eat away at your life.
You must be able to forgive yourself for messing up and let the guilt go. Otherwise it will lead to further problems.
I had such a situation last year where I made a silly spending mistake because I hadn’t cancelled a credit card. Not only did I experience an initial wave of guilt for spending money I hadn’t intended, but I also felt guilty because I hadn’t cancelled the card. It was a double whammy that left me feeling awful.
But once I took care of it and cancelled the card it was done. No dwelling on it over and over. No rehashing it and beating myself up. No reliving it every day.
I forgave myself for the mistake, let it go and moved on. I haven’t felt guilty about it at all since then.
A Life of Guilt Free Spending
I can’t guarantee that if you practice some of the things I’ve discussed you will live guilt free forever. I think guilt is really good at popping up from time to time.
I guess the big issues are a) how can we keep guilt from playing such a prominent role in our lives and b) what how do we respond when it does come? I believe and have seen these guilt free strategies work in my own life so hopefully they will prove fruitful for you as well.
Questions: What are some other possible origins (sources) of guilt? Do you experience spending guilt? How do you respond when the guilt comes? What other suggestions do you have for living guilt free?
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