Hope for your financial life and beyond

How to Enjoy a Life of Guilt Free Spending

guilt freeI would love to enjoy a guilt free life, especially when it comes to spending money. Have you 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.”

If you’ve had that thought, then you know you spend the rest of the day kicking yourself and feeling like you’ve done something wrong. Additionally, some time during that same day might be spent seeking forgiveness from your spouse, which can always be a tense situation. And to top it all off, you will spend the rest of the month struggling to figure out how to make the budget cover your spending decision.

Guilt is powerful. But have you ever stopped to consider why?

6 Possible Origins of Our Guilt

Money is a powerful tool in our lives. So why does guilt consume us at times when we spend it? And where did all this guilt come from in the first place?

I think the root of guilt can be traced to several factors, some of which may have started long ago in your childhood.

1. Because of upbringing

Many children saw their 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. They saved money over time to pay for it. Spur of the moment purchases rarely happened. 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, guilt surfaces because it conflicts with the values they were taught as a child.

2. Because others are being frugal

This kind of guilt results from falling into a comparison trap. We see our parents, other family members or friends not changing their spending values even though they are better off financially than they were in an earlier stage of life. All over the Internet, personal finance blogs promote the virtues of living a frugal lifestyle.  Commercials and other advertisements encourage us to search out the best deals on all products. And we watch as our neighbors spend hours clipping coupons to save $50 at the grocery store.

It all looks and sounds so right and perhaps we really do try for a time. But then when our efforts and the 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.

Related Content: 15 Bible Verses About Helping the Poor You Need to Know

4. Because of religion

If you are a person of faith, this is a tough one to admit. I see guilt developing from two angles as it relates to religion and faith:

1) A personal misinterpretation of theology. Many simply don’t 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.

Related Content: 8 Important Questions to Ask When Setting Up an Inheritance

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 to or follow those expectations.

Emotional strings produce an even more powerful form of guilt. Though the loved one has 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 you should have spent that money. You 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 requires the proper mindset about what money actually is and how it should be properly used. An example here would help bring this into focus.

Have you ever tried to remove a bent nail with pliers? Doesn’t work very well. When I worked at a construction job during college, I tried this on occasion when I’d accidentally left my hammer on the ground and didn’t want to climb down the ladder to get it.

The truth is the only tool specifically designed to drive in and remove nails is a hammer. That’s its job.

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.

What might qualify as a basic necessity? For starters that would include food. 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. And it would be an odd society if we didn’t wear clothing.

No one should ever feel guilty about spending money on these five absolute necessities.

Related Content: Plan Your Budget Around These Five Expenses

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 does that mean? 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.

Related Content: The Ultimate Guide on How to Make the Best Monthly Budget

But when it’s done together, we both know where our money is going for the coming month. We’ve decided beforehand 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, we have a category 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 $100 in cash. She can spend hers on whatever she wants and I can spend mine on whatever I want. There is 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 $100 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?  Then you had to apologize for what you bought 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.

Related Content: Price Limits, Blow Money and the 24-hr. Rule

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 to use money on 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.

Related Content: How to Develop a Purposeful Plan for Giving Away Money

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. Or you could take a trip to see a relative you hadn’t seen in a long time. Maybe you could spend money to provide a meal for someone who just came home from the hospital or help fund a person’s college education. The list could go on and on.

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.

Related Content: The Un-American Way: Saving for Purchases

All the money we have in our savings account we allocate for a specific purpose. We keep track of our progress in an Excel spreadsheet. So in our savings account, we have money designated for things like a new car, our emergency fund, summer vacations, 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.

And when we are really excited about saving for a purchase, we’ve taken steps to ramp up our savings for that item quickly. We have found that setting a savings goal to spend money on something specific motivates us to find ways to save we hadn’t previously thought of.  There are all kinds of avenues by which this can happen to put money in your bank account and inch closer to your savings goal. Even simple tasks like filling out surveys will bring in some extra cash so you can save faster. Other methods of earning a bit more might range from selling unwanted items at a garage sale, putting in a few extra hours at work or finding a second job for a time. 

(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. 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 or have it 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 once 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. I didn’t dwell 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. And in some cases, it’s not all bad if it leads us to make a positive change in our life.

However, 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. Hopefully, these will prove fruitful for you as well.

Leave a Comment Below or Answer a Question: 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?

Image courtesy of Tico at Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. This is why I bring if not an exact amount, a sufficient amount of money to spend on food when I head out for work. There are too much distractions in the outside world.

  2. Dolph Hoover says

    This is why we need to plan our expenditures in advance so that we wouldn’t have financial accidents. There will be several exceptions but to me subjectively, health problems are my only exception in spending in excess.

    • “…health problems…” Yeah, I can see that. We will do/pay almost anything to return our body to a healthy state of functioning.

      • Randolph Hoover says

        Another exception I think regarding spending too much is If I had children and a whole family to raise. Their needs and happiness will be my main objective for work.

  3. Good article. Back when we were in the process of trying to get out of debt, I remember often feeling like it was my stupid decisions that got me into the mess we had, I couldn’t very well expect God to bail me out. I know that is a very dumb, legalistic way of looking at it, but I still had times I felt that way. I had to consciously allow myself the grace of accepting that God was not holding it against me that I had messed up in some of those areas. In truth just as I am pleased when I see my son do something that is wise, I think God is delighted when he looks down and sees one of his children who has messed up in the areas of money (or other things) now trying to change and make wiser decisions. Guilt though can be a powerful force that can hold us back from seeking the help of the one who is most on our side.

    • “…God was not holding it against me that I had messed up…” That is indeed a big hurdle for us to get over. It’s fitting that we would think that though based on our interactions with others. People do often hold things over one another and so we naturally project that onto God and think he does the same. I agree…God does not hold our mistakes over our heads. He does want us to learn from them though. I’ve noticed he has found interesting ways to get me back on the right track to making wiser decisions. Thanks for the comment Bob!

  4. Even Steven says

    I think I had some guilt that led to good things, including paying off debt. Although I do remember buying a really expensive suit for me(my first), it was like $700 and when I told my now wife about it years later, I did feel guilty, maybe a little more dumb than guilty…..I didn’t get the job, I mean didn’t they know I just bought that suit.

    • “…didn’t they know I just bought that suit.” Haha…dressing to impress. I’ve done that before. And you make a good point…guilt can lead to positive action. It doesn’t all have to be viewed negatively.

  5. I try not to feel guilty about our spending, though occasionally it gets the best of me. For the most part we automate all the savings/bills up front, so there’s no really worry about what’s in the checking account.

  6. We automate some of our household purchases by using subscriptions from Amazon and Target (with a discount and free shipping). We grocery shop once per week, almost always at ALDI. So we have a routine to spending on necessities so that we don’t need to think hard about what we want or need by constantly being in stores. The nice thing about this is that when we decide we want something outside of our routine, we feel free to get it because we know we haven’t been frittering away money on silly purchases, because we don’t shop much.

    • I’m about to check out ALDI myself. How has your experience been? Our grocery bill seems outrageous to me. Shopping for a family of six is tough.

  7. I used to get down on myself when I made a dumb purchase but no longer do. I still make dumb purchases, but instead of putting myself down, I look to see why I made the purchase. I then do my bests to learn from the mistake so that I don’t repeat it.

    The easiest one to overcome was buying junk food at the grocery store. As long as I shop when I am not hungry, I don’t buy the junk. The hardest one has been overcoming when I am tired. When I am tired, I don’t feel like cooking and tend to order a pizza or something else that isn’t good for me. I’ve been working on making sure I get enough sleep so that being tired is an exception.

    • “…I look to see why I made the purchase.” That’s a great evaluative step Don. Most people aren’t doing that and thus aren’t learning from their mistakes.

  8. Brian,

    Thanks for your post. What are your thoughts of spending 3 months to compile a 170 page ebook that I think will help people financially for under $10, and then donate all the money to a charity that focuses on financial education? The idea is to create a perpetual passive income for charity.


    • I think that’s a great idea Sam. It’s a win for the buyer and the charity.

      I’m not sure you’d have to get that involved though. Writing an ebook would be a worthy experience and create value but would involve a lot of time. You could simply regularly donate a portion of income to charity. I know Pauline at Reach Financial Independence does that. She takes 10% of her blog revenue and donates it to support children’s education in the village where she lives in Guatemala. Here is what she’s doing: http://reachfinancialindependence.com/charity-pledge-education-october/

    • If you did write an ebook though maybe make it a collaborative effort? Bring other bloggers in to write some of the content. That would spread out the work and reduce the time to put it together. Plus the reach of the book would be expanded as those bloggers would promote it on their site.

  9. My previous financial mistakes lead to me feeling guilty now whenever I spend anything. At one time I had no disposable income because of being heavily in debt. Now I save almost all of my disposable income because the memories of all the bad times are just so strong still. I feel like I have to make up for lost time.

    • I don’t think you are alone Hayley. Hopefully time and doing right in the present will help heal the memories of the past. I know it was very freeing to get to the point where we could enjoy our money and not be wrapped up in what we did in the past.

  10. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says

    This kind of feeling of guilt happens to me many times whenever I buy things. It was like keeping asking myself the importance of the thing I bought or the decision I made. I just don’t know why. It’s like it’s hard to let go, but I know I gotta learn this type of mindset. Thanks for the tips, Brian.

  11. I for sure have the “Catholic guilt”. It’s a nice reminder how inhibiting it is and why it’s important to move past it in order to grow and be happy.

  12. I definitely enjoy a life of guilt-free spending because I follow those rules, Brian. But I work every day with people who feel immense guilt over their spending and it’s typically has to do with at least one of those 6 origins you highlighted. As I’ve always said money is emotional and when we don’t have a good handle our money emotions, we don’t have a good handle on our money. Because we budget and give our money purpose, I don’t feel bad or guilty when I buy things – I feel great joy because we’re using our money as intended. I do think “blow money” is also a great idea because there needs to be a balance between accountability as a couple but also not feeling micromanaged because I want to buy a cup of coffee. 🙂

    • “…not feeling micromanaged because I want to buy a cup of coffee.” Haha…my wife would not like that either. 🙂 And I agree with you 100%…there is great joy that comes when you are being intentional with your spending.

  13. We have conquered guilt over spending by A) getting our financial picture together and getting our debt paid off, and B) working to be good stewards of all that we have. All of the guilt we previously had about spending was because we weren’t managing our money well, and deep down, we knew it.

  14. I have no trouble spending for planned expenses. It’s the last minute things that tend to cause guilt, even if it is something unavoidable. I think it’s because of our past problems with spending. I never want to go back to that lifestyle. I know it won’t happen, but I still feel guilty. Maybe it is the religious upbringing?

    • “… It’s the last minute things that tend to cause guilt…” I can so relate to this Kim. I feel guilty too when that happens because I know I haven’t planned well.

  15. I was raised by a very frugal parent(s). Actually, my mom was much worse than my dad although he never spent foolishly. To this day, I believe my mother actually feels pain when she spends money. She would rather not have an income than to have it but have to spend money. Strange, I know. I am glad to be thrifty and not spend foolishly, but I do frequently feel guilt when I buy something I don’t really need, or pay more than thrift store price for it.

    Your number 4 above gets me a lot of times. The relationship a person has with God regarding money is an interesting one that I still have a lot of learning to do. I think God wants us to be happy with the financial resources He has bestowed on us. However, I’ve read many articles/books that argue you should live like a pauper in order to return God’s gifts to him. (I keep wondering why He would give it to us just to expect us to return it to him, but that’s another thing I have to wrap my brain around.) We are made to feel guilty if we buy a designer handbag rather than one from Walmart, or even just carry our money in our pocket. Or should we buy jeans from a thrift store rather than Macy’s because we could give the difference to the church? We need food but do we need steak, or even hamburger? We are often cited the example of the old woman in the temple who gave her last coin to the church and are made to feel guilty if we don’t do the same. People who claim to be religious leaders frequently force that guilt feeling on others in order to acquire more of the person’s wealth…..always in the name of God.

    This post today was one of your best and represents the reason I come to your blog. Lots of thought provoking material here.

    • Thanks for sharing Kathy! Your compliment made my day! 🙂

      I wholeheartedly disagree with this – “…many articles/books that argue you should live like a pauper in order to return God’s gifts to him.” That’s a misuse of what the Bible teaches. While there are examples of people who gave it all to God (Barnabas is one name that comes to mind), that’s not what God expects or desires for all (I’d say even for almost all) of us.

      The Bible teaches us to be a steward of the resources God gives. Clearly that involves the wise use of money and how we spend it. I do not find the Bible teaching to give it all away. If we did where would the resources come to fund the ministry? Or missionaries? Or other charities doing humanitarian work?

      My perspective is to generously give away my money and grow the rest to be a lot of money. The more wealthy I become the more I can leverage that wealth to help people, the church and ultimately issues that matter to God.

  16. The only time I experience guilt is if I’m “worried” about money. For instance I just bought a ticket to fincon because I know it’s a good business decision, but felt kind of guilty that I didn’t really “plan” to spend money on that right now.

    • I wonder if you would have felt the same way if you would have planned for it and bought the ticket at a later date. Of course, then you probably would have felt guilty for not taking advantage of the early bird discount. 🙂

  17. I LOVE that you and your wife have a “blow money” section of your budget. I encourage my clients to do something similar with their leftover cash once all of their needs are met. It does help them manage through the guilt of spending while also not impacting their short and long term financial goals.

    • I don’t remember how we figured that out but it’s incredibly freeing. And the key is what you mentioned…it doesn’t impact our short or long-term goals.

  18. I have a tendency to feel guilty about a lot of things and I blame it on the way I was raised! I still feel guilty spending money sometimes, but I’m getting better.

    • “…blame it on the way I was raised!” I think it’s that way for a lot of people Holly. We all carry some baggage from our childhood into our adult lives.

  19. Being raised in the church I have seen people give the last that they have and go home to a dark house because the lights are off. I have a serious problem with that. I do believe in giving my 10%, but I will not give a penny more unless I’m being moved by the spirit.

    • “…give the last that they have and go home to a dark house because the lights are off.” Yes…that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Really backwards thinking on the use of money and not grounded in any solid Biblical teaching.

  20. I’ve definitely experienced spending guilt in the past. For me it has come up when I’ve gone shopping at a time when I am feeling sad or upset about something. Because I know this about myself, I try hard not to go to any stores when I am feeling this way. It often leads to spending money that I don’t need to spend. If it happens I try not to beat myself up about it- although I have in the past returned items that I bought during an emotional spend! I find that when I’m taking better care of myself (exercising, getting enough sleep, etc) this doesn’t happen as often, so this is part of my motivation to take good care of myself 🙂

    • “…when I am feeling sad or upset about something.” Haha…I’ve been there Dee! That type of spending to medicate emotion is entirely self-serving and easily leads to guilt feelings.

  21. I think you essentially covered all the bases here so I have no ideas as far as what additional origins of guilt are. I don’t think guilt is always a bad thing. As you pointed out, there could easily be guilt due to recognizing that you are spending money on something that you really don’t need to spend money on while there are those who are less fortunate who could really use the money for necessities.

    • “I don’t think guilt is always a bad thing.” I’d agree with that DC. Guilt can drive us to take positive action. I just really don’t like it when other people use it as a weapon.

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