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Making the decision to work part-time was a hard pill to swallow. I decided to give up 50% of my income to work 3 days/week at a less stressful job.

I was sure that it would greatly improve our lives. Given my mental health challenges, living a happier and healthier life was the highest priority. Speeding up our timeline to reach financial independence was lower on the list.

I had no idea how much this decision would improve our lives. 

I went from working 50+ hours/week at a toxic job to 24 hours/week in a great work environment. I cut my commute in half and no longer needed to face traffic, as I started taking public transportation to work. 

I now have 30+ hours of my life back every week!

I have been able to:

  • Focus on my mental and physical well-being (including sleeping 8+ hours per night)
  • Learn to manage my anxiety
  • Work on passion projects
  • Focus on my relationships with friends and family
  • Not feel like I needed to rush through everything just to get onto the next thing

Over the course of a year, I completely recovered from burnout.

I vividly remember having friends over for Thanksgiving and seeing how exhausted and burned out everyone was. I remembered that feeling, where every action felt like a slog. Instead, I was full of energy and happily did most of the cooking and cleaning.

Beyond feeling 100 times happier and more energized, something really surprising happened.

We realized that we spent a lot less money.

When I say a lot less, I mean a lot less.

We spent $17,000 less in the first year after I quit my toxic job and went back to work part-time. That comes out to be an average of $1,400/month.

Life felt the same. Actually, life felt better. 

We decided to dig into our spending to figure out how this was possible.

We had expected our costs to increase because of my health issues. They had, but we still spend $17,000 less.

We finally dug into our spending to understand what was going on. We realized that we spend significantly less in 4 categories:

  • Groceries
  • Restaurants
  • Travel
  • General Merchandise

Not surprisingly, all this spending could be linked to emotional spending triggers. 

What Are Emotional Spending Triggers?

Spending is usually a response to some sort of trigger. Some triggers are very helpful. For example, if I’m outside for a long period of time in the sun and I forgot to bring water, I’ll get thirsty and buy a bottle of water. If I move to a place that has colder winters, I’ll get cold and decide to buy a warmer winter coat.

But, sometimes spending is triggered by negative emotions. We might then spend significant amounts of money on things that don’t actually help. 

Here are some common emotional spending triggers:

  1. Exhaustion: If we are tired and burned out, we might buy things that make our life easier, such as take-out from a restaurant for dinner or groceries that are super easy to make. 
  2. Unhappiness: When we feel miserable from the life that we’ve created for ourselves, we might start to feel like we “deserve” to treat ourselves. We work so hard, so we might as well enjoy the spoils of our labor. 
  3. Comparison: When we look around and compare ourselves to others, we might not feel like our lives reflect our desired external (or even internal) image. 
  4. Fleeting Happiness: When we are acutely aware that we are feeling happy (and recognize that this doesn’t happen often), we might decide we will do anything (or buy anything) to keep the good feelings going.
  5. Boredom/Meaninglessness: Sometimes we feel bored or like our life doesn’t have meaning. This could cause us to look for short-term solutions like retail therapy or a night out to give us a quick hit of dopamine.
  6. Fear of Scarcity: If we’ve experienced scarcity in our lives, we might have a tendency to overbuy things, especially if they are on sale. 

Types of Emotional Spending

Sometimes, instead of addressing the underlying issues, we look for a quick fix. When we spend money to help ourselves feel better momentarily, it’s a bandaid solution that usually only addresses the symptoms. 

Here are some common ways emotional spending triggers could impact us. 

Buying Convenience

Buying convenience is often triggered by burnout or exhaustion. For us, convenience looks like buying take-out and buying pre-made or easy to make groceries because we were too tired to actually cook what we had. For others, this might be meal kit delivery, a housecleaner, contracted yard maintenance, and more. 

Spending Money to Escape or “Treat Yo’ Self”

This type of spending is often triggered by unhappiness or boredom. If I’m not happy with what I’m doing, I might as well enjoy the spoils of my labor. For me, escape looks like luxury vacations (who cares about finding a deal?) to get away from my life for a period of time. Sometimes, it looks like dinners out or massages to escape my life for a few hours.

Retail Therapy

When we feel bad (tired, unhappy, bored, etc.), we might turn to retail therapy to get the quick hit of dopamine to make ourselves feel better. When I started working part-time, we cut our “general merchandise” spending by $4,000. I have absolutely no idea what we spent $4,000 on the year before. It was the random purchases from Amazon and Target that clearly didn’t add a lot of value to our lives because I don’t even remember what we bought.

Aspirational Spending

Aspirational spending is often triggered when we compare ourselves with other people. We then start thinking about what we should want or the image we want to project to the world.

For example, we have hundreds of books. In college and soon after, Corey and I were in a book phase. We looked around people’s houses (particularly our professors who we looked up to) and saw that they had built-in bookshelves and entire libraries. We wanted to be like them, so we accumulated (so many) books.

For others, this might be extra clothing that you might not need for “the job you want” or exercise equipment that you never use. It could also include much larger purchases like a large house in a neighborhood you feel like you should want to live in.

Hoarding or Stocking up

If people have a fear of scarcity (especially if that scarcity is not a reality), it can cause people to hoard or stock up on things. Some people (like us…) have a second set of almost everything.

I hesitated to write about this one because we still struggle with it. To illustrate our struggle, last year we did a minimalist challenge. We got rid of 500 items in our house, and we barely noticed. In fact, I’d like to do another minimalist challenge because I doubt we’d notice an extra 500 items leave our house.

To be clear, stocking up on certain items can be a good thing. It’s essential to be prepared for a lot of different disaster scenarios. We’ve stocked up on non-perishable and frozen foods during the pandemic because we were starting to get worried about the supply chain. 

But, stocking up can have dark sides too. Sometimes, we spend too much money on things we don’t need so that we can have back-ups of everything.

It’s important to find the right balance. We’re still figuring out ours.   

How to Curb Emotional Spending

I often hear about people trying to reign in their spending by having more discipline. While some discipline is good, it can backfire. People sometimes get even more burned out. Their pursuit of being good with money then feels like deprivation or punishment.

It’s important to become aware of what causes us to overspend in the first place. Then, we can address the underlying issue. 

Once we become aware of our emotional spending, we can use it as an indicator of what we are feeling. I recommend looking at your spending at least once/month to see if you are spending more or less in any particular area.

If I notice that I’m spending more money than usual on something, it’s often a sign that I need to evaluate what’s going on in my life.

Once we identify an issue, we can figure out what emotion was linked to the spending. Different types of emotional spending can be linked to different triggers. For me:

  • Convenience is often linked to exhaustion.
  • “Treat Yo’ Self” can be linked to unhappiness.
  • Retail therapy is often linked to boredom.
  • Overbuying can be linked to a fear of scarcity.
  • Aspirational spending is often linked to envy. 

Once we understand the issue and the emotion attached to it, we can figure out the underlying issue and address it directly.

In cases where we can’t do anything to change our situation, the awareness of the issue can usually also help us find a better and more healthy solution.

Curb Emotional Spending by Addressing the Underlying Issue

If we stay on autopilot and don’t address the underlying issues, it can become a vicious cycle. We spend more money to make our lives feel more bearable. Then we need to work more to pay for the things we buy. Working more can sometimes exacerbate the issues, causing us to spend more. On and on this vicious cycle continues. 

As I’ve shared, I was extremely burned out at my previous job. Because of this, I’d order take-out multiple times per week. I felt like I deserved to “treat myself” to massages and fancy dinners. It didn’t actually make a difference. Yet, we felt like we needed to make more money so that we could continue to increase our savings rate. We thought that would allow us to finally get out of this cycle.

Instead, we flipped this vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle by the underlying issues in our lives. After I quit my toxic job and started working less, I no longer felt the need to spend money to treat myself and to make life more bearable. Since we were spending less, I felt comfortable continuing to work less because it wasn’t hindering us from reaching our goals.

When you design a life you love and address your spending triggers, it becomes a virtuous cycle. You’ll likely spend less without it feeling like a burden because you’ll have more time and energy to plan and do things more methodically. Spending less then allows you to spend less time on activities solely for the purpose of generating income. On and on this virtuous cycle continues. 

Originally, we thought that by taking a part-time job, our financial independence timeline would increase by 2-3 years. We’ve actually found that it’s stayed the same because we’ve decreased our spending significantly. We’re now continuing to focus on ways we can improve our lives, and we know that it won’t impact our spending negatively. 

Treat Yo’ Self” to Things You Truly Value

We all know that some types of spending can add a lot of value and happiness to our lives. We’ve written about our best lifestyle inflation decisions, such as getting a dog, in-unit laundry, a dishwasher, and moving to a high cost of living area. These things have all added a lot of value to our lives. 

Puppy Dog grass lifestyle inflation

I was recently interviewed on the Joyful Frugalista Podcast, and the host asked me about the culture of treating yourself. I don’t necessarily think that treating yourself is bad.

What’s most important is to understand why we are treating ourselves.

Is it because we are exhausted, miserable, or bored? If so, treating ourselves isn’t going to help with the underlying issue. We might feel better at the moment, but it will be a short-term fix. 

However, if we’re treating ourselves because it’s something we know will add a lot of value and happiness to our lives, great! I’m all for treating ourselves in that way. 

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