During my junior year in college I was forced to do something I didn't want to do: Plan a budget. My father demanded it of me. With great resentment I went through six months worth of checkbook and credit card statements and used highlighters to color code my expenditures into 10 different categories. I then came up with a monthly average for each category.
It was not until a decade later that I realized the simple exercise of learning to manage your money is the best investment you can make. But it's not a thinking exercise -- it's an emotional one. And that is precisely what makes it so difficult to do.
Like me, you may feel dread at the thought of taking a cold, hard look at where your money goes. If you struggle with this, I understand. At one point in my life I was up to my eyeballs in credit card debt. I can tell you from experience the feeling of reward and satisfaction that comes from gaining control of your money is unparalleled. But if it feels so good, why is it so hard to do?
I found the answer to this question when I heard Denise Hughes, a financial coach and author of "Earn Save Spend Give," speak at a Financial Planning Association meeting several years ago. Hughes shared five emotional reasons behind spending and five types of overspenders. You may recognize yourself in some of the behaviors described below.
Emotional reasons for spending too much
The motivation behind bad money behavior is emotional, not cognitive. You can't think your way out of it. To develop better habits you need to determine how you feel and what is going on inside of you. Here are five emotional motivations that cause a disconnect between you and your money decisions. When you learn to recognize these states, your decisions will improve.
Love and belonging. If you have trouble creating connections and meaningful relationships, you may buy things to meet the need of "love."
Play and fun. If you are a workaholic, spending can become a substitution for fun and play in your life. You may meet this need with a fun purchase or expensive vacation instead of creating a more balanced life.
Personal power. Is your spending always someone else's fault? You had to because...? If you feel like your life is out of your control, spending can create a false sense of control or power at the time. You may also use it to unconsciously get back at someone or prove something.
Freedom. Do you feel trapped by life circumstances, an unsatisfying job or unhappy relationship? Spending can increase in this situation because it feels like an area where you can exercise choice. If you feel trapped, you may overspend.
Sadness. People experiencing sadness spend 30 percent more than people in other chronic emotional states. Spending can feel like a way to fill the emptiness that sadness brings.
5 Types of Overspenders
Connecting with the underlying emotional reason behind your behavior isn't always easy. Overspenders tend to fall into one of the following five categories. If you exhibit these behaviors, that's a sign you need to pause and examine your spending habits.
1. Image spenders use money in highly visible ways. If you frequently pick up the tab, drive a flashy or prestigious vehicle and wear designer clothing, this may be you. Image spenders crave preferential treatment, and their motto is "If I look successful, I am successful."
2. Bargain-hunting spenders are all about "getting the deal." Your satisfaction comes from talking the seller down and making a killing. It's not about getting a good value -- it's about the negotiation process.
3. Compulsive shoppers use shopping as a distraction from unwanted negative feelings. You may have purchased items that have remained unused, and the tags are still on them. Another sign of this behavior is when you lose yourself in the fantasy of what an item will do for you or how it will change your life.
4. Co-dependent spenders spend on others to win approval, acceptance or love at any cost. You may rationalize your purchase because it's for another person or family member or tend to justify your behavior because you want to provide for your children.
5. Bulimic spenders are often high earners. Some successful people get rid of their money (by spending) and return to a broke state because that is what feels comfortable to them. One sign of this: Feeling shame when you look back on your decisions.
Ways to make improvements
If you recognize yourself in any of the above behaviors, there is good news: You can change. Hughes shared many tips on how to make progress. Here are five things she suggests:
-- Awareness. Be aware of your feelings: Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired?
-- Get excited. It's empowering what you can accomplish when you have control of your money. Connect with other goals, and become passionate about them.
-- Use cash. Studies show people spend more when they use credit cards than when they use cash. (It's easier to swipe that card than physically hand over your money.) So give your cards a rest, and shop with cash.
-- Look ahead -- not behind. Look toward the future rather than what you did last month. At the beginning of each month, create a plan and tell your dollars where to go.
-- Change comes from the inside. Changing behavior has to come from an emotional root. Behavior has three components: thoughts, feelings and actions. In order to change behavior, you have to change all three, and they have to be congruent.
Think of yourself one year from now. Maybe even write yourself a note, and put it on your calendar one year out. What do you want to say to the future you, and what changes are you willing to make now, so that future you is in a better place? I can tell you from experience, change isn't easy, but it's worth it. Gaining control of your spending, and the underlying emotional causes, will be the best investment you'll ever make.
Dana Anspach, certified retirement planner, retirement management analyst, Kolbe Certified Consultant, is the founder of Sensible Money, LLC, a registered investment advisor with a focus on retirement income planning based in Arizona. She is the author of "Control Your Retirement Destiny" (Apress), writes for About.com as its Expert on MoneyOver55 and contributes to MarketWatch as a RetireMentor.
More From US News & World Report
- Personal Finance - Career & Education