As a psychotherapist specializing in money problems, I've been helping others with their compulsive spending for years. This work, along with some of my discoveries about my own spending habits, has led me to a serious conviction.
What I believe deeply is that those of you who learned to indulge yourselves on the surface as a way of responding to emotional needs -- when you're feeling stressed, unloved, lonely, sad or even celebratory -- may often be blocking the path to true self-nurturing and self-love. In other words, indulging yourself "on the skin level" can rob you not only of money but also of the time and energy you need to nurture yourself at your core.
But let's backtrack and first ask the question: Why do we turn to spending when our feelings are a little hard to handle?
One possible culprit is the powerful presence of advertising in our culture, which blasts at us from every direction, suggesting that if we could only just be driving that car or using that hairspray our lives would be fulfilled, happy, successful.
And then there are various individual reasons for overspending. For instance, those of you who were spoiled and overindulged as children (I'm a prime example) often feel unseen and unloved in a deeper way. Spending is your clumsy attempt to make yourself feel more visible and more loved.
That is only one kind of spending trigger. There are numerous triggers out there, and yours may be something else entirely. But as anyone who has experienced the remorse of overspending knows, all these triggers lead to a single, negative result. When you face a credit card bill you can't pay that month (or perhaps for many months), you just feel worse than ever. Instead of giving yourself more value through spending, you feel out of control, embarrassed, cheapened.
The key to "jamming the trigger" of your overspending? It's simple but difficult at the same time: You need to find a more satisfying alternative -- something that will nurture you on a deeper level. One client I know sings; another calls friends for meaningful conversation; another takes hot baths with incense; another paints watercolor flowers in nature.
My own deepest experience of this self-nurturing as a substitute for spending came around October a few years ago. This is my birthday season, and I am usually quite needy around that time of year, with my shopaholic tendencies in full bloom (I like to buy clothes). But that one year, I didn't go on a spending spree. Instead, I was busy making a memorial tape of music that reminded me of my best friend from high school, who had died of AIDS.
I played and sang the songs and found tapes and CDs with other music he loved. I steeped myself in this satisfying process of honoring his memory. Even though I felt sad at times, it also was a joyful process that really satisfied my deeper needs. During the period when I made the tape, my desire to overspend in clothing stores disappeared entirely. As a result of that experience I have become more conscious of taking time around my birthday (which I know is a "trigger" time for me). Now I am careful to think about my core needs and what would be best to do about them. I might decide to take a beautiful walk. I might ask friends to gather around me so we can all sing show tunes together.
So give yourself a chance to do something like this too. Explore what nurtures you deeply, what increases your sense of fulfillment, self-love and self-worth, and do it more and more often -- especially when you are stressed or feel the urge to spend money impulsively (or to overeat impulsively, for that matter).
If you practice this, you should find that your urge to spend abates and in its place you will be filled with more peace and contentment than you ever imagined.