If life’s anxieties have you hitting the comfort food, you’re not alone. A recent study published in the journal Neuron found that people who are stressed have more difficulty with self-control and are more likely to make unhealthy decisions when it comes to their diet.1 So budget woes can make you splurge on a bakery visit, which then leads to even more budget stress? Talk about a vicious circle.
But there is a way to break free of this pattern. “Money is emotional, and we’re always going to make emotional decisions, but it’s better to be in the front leading that decision-making process rather than being pushed by those emotions without a plan,” says Jacquette M. Timmons, a financial behaviorist and author of “Financial Intimacy.”
A strict moratorium on all treats might seem like a fast way to whip your life into shape, but it can quickly backfire into a spending (and calories) extravaganza. Just like a diet, the key to building better financial habits is moderation. The trick, Timmons says, is to know yourself and be aware of conditions that are likely to trigger an impulsive and unhealthy purchase you’ll regret.
“Take a look at your banking and credit card statements for the past three months and highlight any transaction that was unplanned,” she recommends. “Then write down how you were feeling at that time and look for patterns.” Maybe you always head for impromptu drinks with a pal after a crazy day at work, or you swing through the drive-thru for dinner on nights that you feel too overwhelmed to cook. You likely got emotional benefits from those purchases on top of the margaritas and the takeout—you talked through work troubles with your friend and felt less crazed when you didn’t have to cook.
“Some things you can replace with activities that don’t cost any money, but for other things, think about a price threshold,” Timmons says. If you swap whiskey for a walk with your friend, would you get the same emotional support—and spare yourself the expense and calories? If the answer is yes, suggest a walk instead.
But if you really enjoy connecting over cocktails, just set a budget for yourself—say, $20 a week for post-work pal time. “If that’s a reasonable threshold for your cash flow, then spend it without self-judgment,” Timmons says. Planning for that treat ahead of time and knowing you can afford it take the stress out of indulging. And with less stress comes more self-control. That means you can enjoy that indulgence more (during and after happy hour) and are more likely to cut yourself off when you’ve hit your limit.
“There’s nothing worse than feeling really excited when you’re spending money and then beating yourself up afterward,” Timmons says. “But figuring out what causes you money stress—that emotional piece—makes it easier to get out of your own way, so when you do spend, you’re spending without regret.”