Money

Spending guilt: “Why do I feel bad about spending money, even though I’ve worked hard for it?”

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Lauren Geall
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We all know how valuable it can be to treat ourselves every once in a while – so why are so many of us struggling with guilt when it comes to spending money? We asked a psychologist to explain.

At the weekend, I bought a laptop. It wasn’t an impulse purchase – I’d been saving up for quite some time, and I’d spent hours researching exactly what spec I needed and where I was going to buy it from.

I also knew I could afford it. Moving back home with my parents during lockdown has allowed me to save a considerable amount of money, and I felt confident that this purchase was an investment for years to come. But still, when I clicked buy, I couldn’t avoid the fact that I felt – and still feel – uncomfortably guilty about spending my own money.

I couldn’t even start this article without giving some justification about why I bought something. God forbid I decided to buy something on a whim or didn’t spend hours reading up about what I was going to buy. Despite knowing that my money is really nobody’s business but my own, I can’t help but shake the need to justify my spending to everyone in my life.

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This isn’t an uncommon experience. After all, money is an inextricably emotional topic. It’s so much more than the numbers that pop up on our screens – the amount of money we have, and the way we choose to spend that money – defines the way we navigate society. Not only does money give us opportunities – to rent a house, to buy food, to socialise with friends – but it also has the power to shape our mental health and emotional wellbeing.

In this way, it’s hardly surprising that our relationships with money are so often intertwined with our emotions. But why, when we know we can afford things and have worked hard for the money we have, do we often feel so guilty about using it?

“Money can often lead to a lot of guilt – a lot of us hold the fear of not having enough money,” explains Dr Becky Spelman, a psychologist and clinical director at the Private Therapy Clinic. “This is usually because we’ve all experienced some situation in our life where we don’t quite have enough. Perhaps we’ve been in situations where we were just sorting out our careers and getting on the ladder, but we weren’t earning a great amount of money.”

She continues: “Money is not always something that is easy for people to manage or control – often people have quite a poor relationship with money, so the fear of it leaving their bank account is something that triggers guilt.

“This guilt can sometimes be misplaced. Some people are hoarders of money and they can feel quite guilty about spending money, even when they actually do have plenty and spending isn’t going to leave them in any difficulty.”

A stack of money
Spending guilt: “Some people are hoarders of money and they can feel quite guilty about spending money, even when they actually do have plenty and spending isn’t going to leave them in any difficulty.”

Spelman adds that, whether or not we have children, a home or other responsibility, there’s a lot of pressure when it comes to saving money “for the future” and being responsible, which can lead to this kind of misplaced guilt.

“People feel guilty for treating themselves for many different reasons,” she explains. “Sometimes, for example, people who have children feel that they should be spending the money on their children rather than themselves. And other people who don’t have children can often feel guilty because they have this feeling that they should be saving and they should be looking after their money, just in case.”

In my case, I think the idea that I “should” be saving is a big reason why I have so much guilt. At a time when young people are finding it increasingly difficult to get on the property ladder, I’ve come to associate buying myself new things (whether or not they’re something I need) with a setback on my ‘savings journey’ – as if with every new purchase, I’m making it more difficult for future me to buy a home.

According to Spelman, the way we think about money often comes from our parents – so if your parents spent a lot of time saving throughout your childhood, chances are you will feel the pressure to do the same.

With this in mind, Spelman explains, the first step towards tackling this kind of guilt is simply to understand why you might be feeling this way and recognise that these feelings are often misplaced.

“If you do have an irrational fear of spending money and feel an excessive amount of guilt, it’s good for you to just try to let that go and remind yourself that it is misplaced if you’re not spending excessively,” she recommends. 

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“If you’re feeling guilty for no reason when you’re just treating yourself in a normal way, you should practice reminding yourself that there’s no reason for you to feel this way and that it’s nice for us to be kind to ourselves and treat ourselves from time to time, especially when we’ve worked hard.”

While Spelman’s explanation might not provide all the answers when it comes to ridding ourselves of spending guilt, it’s a reminder that spending money isn’t a bad thing to do – and that treating ourselves within our means is actually an incredibly important way to take care of ourselves, especially during such a difficult time.

Of course, going overboard and buying lots of unnecessary things isn’t a good idea – but there’s no reason to feel guilty for spending every once in a while, even if it is on something we don’t necessarily “need”.

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