A Financial Therapist’s Take on the Guilt You Feel After Making Impulse Purchases

Photo: Getty Images/Vera Kandybovich/EyeEm
As of late, my road to happiness seems to be paved with impulse buys. Between velvet dresses, festive earrings, and a million-ish lavender lattes, I can't seem to escape a single day without frivolously swiping my card. This streak of retail therapy isn't sending me into a spiral of crushing debt, yet I still often feel a sense of guilt linger in the aftermath of my impulse buys.

But why is it such a common experience to punish ourselves for choosing to spend any amount of money on products for ourselves that we want but definitely don't need? "We might feel guilt and shame around these types of purchases because we see ourselves putting our money toward more impulsive desires, leaving long-term goals undermined and shortchanged," says financial therapist and Prudential's Financial Wellness Advocate Amanda Clayman. "In the calculus of life happiness, we believe that we would be happier—or at least less anxious—if we had more money in savings or invested for the future."

The other side of this is that our shame often reflects a sense of discomfort with facing the emotional needs we aim to satisfy in the present with our purchases. “But the truth is, being too restrictive and too judgmental of our needs and feelings can actually make us more inclined to act impulsively and with less self-control,” Clayman says. “For example, I use the concept of a ‘dissociative splurge’ to explain to clients what's happening when they go into a spending experience and the brakes just fall off.”

With the holiday season (for us and capitalism) upon us, now is a great time to take note of dissociative splurges. Like, when you’re stressed and buy a bunch of nonsense just because it’s on sale. Or if you stroll into Target planning to get one thing—which LOL, adorable—and leave with giant bags and a sad bank account.

“Sometimes we feel guilt because we think those kinds of decisions aren't consistent with the way we see ourselves." —Amanda Clayman, financial therapist

The key here is to look at spending behavior in context and go through the numbers. It’s not objectively bad if you feel compelled to buy yourself a $70 sea-glass-green dress from Urban Outfitters even though you only kind of like it. It’s only bad if this spending becomes destructive yourself, your goals, objectives, and obligations.

If you’re on track with your savings goal, and the spending isn’t causing any clear issues in your life, then the guilt you feel might be an issue to investigate within yourself. “Sometimes we feel guilt because we think those kinds of decisions aren't consistent with the way we see ourselves—as goal-achievers, as responsible, as self-disciplined, and so on,” says Clayman. “But we don't really know until we see what options we forfeit when we make other decisions.”

That being said, if you want to mitigate spend guilt and have a healthier relationship with money, Clayman says a having a budget and a plan can help. “If basic safety and stability needs are met, it is critical for our emotional-financial health that we consciously put resources toward self care,” she says. “This is where the transformation to our relationship with money actually happens. When we allocate money for our own comfort, enjoyment, self-expression, growth, this creates a powerful shift in combating the shame that many of us were conditioned to feel in response to our needs.”

A good place to start when it comes to saving for impulse buys? A Fun and BS account. And here's how to use the 80-20 ratio for financial wellness, no matter how much money you have.

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