If you’re like most millennials, you’ve probably experienced some version of the following scenario:
You see something that really excites you online or in a shop. Then you purchase that item. Maybe it’s an impulsive decision, or maybe you’ve thought about it for a while. Either way, you love it and you’re excited to bring it home.
But then all of a sudden you start to feel like shit for making that purchase. You start to question whether it was worth it. You begin to feel like you should have saved your money or spent it on something more “important” instead.
Ah, money guilt. We’ve all been there. And it sucks.
Older generations are fond of calling millennials lazy, entitled, and bad with money. Millennials are constantly told they make poor money decisions – like buying too many fancy lattes.
But research has shown that millennials don’t, in fact, have poor spending habits. They aren’t lazy, either. They just have to deal with less buying power in an increasingly expensive world. Millennials earn 20% less money than baby boomers did at the same age, even though millennials are more educated on average.
So what gives?
For one thing, jobs aren’t as secure as they used to be. Neither are social security payouts, pensions, or retirement plans. Not to mention many millennials graduated from college straight into one of the worst economic recessions – dubbed “the Great Recession” – since the Great Depression. Wages have remained stagnant for decades. Jobs with decent benefits and sufficient pay are difficult to find.
Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to skyrocket. If you’re like most millennials, you’re probably burdened with student loan debt, medical debt, and rising housing costs.
What’s more, cultural messaging tells you not to spend money on anything unless it’s in your budget. But at the same time, of course, marketing and ads are everywhere you look. Plus those ads are targeted precisely for your desires. This means they’re harder to ignore.
Millennials are faced with a lot of financial stressors and financial hoops to jump through. And as a result, many millennials struggle with money guilt.
So, why exactly do you feel guilty about spending money? There are actually a lot of possible answers to this question. It depends on your situation and personality. I can’t wave a magic wand and tell you, but I do work with a lot of millennials who experience money guilt. No two people are the same, but there are often similar underlying factors when it comes to money guilt.
One big factor in money guilt is having a scarcity mentality. This is a set of beliefs that means resources and goods seem limited or finite. This mentality can be a reflection of how someone grew up and doesn’t necessary reflect that person’s current reality.
However, these beliefs often stem from real and current money scarcity. It’s scary to live in a world where you can’t afford a home. It sucks to feel like you’ll never get out from underneath your mountain of student loan debt even though you’re always working.
Many millennials suffer from money guilt for this very reason: they’re purchasing something even though they’re trying to get out of debt. And if you live paycheck to paycheck, you may very well feel compelled to add whatever you can to your savings. If you spend your money instead of saving it, feelings of guilt and anxiety can increase.
Money guilt can also stem from seeing your friends or peers be able to afford things you can’t. When you see friends jetting off on beach-side resort vacations, you might feel less-than and like there’s something wrong with you. It can lead to feelings of guilt about your own salary or lack of savings.
Or maybe you grew up with a family that valued frugality and frowned upon spending money unless it was absolutely necessary. Maybe you grew up poor and simply couldn’t afford to spend money. This can lead to guilt about money because spending money feels wrong or dangerous.
Another common reason people experience money guilt is shared finances. Perhaps you pool finances with a partner and feel guilty about spending money on things that only you benefit from, like self-care activities. This can result in guilt because you feel like your shared money isn’t being spent equally. Or maybe you feel like you don’t deserve to spend money at all, especially if your partner is the main bread-winner in your relationship.
It’s also possible that your anxious perfectionism is why you feel guilty about spending money. Maybe you feel like you should have a perfect, financially stable life by now. Perfectionist ideals can hold you back and cause shame and guilt when you don’t or can’t live up to them.
You may also experience money guilt when you spend money impulsively. If you spend any time on social media, you’ve probably done this. It’s easy to see an ad for something (and remember, these ads are catered specifically to your wants and biases) and just click “buy now.” Making online purchases gives you a hit of feel-good dopamine. It’s not called “retail therapy” for nothing, after all. But unplanned impulse buys can lead to feelings of guilt later on.
Regardless of the reasons for your money guilt, there are ways to help stop it. Here are four ways to help you stop your guilt in its tracks.
The first big step in tackling money guilt is to figure out why you feel guilty about spending money. Take some time to journal, or work with a therapist to figure out where your guilt stems from. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Asking yourself questions like these can help you get to the root of your money guilt. Once you understand where it’s coming from, then you can work to dismantle it.
If you’re prone to online impulse buys, think about the times you’ve spent money impulsively on social media. Were you in a specific mood? Was it a certain time of day? You may be more prone to impulse buying when you’re upset, sad, or lonely.
Consider uninstalling social media when you’re in those moods. Taking a break from Instagram, TikTok or Facebook can help your mental health and your financial health. No social media means no ads for things that will make you feel guilty about purchasing afterward.
Listen, I get it: checking your bank account and creating a budget can be about as pleasant as chewing on sandpaper. But if you bury your head in the sand about your spending habits, you may find that you feel guilty after every purchase. This is simply because you don’t know whether that purchase falls within the range of your spending capacity.
Knowing how much money you have in your bank account – and where your money goes each month – can make a big difference in quieting feelings of money guilt and anxiety.
This doesn’t have to be a difficult or time-consuming task. If you use a credit or debit card, look through your history of purchases on your banking website and write down each purchase. Then group all your purchases into categories such as bills, groceries, and eating out. Do you see any patterns here? What might you be able to cut out to increase your savings? Do this for each of the last 3-6 months so you have an idea of your average spending habits over time.
You may think it’s irresponsible to spend any money unless you’ve paid off all your debt and saved all you need for retirement.
But the reality is, this type of thinking can be a trap. It’s not realistic to think you’ll be able to save every penny you earn or use all of it to pay off debt. If you’re constantly overspending, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But you do deserve to purchase the things you need.
No one can get through life without making any purchases, and you’re no exception. We all have to buy groceries, purchase clothing, pay our rent, and, yes, even make occasional “non-essential” purchases. If you deal with a lot of self-criticism whenever you spend money, talking to a therapist can help.
If you’re looking for help to stop feeling guilty about spending money, consider therapy.
I can help you investigate your spending habits and think about money in a healthier way. If you’re asking yourself “why do I feel guilty when I spent money?” this is something we can explore together.
During our work together, you’ll learn where your money guilt comes from, how to address the emotions behind spending, how to set reasonable money-management goals, and how to stop feeling guilty about spending money.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.