It's Not Your Fault You Want to Spend Money

It’s Not Your Fault You Want to Spend Money

FLASHBACK: Thousands of years ago. You live in a cave, kill your own food, carve your own pictures into cave walls, and communicate very effectively through a series of grunts (clearly, I have no actual sense of what this period of time was like).

We know our bodies evolve based on our circumstances. THIS IS STILL TRUE. Example: Wisdom teeth. Remember back in the cave when we had to tear flesh apart with our teeth. No forks. No knives. Teeth. “Oh” you say, “THAT’S why we have wisdom teeth!” Now, wisdom teeth are a hassle. They crowd our smaller jawlines, mess up the rest of teeth, can get impacted, and cost money to get removed. Well, guess what? Humanity has gotten the memo! I, personally, only had 2 wisdom teeth, and my husband only has 1 that’s never grown in (I know. We’re advanced specimens). Some predict wisdom teeth will disappear altogether within just a few generations!

What does this have to do with spending money?

Oh yeah… I was talking about money.

Well, let’s go back to that meat we’re eating in the caves with all of our wisdom teeth.

“Mmm. That was a delicious wild turkey leg, but I’m stuffed. Could you just pop the rest in a Tupperware in the fridge and I’ll bring it to the office tomorrow for lunch?”

Nope. No Tupperware. No fridge. (And, no office, but that’s a separate post.)

You had to eat it. RIGHT NOW. We didn’t really think long-term because we could, you know, get eaten by a tiger tomorrow. We were wired to be immediate consumers. Literally.

Now, our bodies ARE evolving, but evolution is slow and we still have a lot of those scarcity impulse reactions to spend money NOW!

How do we use our evolution to help with money?

Let me suggest 2 awesome tools we have:

1. The Prefrontal Cortex

In five million years, the Prefrontal Cortex of the brain has increased in size six-fold! (This is also the explanation behind why our foreheads are higher than early humans, if you were wondering.)

So what does this awesome evolving part of the brain do? Short answer: A LOT!

Longer answer: The Prefrontal Cortex is involved in short term and long term memory, decision making, error detection, reward-guided learning, and decision making involving risk and reward. Basically, the Prefrontal Cortex is what is involved when we start thinking BEYOND the “Here’s food. Must eat. Here’s money. Must spend.”

When we actually start balancing the risks and rewards for spending the money, we’re using our Prefrontal Cortex. When we learn from our previous mistakes, we’re using our Prefrontal Cortex. Use it!

2. Emotions

The incorrect opposite of “Emotional decision” is “Rational decision.” THIS IS WRONG. Emotions can be rational, too. Deliberate vs. Emotional is a better pairing.

I think we understand the benefit of deliberate decision-making. You use that Prefrontal Cortex of yours and you make what you have determined to be the best choice after weighing the options.

When are emotional decisions rational?

Back to those cave days: You’re walking through the grass and you hear a rustle of grass (maybe even some rattling). What do you do? Stand there calmly and think: “I should probably wait to see what this thing is that is coming towards me in the grass. There might be a benefit to that.” NOPE. Your emotions take over. Fear settles in and immediately your body is capable of running faster than you could do if you weren’t experiencing fear. You jump, you run, and you question the situation later. Emotions are a super power! If you had waited to assess the situation to make a deliberate decision, you’d be dead! I mean, seriously, how cool is that? Our bodies become greater than we could force them to become all because of our emotional responses!

We do need to keep our emotions in check, but we also need to use them. Your choices shouldn’t be based on numbers alone. Life doesn’t work so nicely. Sometimes you plan to use your upcoming money to help max out a Roth IRA and then you rear-end the car in front of you (*ahem* I don’t want to talk about it). In these moments, financial planning helps you include your emotions. Will you still cry uncontrollably for an hour because you’ve thwarted your plans and ruined your day? Maybe (I don’t want to talk about it). But if you have your finances in order, money won’t be part of those emotional responses.

You want to get your finances in order as soon as possible so that money doesn’t have to play into an emotional moment in your life. A family member dies? Of course you want to be there. You buy plane tickets. No-brainer. This is a rational emotional response. You should spend that money.

For some reason, we feel that we can’t ever make a monetary decision based on emotion. Sure, “retail therapy” may not be the best way to solve your problems, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend money based on emotional reactions.

We humans have the Prefrontal Cortex and Emotions to help us out. In all financial choices (whether deliberate or emotional), we should ask ourselves “Is this a rational, intentional way to use my money?” 

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23 Comments

  1. Great point about the emotional part of spending money. I know a lot of people think we’re all supposed to be “Homo Economicus. But we’re not robots. Emotions matter and there’s value in spending your money on certain emotional things. And the important thing I notice about your point, there isn’t any universal value judgment as to what you should or shouldn’t spend your money on. What matters is whether you’re spending your money “rationally” and “intentionally.”

    • MaggieBanks

      EXACTLY! What the “right” answer is for you could be very different than my “right” answer because we’re different people.

  2. I’d like to blame evolution or biology or even emotions, but truth be told, I shopped out of habit. Sure, some of it was tied to my brain and my feelings, but once you build that routine, it’s really, really, REALLY hard to stop. I love the idea of asking, “Is this rational?” Put another way, “Do I really need 200 pairs of shoes?”

    ::cries in corner:: 😉

    • MaggieBanks

      Ha ha ha. RATIONAL… now that’s another whole post! We’re not that rational naturally, which is why we have to ask that question!

  3. Thanks for trying to make me feel better, but I’m still mad about all those stupid purchases we made over the years. Fortunately, I’m now able to recognize those impulses and talk myself down.

    One thing that struck me about your post is the advice to listen to our emotions. Work has been making me increasingly depressed. I really need to revise our strategy so I can stop this madness before 2022.

    PS – sorry to read about the car accident that may have happened, but that you don’t want to discuss <3

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks for the love. And YES, you absolutely need to consider your emotions! (And I’m always up for a good recalculation!)

  4. Yep, intentional spending is the way to go, whether or not emotions are attached to it. Ditto on the your right is my wrong, and almost all of my intentional spending you’d probably think, WTF?! lol

    Don’t feel too bad about costing yourself some investment money by rear ending another car – allegedly. Not that you want to talk about it, but if it was more than $400 and you had that in emergency funds, you’re ahead of most of America. Woohoo! 🙂

    And then the reality of that last statement hit me. 🙁

    • MaggieBanks

      Ha! Thanks for making me feel better. My Roth IRA may be sad this year… but the fact that the repairs really aren’t that big of a deal for us is HUGE. Life happens. Sometimes we’re stupid…. oh yeah, I don’t want to talk about it! 🙂

  5. Wisdom teeth are like our shark teeth, right? Because we’re chewing on bones, and then losing teeth, and then the wisdom teeth slide right in there… they were like a prehistoric emergency fund, or at least a life happens fund. 😉 Haha. (Also, I hated having mine taken out… but thank goodness for anesthesia!) The money emotion I have always felt most of all is fear, which is the bad and irrational kind of emotion to feel around money. But with practice, I’m getting better. Now it’s more about excitement and impatience, which is perhaps equally unhelpful! 😉

    • MaggieBanks

      FEAR IS A SUPER POWER (but can be debilitating in non-life-threatening situations). 🙂

  6. Matt @ Optimize Your Life

    I like the idea of using deliberate instead of rational as an opposite to emotional. It’s a really interesting thought that I hadn’t considered. You explain it nicely and it makes a lot more sense.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Maggie.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Matt. I really think emotions are something we can’t control. We can control actions, but we’ll always have emotions… and there is a reason for that!

  7. I am definitely a fan of intentional buying this coming from a reformed impulse buyer. If I remember correctly people that are hungry spend like 25% more on groceries than those that are not. Clearly their Prefrontal Cortex is not working 🙂 Thanks again for the great article. Always enjoy the reads!!!

    • MaggieBanks

      Oh yes. Never combine emotions when you can plan ahead and use the prefrontal cortex! Grocery shopping is the perfect example!

  8. THIS: “We do need to keep our emotions in check, but we also need to use them. Your choices shouldn’t be based on numbers alone.”

    SO TRUE. And so something I’m still trying to work on. I find it’s either one or the other for me. Love the rational and intentional thinking pattern. I’m definitely going to give it a shot!

    • MaggieBanks

      Follow the rationality wherever it is! NOT spending a littl emoney in really emotional situations is also NOT rational. (We’re all working on this!)

  9. I was all ready to disagree with you until half way through the article, at which point I dismounted my high horse 😉 I wonder whether the word ’emotional’ should be taken out of the equation though? Like you said, emotion can be irrational or rational. How about deliberate vs impulsive? I guess, whatever words you choose, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s so easy to make decisions based on a short term want.

    Totally understand why someone wouldn’t want to talk about rear ending a car. I wouldn’t want to bring up reversing into an inanimate object, if that had ever happened to me…

    • MaggieBanks

      Ha ha ha. Glad I’m not alone in not wanting to talk about things that may or may not have happened. 🙂 I think it’s important to include emotions. Are you going to regret not buying that plane ticket or going to that thing with your friends later because of the emotional capital they would build up? We often think the default answer is always: DON’T SPEND THE MONEY… but that’s not always true.

      • ‘Which will I regret more?’ is a question I ask myself a lot. When you tend towards saving money, rather than spending, it can be too easy to miss out, for the sake of saving money. After all, you can’t take it with you!

  10. Context is definitely everything. I like to think the thousand years ago version of me benefited from pouncing on a good meal when she found it. As I learned in the cookie aisle at Kroger this past week, it does not benefit 21st century me much at all….

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