In Search of a More Immediate Reward

I read a couple of months ago (in what I think was a NYT article I’m too lazy to search for) that people who recognize the more immediate benefits of exercise are way more likely to work out than people whose only motivations are long term goals. In other words, the person who counts on that runner’s high is more likely to pound the pavement than the person who is logging miles to lose weight.

This makes perfect sense to me. I’m work out for my mental well-being more than for the physical health benefits. When I’m tired, and pretty sure I’m getting sick, and the last thing I want to do is get on the elliptical (like, tonight, for example), I haul my sorry ass on and get moving because I KNOW I will feel better immediately if I do. I have faith that I will feel better because I have thousands of personal experiences to assure me it’s true, despite my body trying to persuade me that it’s not. And usually I only have to start working out for about five minutes to recognize that I do, in fact, feel better.

I was realizing that this might be part of why I struggle so hard to stay on a budget. The goals are all situated in the future, and there are no immediate rewards (at least not that I have identified) to help me make the hard choice in the present. When there is no immediate reward to tempt me away from the instant gratification of spending, it’s hard to conjure the willpower to do it.

My son started day care two weeks ago, so we’re officially in our tightest longterm financial situation to date. Between the increases at my son’s day care (from what we were paying when my daughter attended) and the monthly fees for my daughter’s after care program, our child care expenses are almost $600 a month more than what we were previously spending. The good news is that I will be getting a 9% raise over three years. The bad news is that CalSTRS increased our required contributions by 2%, so the final raise will only be 7% and I won’t start seeing it until the coming school year. I think my husband is due for another step increase around the time as well.

So there is a little light at the end of this tunnel, but for the time being it’s a narrow and restrictive tunnel and we have to spend wisely if we want to get through it. Basically, I need to get a hold of my spending like yesterday.

And yet I still struggle with making unnecessary purchases.

Part of me want to put some very heavy restrictions in place because it’s the holidays and I know I could go fucking hog wild if I let myself. But part of me knows how good I am at explaining why a certain purchase is still allowed despite the restrictions. I also know how hard it would be for me to make myself a reasonable budget and stick with it. I haven’t ever managed to do that in my entire life.

BUT I NEED TO. We won’t have enough money if I don’t. This isn’t about a far-off financial goal, this is about having enough money to cover child care and buy groceries.

When I was first developing a savings strategy, I calculated how much money I’d have left after I paid for child care, groceries and bills and determined what I could budget in my weekly/monthly “wants” category. This included a pretty generous amount allotted for groceries and accounted for all the other long term bills I’m responsible for. I like the idea of having a set amount for “wants” and not splitting that category up into smaller subcategories like “eating out” or “clothes for the kids.” The reality is that almost everything I buy is really a “want,” and that is a shift in my thinking I desperately need to make. I got so caught up in why I should be able to get something despite my shopping ban this summer, but after reading All Your Worth, I realized that ultimately, all those purchases are “wants,”” not matter how well I can argue otherwise.

I also recognize that I need a way to break my habit of compulsive spending, so I’m setting one “restriction” for myself, and that is that I can’t buy anything in the want category until Sunday, because Sunday is the end of my “fiscal week” and at that point I’ll know how much is left in my “wants” budget to spend. (The one exception would be eating out.)

So I have a tentative budget and a tentative restriction and I hope I can actually stick to it. I just wish I could identify a source of immediate gratification from not buying stuff, so that I could dangle it when my compulsive inner voice is so skillfully leading me astray.

I thought a lot about resuming my practice of posting what I spend here, to wildly mixed conclusions. On the one hand, I KNOW it increases my accountability–I am way more inclined stay honest with you all than I am to stay honest with myself. On the other hand, this compulsive buying thing is a genuine problem for me, the kind of problem I would be working on with a professional if I had the resources to do so. Putting myself out there creates an incredible amount of stress for me, and I’m just not sure that the positives of accountability outweigh the negatives of the stress. So for right now I don’t have any definitive plans to post what I spend, though I’m toying with the idea of posting a  rough outline of my budget spending in each of the three categories (Needs, Wants, Savings), or at the very least sharing how much I went over, or stayed under, my “wants” budget (and maybe also groceries, because that is a spending category that can balloon quickly).

Tomorrow is Monday. I love starting things on Monday. Let’s see how I do.


  1. Do you have someone in your nonblog life that would be willing to be an accountability partner for your spending? Someone you could report to, without the stress of the whole Internet seeing your purchases?

    1. I don’t really. I honestly don’t have many friends anymore, at least not the kind I would feel comfortable bringing this kind of weight to. It’s kind of sad, actually.

  2. This is actually really good insight. Its absolutely true that it is difficult to motivate for vague far-off goals. Immediate or even shorter term benefits are much more motivating for me. In terms of shopping and finances, the one thing that is helping me reign it in is tracking my spending–and specifically having my budget and spending tracked on YNAB and being able to pull up the app on my phone at any moment. I find it REALLY soothing to see large remaining amounts in my budget categories and stressful to see the categories going into the red. Somehow tracking on excel or any other way hasn’t had this effect on me. This method even drives me to do the annoying work of returning purchases that I’m not 100% comfortable with—seeing the numbers jump back up is also very satisfying! the motivating factor is that I really like the security of having excesses to work with and dislike the stress of having negative numbers and needing to take that money from elsewhere to balance everything (and pay the bills!)
    This isn’t exactly related to motivation but—I wonder if going completely cash would help you? If you took a certain amount out to spend per week (i.e. what you have to spend once you factor in mortgage & bills) and that was all you had, would you consider the purchase a lot more? I know credit is very convenient but it also can get you into trouble since the spending doesn’t seem “real”. You could do a very simple envelope system with one envelope for “needs” and one for “wants” or maybe even one pile and you can only spend on “wants” on Sunday once all the “needs” are dealt with? This could also help you curb grocery spending, I think, since you could only spend what you had—if you were running low, you’d have to settle for cheaper meals that week.
    I guess the motivation is—if you don’t spend too much on wants, you can eat better, do more fun things with the kids or you can save up for a TRUE want If you buy unnecessary stuff, since the total you can spend is fixed, there is less $ for that and you have to stay home all weekend eating PB&J.
    Thinking more in terms of this as a mental health issue (shopping addiction) and CBT—what feeling does the shopping trigger in you? Are there other ways to get that feeling? Or is it possible to break that shop=x feeling link?

    1. A lot of good stuff here. I’m going to try the cash, and gift cards on my websites of choice (ahem, Ama.zon) so that once I hit my limit I’m cut off. I may even have them change my credit card number because I’ve memorized mine and can just input it without having the damn thing anywhere near me. I think the gift cards online could be a real game changer because that is where I will go when I run out of “cash,” and if there are limits there too I will need to make much harder decisions. I also hope the waiting until Sunday will allow me to explore the feelings that not buying stuff brings up without the panic of never being able to buy it.

      It really has been an eye opener for me to realize that EVERYTHING not already budgeted as a need is a want. Like today I had to get food for my daughter’s teacher’s appreciation lunch and I was like shit, this $25 is coming out of my fucking budget, because that is not food I’m buying for my family. That money just wouldn’t have been counted before because it didn’t belong to any of my “categories,” but now I understand that it’s a “want,” because I want to be a part of showing her school’s teachers my appreciation, and I have to be willing to take the budget hit if I want to do that.

  3. Holidays and gift time are really really close. Have you made a list of who you need gifts for, how much you can spend on each person and what you want to give them? You still, just barely, have time to set no gift exchanges agreements in place. Writing that all down always helped focus my mind on not buying wants only absolute needs.
    Second thought would be to write down how it would feel in detail and what would happen if you could not pay for childcare or groceries. In full color and lots of emotion and all bout having to ask for extensions etc. Not to share/publish here but to post in your purse and remind you when you reach for that credit card or $10 bill in your purse, or/and perhaps tape on your computer to see when doing online shopping.
    Not knowing really how finances work in your marriage I have no idea if you should, or would, or do, review this stuff regularly with your husband and if he has budgetary space in his discretionary spending to cover any more of the costs. My guess is that both of you are running tight to the bone but talking through the Holiday Lists and costs and where the money will come from might have value and would ensure his agreement on what will be spent on gifts etc.
    IT IS HARD. Support and sympathy!

    1. I have not written that list of presents and I need to do that ASAP. I want to write a post about how many presents we should get our kids… hopefully soon. The hardest people to navigate in the present-giving arena are my parents because they have EXPECTATIONS. Ugh. It sucks. I do need to look at that realistically, and soon.

      I love the idea of writing out how it would feel to not have enough money to cover my expenses. I’ve been thinking back to how horrible it felt when I realized I couldn’t pay a VISA bill and had to move money around or start paying interest behind my husband’s back. I HATED how that felt, so maybe avoiding that feeling is motivation enough to make these hard choices, because I’m definitely more stressed about my budget than I have been in a long time.

  4. You recently posted about needing to do another purge of clothes/stuff in your house. Are you a part of any local FB garage sales? Maybe when you do the purge of your house everything that you want to get rid of you put up on a garage sale site. Then whatever money you make from selling those items you can spend on whatever you want.

    1. That is a good idea, though I doubt much of what I have would get me much money. I’m not a pro at selling things on FB like Courtney. 😉

  5. You’ve mentioned quite a few times recently that you’d love to go back to therapy but with financial limitations it’s not an option. If you limited spending in other areas, would being able to go back be enough of an immediate reward to keep you on a budgetary track?

    1. I was totally thinking of this! The problem is that I don’t think I could afford this “carrot” even if I did a really good job budgeting. We just don’t have another $150 extra a month for me to even go once. Still, I’m trying to figure out a way to make it work, because I do think that would be a good motivator.

      1. Sorry if this is a lame q, but doesn’t your insurance cover counseling? I have actually been seeing one (in network) recently and my insurance covers it minus the copay. And it’s not for anything “medical”. I thought this was becoming the norm. Or maybe I’m just lucky. But I know I didn’t have this coverage say 10 years ago and it seems things have changed. I have an.them blue c.ross.

        1. I have Kaiser so sadly no, they don’t cover counseling or therapy of any kind, except group work done on specific issues (like debilitating anxiety or managing chronic pain). I’ve been to a couple of their groups and never found them helpful.

  6. People who have difficulty with overweighting the present over the future benefit from commitment devices. If what you say is true about your personality, then working on your motivation is likely to not help as much as setting up structures that make it difficult or impossible to give to your present self at the cost of your future self.

    So get rid of the credit cards and go to cash envelopes. Or something similar. You need to make it more difficult for yourself to spend in the same way I have to make it more difficult for myself to eat refined carbohydrates and sugar so I don’t feel like crap all the time.

    Also, I know you’re reading one book called Willpower already, but this other one, also called Willpower is also worth reading: (Check it out from the library!)

    1. Agree on trying cash only, or buying gift cards and spending only from those online. It helps us immensely.

      1. OMG! Gift cards for stores online! THIS IS GENUIS! I think this is seriously the missing link for me, because I never recognized how I could limit my spending online. THANK YOU FOR THIS AMAZING IDEA!!!

    2. I think I am going to have to do the cash thing. And I think what I’ll do is get a VISA gift card to carry in case of emergencies, because the idea of not having any kind of plastic is terrifying to me… what if there is an emergency?! But if I had a couple hundred on a VISA gift card I would feel okay leaving my debit card at home, and then I would really be forced to stick with the cash and not fall back on the plastic.

      I could also leave my debit card in my car. That might be effective enough…

  7. I could have written this post. It’s such a struggle. Some good suggestions above. I always think that one day it will all just CLICK. I’m waiting for that day. But YNAB has been helping, though it hasn’t been the panacea I had hoped it would be.

    1. I really liked your post on this today. I too need to learn to sit with the uncomfortable feelings, to be okay letting them dissipate on their own time, without me annihilating them with a purchase. It’s going to be hard work.

      1. ^^ This, right there? That’s the key. That’s the root of the spending, and why it happens. If you can figure out how to sit with feelings, then you won’t NEED to spend. Easier said than done, of course. But that’s the key!


    2. I clicked through to your post and whoa, its like you’re in my head! I think the emotional aspect is so so important to figure out. I really do subconsciously feel compelled buy things to “fix” my worries/anxieties/insecurities and—surprise—it doesn’t work! And then I have $-related stress. And so the cycle goes. I mean, sure, if my feet are getting wet & I buy rainboots, I have fixed that problem. But if I am insecure about not having friends or fitting into the social group, new shoes are not the answer.

  8. I never thought of setting an online limit by buying a gift card. That’s a great idea. Even though I track our spending, it’s hard for me to follow a monthly budget. I just think if it evens out by the end of the year, we’re ok.

  9. You have a lot of good suggestions about the actual budgeting stuff and how it should work. (I’ve moved to cash as well, though I use my debit card and an envelope app).

    What I wanted to mention, though, was something a friend who struggles with bulimia told me. Her therapist told her that whenever she had the urge to eat – not borne of hunger, just the urge – to set a timer and wait for 15 minutes. Her therapist’s analysis was that the urge to eat (or spend, in your case) is really just a way to avoid feeling something, and waiting it out allowed the root feeling underpinning the urge to be felt. Even if she ate AFTER the 15 minutes was up… it meant that it was a choice, not just a reaction to the urge or feelings.

    Not sure if this is making sense, but I see the spending as a parallel. If you can wait it out, that time will give you a chance to a) intellectualize why you don’t actually need it, b) force you to consider your budget, and most importantly c) allow you to figure out why you feel you need to spend that money. Maybe it will help you regain control when you need it, too?

    Just a thought.

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