Standing at the pantry, shoving cookies in my mouth

In the darkest years of my disordered eating, I would stand at the pantry, leaning against the door, grab things I wanted to eat, and just stand there, shoving them into my mouth. It was like I thought that if I stood so close to where the chips were stored, it wouldn’t count that I was eating them. Like I hadn’t properly committed, and so the consequences wouldn’t be real.

They were of course. And I gained pound after pound until I weighed more than I had ever weighed, before or since. Even after 55lbs of weight gain during my first pregnancy, I didn’t weigh as much as I did in the years when my compulsive eating was at its worst. I just couldn’t get enough, nothing sated me.

That is how I feel now, with my spending. I happened kind of suddenly, actually. I was doing pretty well, even after I’d decided to abandon my budget posts and my spending-freeze for a while. Then, out of nowhere, I was on Amazon every day, buying thing after thing after thing. The past five days have been like some horrible binge, and I’m not sure how to stop myself.

I feel like such a failure. I AM such a failure. The is no one single area of my life that I have failed in so spectacularly as spending money. I have always spent irresponsibly and I continue to spend irresponsibly, despite trying to change time and time again. I’ve tried committing to not buying anything new, I tried committing to a budget. I tried committing to a spending freeze. I failed at each and every attempt. I didn’t even last very long for any of them.

I don’t know how to do this.

Well, that’s not true. I know HOW to do it, I just don’t know how to MAKE myself do it. And none of the experts can help me because for all of them it comes easy. They just DO IT, and hardly make a fuss. A lot of them LOVE doing it. They think it’s fucking awesome to do it. So how are they going to tell me how to make it happen, when clearly there is something fundamentally different inside each of us, compelling us to act in completely different ways.

It’s like when the Ph.D in math tries to explain fractions to a kid who is attempting Algebra for the fifth time. Their incredible understanding of math, and the ease with which they learned it, actually hinder them in their attempts to explain it to someone who just cannot comprehend.

I am that person. I cannot comprehend. I’ve always considered myself someone with considerable will power and stamina. When I have really wanted something, I have done A LOT of things I REALLY didn’t want to do, to get it. So why can’t I do THIS one thing that part of me doesn’t want to do? Why can’t I exercise willpower over this one part of my life?

This feeling of powerless crushes me. There is only one other time in my life I felt this out of control, and it was when I struggled with disordered eating. It absolutely consumed my life, and made me miserable. It fueled my darkest depression, and remains the solitary demon that actually pushed me to the point of such despair that I considered killing myself. The only thing that was able to repair my disordered dependence on food was my medicine, which helped me learn how to have a healthy relationship with what I eat. But there is no medicine that can foster a responsible relationship with money. I have to figure it out for myself.

Except when I try to do that I fail. And I fail. And I fail. Maybe I’ve made some gains, but they have been so microscopic–if I keep continuing forward at this rate, I won’t get it right before it’s too late.

Because the thing with money is, at some point it doesn’t matter if you’re making the right choices, because you can never overcome all the bad ones.

I know I’m not there yet, but I also have no reason to believe I can turn things around. I’ve tried. In earnest. Many time. And while I have learned so much, I have not found a way to put it into practice. I still spend more than I can to save money. I still buy things impulsively. I still treat myself and reward myself and tell myself it’s worth it. I still do ALL THE WRONG THINGS, and I do them MOST OF THE TIME.

So I’m starting again. Again. But it’s hard to garner enthusiasm when all the empirical evidence tells me this attempt, like all the ones that came before it, will fail.

That I will fail.

Like I always do.

Is there something in your life you’ve failed at many times? Did you keep trying?

33 Comments

  1. Here’s what I think. Is it a coincidence that the shopping issue is resurfacing right after you posted about your inadequate sleep and general overwhelmedness? Your life feels out of control and overwhelming, and you’re searching for a way to make it better. Lack of sleep is affecting your willpower and ability to think long-term. That is what’s causing your shopping relapse, as if your mind and body are sending our a distress signal. Solve the underlying problem of life imbalance, and the shopping will get back on track. Of course, I don’t know what you need to do to fix that, but that’s what I think is going on here. Good luck with it….

    1. You are absolutely right. My previous post about how I am struggling to find time for self-care, was inspired by my attempts to give myself what I need, because I know when I am in a better place mentally and emotionally, I am better equipped to make the choices I want to make. but as that post suggested, I am really struggling to find that time right now. I’m sure as I get used to my schedule it will get easier. But right now I’m kind of in survival mode.

      1. I’m with z on this. Compulsive shopping is, as you already know, both symptom (of distress in your life) and cause (of economic strain). Everybody has strategies to cope with stress. Some people, unfortunately, turn to things that help for a microsecond and then add significantly to the underlying stress (compulsive eating, drugs and alcohol, porn, etc). I think that your incredible willpower could bring you to recognize those triggers and find a healthier substitute/s but the important issue is how to deal with the pain that leads you shop. Focusing too much on the unwanted behavior only heaps on more pain, which both sucks ass and is conuterproductive.

        I think that you are probably right that there is an apples and oranges situation underlying the differences between you and some of the people who radically change their consumption habits. Over consumption is a broad cultural phenomenon and some people are “combating” it on that level. I think yours does run deeper but that doesn’t mean you can’t climb out of it.

        1. A lot of the people who write about spending very little never had to radically change the way they do things, they just did them that way and then started writing about how awesome it is. I mean sure, some made changes, but I think a lot of them were compelled to live that way (or close to that way) for whatever reason. So they might think that all someone needs to know is WHAT to do, and that the HOW to do it is irrelevant because it’s so obvious. But for me, the how to do it is the hardest part.

          But you’re right that just because I have more to change about myself to be able to do this, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I’m sure I can, I’m just honestly not sure how to figure out how I can.

          1. I completely agree with your first paragraph and I think it goes even deeper than a simple “how to” into what makes people spend vs. save to begin with. I’ve always been a spender over a saver. We save for 401Ks, we have a small emergency fund, and we don’t have credit card debt, but when I see people with 10, 20, 50K in savings, I can’t possibly imagine how to do that. And when so many of the blogs I see have people making well over 150K and not having to pay for daycare or student loans or anything like that, I really don’t see how their “how” can work for me.

            But, I also have the same spending issues you do, so that is probably a big reason why I can’t grasp it. Just keep taking baby steps. You’ll get there one day.

          2. I think there are a lot of different reasons a person might have a spending problems. There’s social pressure, perceived needs of others, self-soothing, a lack of self-control, full-blown mental illness, a genuine gap between income and expenses, a lack of math skills– it can be a lot of different reasons. So what one person does to address their problem might be very different from what another person needs to do.

            I don’t think you are actually in that bad a place, spending-wise. You had a little relapse, but let’s not blow it out of proportion. You do much better with spending when you have time and energy to devote to it. So you need to figure out how to get to that place again.

            The bottom line is that brains need sleep or they just won’t work. What obligations can you cut out of your life? Can you simplify holiday plans, for example? Kid activities? You might benefit from reading some family simplicity blogs rather than personal finance blogs.

            Your current situation is not permanent! Little kids are tough financially. You’re in a time of childcare expenses and doing lots of hands-on childcare yourself, which makes it tough for you to do self-care and to invest time in things that help you save money. They will grow and it will get easier. You are making progress with your daughter’s behavior, and that’s so much more important than the shopping issue. In the long run, working on that will free up time and energy that you can devote to self-care and financial planning.

  2. Your comparison of this situation to the math Ph.D. trying to explain fractions to that kid is so entirely accurate. (I feel the same way about parenting books.). Just because one person can easily, and enthusiastically, reign in their spending doesn’t mean their technique will work for anyone else. I hear you.

    I can have a similar relationship with spending. I felt it happen last week with clothes… I couldn’t stop. I know why it happened (annual bonus came at the same time of my need for smaller clothes, and I wanted to pay myself back for all the fb money we used to pay bills while waiting for the bonus), I recognized the pattern and the feeling, but it didn’t stop me. These binges happen a few times a year, as you know because I always confess on your blog. 😉

    All this to say I’m not going to offer any advice, just understanding.

    1. Thank you for your understanding. I seem to have a few binges every year too. I wonder if I tracked them if I’d notice a pattern of when they happen. The last one was right when summer started–which is a stressful transition. And now this one is when school starts, another stressful transition. Maybe transitions are a trigger for me. Or maybe it’s just the stress, and the transition isn’t as important. I’m not sure. I know there is definitely a lot at play here, and I wish I could figure it out.

  3. It’s not true that it is easy for everyone. Many people set up hurdles and habits to make bad things more difficult for them and use tricks and devises to convince themselves in the moment.

    Read Willpower again.

    1. I will admit that I don’t read an exhaustive amount of blogs on personal finance and frugal living, but the ones I do read, and all the ones I have stumbled across, do seem to be written by people who find it easy to live in these ways. I’ve never read one post on a personal finance or frugal living blog about how it’s hard. They are all about how it’s obvious and awesome and necessary. Maybe some of those people did struggle at first, and maybe they even blogged about it, but that sentiment isn’t apparent or even eluded to in any of the blogs I read/have read. If you can point me to some that do talk about that, I’d very much appreciate it, because I think I could learn from those blogs.

      That is not to say that NO ONE struggles because of course they do. Our countries atrocious credit card debt (I believe it’s in the trillions?) is a perfect testament to how much people struggle. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of people who are trying to improve their situations, but are finding it really difficult, who blog about it. At least not that I know of. Again, please point me in that direction is there is. I’d be so interested in a blog like that.

      Honestly, I do believe there are people for whom spending money is just a different experience. I think the relationship one has with money can be affected by many things–how they were raised, what they were explicitly taught, their goals, just who they are, inherently. I believe some of my issues stem from how I was raised, but my sister was raised in the same environment and she has a completely different relationship with money–we spend money in entirely different ways. So it’s not just how you grow up, I think there is just something in some people that make them compulsive spenders. And I do believe it’s harder for them not to spend than it is for other people. If there is scientific evidence disputing that, please let me know.

      I will read Willpower. I never actually read it, so maybe it will help.

      1. Stop reading frugal woods and mr money moustache. Most people are not like that. Most people have limited willpower. Most people act compulsively when they are tired or low blood sugar or aroused.

        If you are an alcoholic you cannot have alcohol in the house and you need friends who will support you to keep you from drinking. If you are me and have PCOS you cannot have refined food or sugary things in the house and have an elaborate system of rules outside the house that still sometimes fail. (This cookie isn’t as good as this other kind of cookie, so it isn’t worth having. I can have this cookie later if it is still there.). If you’re me and addicted to the Internet you leech block anything interesting during working hours and try to keep the computer off at home. If you have trouble with spending, then you need to make it difficult to spend, possibly by going cash-only, definitely by unsubscribing from shopping emails and telling your computer to forget (or to leechbblock) shopping websites. And you need friends to help not being enabling. Also, yes, return stuff.

        I actually don’t think that doing a compulsive shopping spree is that abnormal, though definitely seek help for it. Because yes, it can harm you and your family.

  4. I think you are going through a hard time and spending is a way for you to soothe. I definitely do that with food. And mindless television (before I had a kid).

    But I also think that part of the problem is, as you have said, given your income and fixed expenses, neither of which are going to change much, and the fact that your job is very secure, it’s hard for you to come up with financial goals that you actually find motivating. I’m not sure how to solve that problem. Maybe some of the commenters here can help you craft some goals.

    1. I think you’re right that it’s hard to find financial goals that are motivating, because of my constraining factors. But I obviously need to figure out how to motivate myself, otherwise I’m going to be 70 with no money saved for retirement–and that is a best case scenario.

      1. AHA! But when you are 70 your housing mortgage will be paid off. You will have gradually upgraded appliances and surfaces and will have, relatively, financially secure housing at relatively low costs.
        Also, at 70 your children will have been financially independent of you for hopefully 10 years at least. This changes your cash flows.
        At 70, your and your husband’s retirement accounts will be funded and hopefully contributing to your inflows not outflows of cash.
        AND, with reasonable good luck, you will have decent health. All that bike riding and walking in SF having paid off.
        It does change and it does get better. (and, maybe, depending on voters and elections, maybe post high school education will be better funded… like it was in the 50’s instead of how it is today. And that would make a huge difference!)

        1. Two points:

          1. With the information given, we do not and cannot know if the OP is going to be ok when she’s 70. She and her husband would really need to sit down with a financial planner to figure that out. From what she has said, they’re not saving enough for for retirement or for emergencies and have too high a proportion of their monthly spending as things that they would not be able to cut in the event of a large emergency or a jobloss, but they’re still better off than a lot of Americans. It doesn’t sound like they need huge changes, just temporary big ones or longer-term small ones. But we don’t know that for sure because there aren’t enough details. That doesn’t mean that a spending spree (and, as people have noted, it isn’t even clear that this spending spree is a major setback that has done real damage or a minor one) is going to cause her family eat catfood in their 70s.

          2. In terms of motivation, the OP would be a lot better off on all measures if she had less debt servicing each month, even of low interest debt. There would be a lower “needs” amount each month and that money could be used either for spending or for retirement. Just imagine if instead of sending that money to some colorless agency you got to keep it. If you could do that in the short term, it might be motivating.

          And a couple of bonus points:

          3. Motivation isn’t necessarily necessary with automation, if you’re the kind of person who sees that you have no money left in the checking account so you don’t buy things. That’s why “save first” works really well with a lot of people (including me)– that is very different than being naturally frugal. That’s not something Frugalwoods or Money Moustache would recommend. They don’t need tricks– but most of us do need tricks. Most of the books on debt repayment and savings are about tricks and motivation. Dave Ramsey is almost 100% about that at an extreme (Total Money Makeover is a pretty good read– available at your library! But don’t take his advice on investing.).

          4. In terms of extremes, with compulsive spending, there’s cut up the credit cards entirely and use envelopes of cash that you dole out each month/payperiod/week. Next comes keeping the CC cards but literally freezing them in blocks of water to use for emergencies only. Next comes keeping the CC warm and dry, but at home on a very high shelf. Next comes keeping the CC in your wallet, but deleting all online accounts (like deleting the cc from amazon/Ann Taylor etc.) so you have to enter the CC in manually when you try to make a purchase. These are things that lots of normal people do when they need to spend less. Because many many people spend compulsively. Just like many people (including me) eat compulsively. These are normal ways of coping with normal but potentially destructive behavior.

  5. *sigh* I so understand this post. I was in a similar place with my eating & drinking habits (and can still slip back into them at times), and I cope the same way with spending as well. Everything in excess, like you posted about a few months ago. It’s hard to get out of those coping ruts, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying, because once you climb out and get into a healthier “rut” – you’ll be so thankful you keep trying!

    1. It is so hard to get out of those coping ruts, and if you do manage to, it’s SO EASY to fall back in. When I notice myself falling back into old patterns, a part of me panics because I know how hard it will be to get back out, but a part of me recognizes how good it feels to be back in that familiar place. Ugh. It’s hard.

  6. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. But I have researched this re a family member (whose compulsive spending is MUCH worse than what you describe). I’ve learned it is called a process addiction. Not saying you have this, but if you do, willpower ain’t gonna fix it. I think you are being too hard on yourself. But, as with my family member, it is true that until the person wants help, family and others can do nothing. So if you do have this affliction, I think you are far ahead by acknowledging the problem. But maybe you could be helped by therapy (people specialize in this and there’s even rehab, as I found–not saying you need that). I think you’re right in that self-promoting frugals obviously find it easier than someone who has this affliction. I chose long ago not to drink due to alcoholics in my family tree. I have 0 desire to do it. It never crosses my mind, no temptations, etc. So obviously if I wrote a book on how wonderful living alcohol free is, etc. this would not exactly be helpful for alcoholics.

    As to your Q: bickering with my spouse. I have a hard time not engaging when he pushes a button. Which I really wish I was better at, espec. When this occurs in front of my kids.

    1. Thank you for telling my about process addiction. I’m definitely going to look into it, because I really do think I need some professional help dealing with this. I think I’m going to give myself one last try at following a budget and while I do that I’m going to research process/behavior addiction and find out what resources are available to those who are dealing with it. And then, if I haven’t been able to stay in my budget after a certain amount of time, I will seek help.

      1. This is really really interesting…thanks for bringing it up. I’d never heard of “process addiction” before but it makes a lot of sense…

  7. I see: Stress, compulsivity, and addictive behaviors. Once it was food now it is spending/acquiring. I think there are some medications that may give you that fractional second to reconsider succumbing to the compulsivity ~ but it is very hard.
    Returning packages can help… not keeping a package is easier and better than vomiting back food.
    Forgiving yourself for falling into a compulsive pattern, NAMING the name out loud are both helpful.
    The book on habits reminds us that even after making changes to our patterns it is always always always a split second away, especially under stress, to revert because the old pattern is still there. Name it sooner each time and you help yourself. Be it putting the spoon down from the ice cream or tossing the rest of the chips or returning the product when it appears in it’s box before you see the siren call of the object….
    helps break the compulsive pattern.
    HARD HARD HARD to do.

    1. I see those things too. And you’re right that naming is powerful. I will do that. And I will try to just postpone the action for a little while, because it’s more manageable if I tell myself I can do it later, and then hopefully later I’ll have more control. I have a few ideas on how to implement some of these strategies. Thank you for sharing them.

  8. You are not a failure. You’re very hard on yourself, and yes, you’ve obviously slipped at the moment, but the fact that you’re talking about it and looking for way to get through this proves that you’re trying, even when it is very hard.

    What I do know is that willpower is a limited resource, and it seems to me that you’ve been drawing down on your reserves for a long time. I’m not surprised it all got too much for you. Hugs.

  9. From today’s Washington post:~ Brigid Schulte, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the best-selling book “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”
    I have ordered from my library. It is a 2015 book. Since Contra Costa has it I expect San Francisco Library also. One Amazon review says it really really is geared to parents so less applicable to those without. I shall read it when it arrives and will let you, and my own children, know what I think.
    BUT, the fact there is a BOOK means IT IS NOT YOU ALONE. It is a generic problem for your generation of parents. So all you self-guilting despairers need to know it is a common truth today in our society. Not your guilt. And, not a surprise that less than optimal coping skills are being used as well as people try to find coping skills that work for themselves. Remember in the late 40’s and 50’s alcohol and cigarettes and the first tranquilizers (and abuse of all three) were endemic in this country. Keep breathing and know by putting out your hand, by blogging what is true, you are helping many many many other women.
    HUGS!

  10. I know that if I limit my alcohol intake more that I will lose weight. Each week starts off with a resolve to not drink until Thursday and each and every week I fail to make it. It’s hard to talk about because I feel like when you ever talk about wanting to limit alcohol that people automatically peg you as an alcoholic. Except that I’m talking about 2 drinks, maybe 3 occasionally over several hours. A couple beers, a couple glasses of wine. I just like to drink and have difficulty finding another habit to replace it.

    I’m reading the Willpower Instinct and I highly recommend it. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a self help book although there are some exercises at the end of every chapter. What I am finding the most helpful is learning how our brains work and why willpower waxes and wanes. In reading your post, I immediately thought, it’s not surprising that you have experienced a backslide. You’ve been working so hard to stick to a spending freeze that it’s sapped your willpower. It’s like a muscle and it gets tired. That’s a very simplistic take on it, but seriously, read it. It’s creating a shift in how I’m approaching my failures at willpower and I’m working on being kind to myself when I fail. Which is often.

    1. there with you on the drinking. I’ve actually FINALLY after trying a million times, managed to make it through the weekdays without drinking for 4 weeks in a row. It involved: getting my husband to understand I was serious about this (so not to offer me a drink, because I invariably say yes), not buying any excess wine (stop by and get 1 bottle on friday night, not “stock up”) and also naming it as a problem that I was trying to address & putting it out there for accountability (vs me just quietly secretly trying to do it). Now I’m on “vacation” (traveling to visit family) and the rules have been relaxed & I worry if I’ll be able to get back into it when I return home.

      1. and the reason I was doing it was for weight, sleep, and wanting to make space in my evenings for more quiet & focus, which doesn’t happen when I’ve had a drink—my pattern of thinking is different.

  11. I really wish I could quit drinking soda. It has replaced coffee which has helped my stomach by cutting the caffeine, but with no caffeine I last a week or two. Then I find some excuse while stressed and I’m back to it. Generally I have decided that this is a minor-ish problem and I’ve accepted that it is what will keep me out of bigger badder vices, so I try to give myself the grace to be human and flawed. We are about to embark on modified cash envelopes with gift certificates in the monthly elective spending categories to keep us from over-spending. My coworker listens to Dave Ramsey all day at work and it seems like sensible advice. He goes on and on about how it’s hard to change how we spend but it’s important, and I like that part. Other parts I want to ignore or turn the show off, but keep the good I suppose? Good luck recognizing your spending triggers so maybe next time you can fix what needs fixing before it triggers a round of spending. My triggers are HALT – I am hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. If I fix that, then I avoid a binge (usually food).

  12. I think its very astute of you to recognize the patterns in your spending as similar to the food-binging. I definitely think naming it is helpful—going forward, you may be able to notice the pattern as its developing and stop yourself before its too late. (though you can always return…I’ve gotten much better about returning when I starting tracking my spending—good to see that money come BACK). Also agree with above re: stress & lack of sleep as clear triggers.
    I also agree with what N&M said about trying to change your environment so that you don’t have to rely so much on willpower. There is a lot of research about this in the nutrition/obesity world—that as silly as it seems, doing things like having smaller plates & keeping things in high cabinets (or better yet, not buying them) is the best because having to constantly use your willpower is HARD and willpower can be finite & become exhausted. Not everyone has the same weaknesses. I used to like ice cream and would buy and eat it. I decided it wasn’t a good idea to eat it, so I stopped. I could care less if there is ice cream in the freezer—it never occurs to me to eat it, nor do I feel deprived by not having it. I’m sure the super-frugal bloggers feel that way about shopping. Once they decided to stop, they never missed it, never felt to urge to do it. Naturally frugal people actually have an aversion to spending. Its ingrained. I think you are born with that instinct but you can learn the HOW through upbringing (how to comparison shop, specific ways to save).
    All that is one thing, but what you are describing, the compulsion/addiction is beyond even that…you definitely have something much more difficult to overcome. You CANNOT compare yourself to these people. You are making great progress, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

  13. Your comment about “MAKING myself do it” being harder than doing it… really resonates. Writing the dissertation was not nearly as hard as MAKING myself do it. There are many wise comments here… I came by just to see how you are doing as I’ve been off-blogosphere for a while. Hope everything feels less overwhelming soon. xo

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