No matter how useless something may seem, you’re getting something out of it. Let’s take the time you spend “just zoning out” and watching TV, or playing video games, or just literally doing nothing. You’re absolutely getting something out of that. Maybe it’s stress relief, or time to daydream, or escape from reality, but you’re getting something.

When you realize that your spending needs to change, it’s easy to get down on yourself and ask, “Why do I keep spending on stupid?” But the point is that, well, stupid is as stupid does. Stupid must be doing something for you, or you’d have given up stupid a long time ago. What is your stupid spending doing for you?

What are you really trying to buy?

In many cases you will find that simply identifying what it is you really want is the most important key to changing your spending behavior. Or, let’s be real, maybe admitting what you really want is the key. Once you know it and can admit it, you own it. And then it’s easier to replace spending with behavior that actually moves you towards what you really desire.

Let’s take shopping therapy. What are you really after? Just a quick hit of pleasure? Because if that’s all you want, there are cheaper ways to get there. The world is full of free apps, buy-nothings, free stuff on craigslist, free this and free that. You can find ways to get the same hits of pleasure by tracking down cool free things that you get from buying them.

Or is shopping therapy really about spending time with your friends? Do you feel like you need an “excuse” to hang out with people? And why is it that whenever we feel like we need an “excuse” to see people, that excuse always involves spending money? Maybe this is the success of the marketing mentality. We’ve been seduced by the images of friendship on our screens and magazines, and, lo and behold, the people on our screens are always spending money, or surrounded by expensive things.

Shopping therapy: is this closet of unworn clothes really making you happier?

Maybe shopping therapy is about fantasy. Just escaping dull reality for a little while. You know, there’s nothing wrong with just day-dreaming. And there’s quite a lot to be said for turning those day-dreams into any kind of art–dance, music, photography, whatever. Maybe this shopping therapy is about acceptance or security–but you get the point.

If we want to change our spending habits we have to replace our spending with something else.

We always replace things; the reality is that nothing is ever “given up”. Here’s an interesting random fact: Most of us only really eat 10 different meals or so. As a result, if you really want to eat healthier, it never works to just “give up” some part of your diet. You have to replace it with a new meal.

Everything needs a replacement. Why diets fail...
Why are donuts so easy, and the gym is so hard?

From the other side, this is why so many people don’t go to the gym. You can’t just “add” an activity to your daily schedule. You have to give something up! People often think they can just “add” things to their lives, and they’ll have the same life, only richer. It doesn’t work that way.

So it’s important to try to find out what you are really trying to buy. Because, unless you are very different from most people, you won’t be able to just “give up” your harmful spending habits. They need to be replaced. And it’s hard to find a good replacement until you’ve identified what you really want.

Believe it or not, this is fundamental personal finance advice: Go after what you REALLY want.

So ask yourself, what is behind the desire to purchase a car you can’t afford? To make yourself more attractive? (In that case, maybe what you really want is a good relationship, or just good sex.) To win status competitions with your peers? (Maybe what you really want is to have accomplished something and to receive recognition for it.) The thrill of being able to drive way too fast? (Is what you really want the thrill of breaking the rules? If so, that may also drive you to buy things because you can’t afford them.) Or is it the feeling of power that comes from being in control of an awesome vehicle? (Consider the possibility that what you really want control of is your life or career.)

What you will hopefully see is that it’s going to be incredibly hard to not buy that too-expensive car unless you make a trade-off with yourself. And the trade-off is going to need to be that you will take steps, right now, to get closer to your real goals.

So first, find out (and admit!) what those real goals are. No judgments here. Judging can be saved for later.

And speaking of no judgments, it’s time to find out what you really spend your money on, and it’s time to see how close or how far you are from spending on what you really care about.

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