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How I Broke Free from Spiraling Debt

An emotional spender swaps decades of retail therapy for pennywise pampering and discovers a richer life.

The day after I got laid off from my post-college job, I dropped $250 on new underwear. An hour earlier, I had been shuffling in the slow-moving line that snaked through the unemployment office. Burning with humiliation and fearful about my future, I stumbled into Macys.

I should have gone home to strategize how to keep myself afloat. Instead, I headed to the lingerie department. There, surrounded by satiny slips and lacy bras in blush pinks, pale blues and vibrant jewel tones, I felt myself relax as I focused on the moment. Buying something pretty for myself always seemed to calm my nerves. I whipped out my credit card because, honestly, I needed a bra. What I didn’t need were the four camisoles, three pairs of tap pants, two half-slips and one full slip I also purchased.

It’s been a bad day and I deserve a treat, I rationalized. I’ll wear these beautiful pieces on job interviews; they’ll make me feel confident and happy.

And they did — until the high-interest bill arrived. It took months to pay off my indulgence. Like a child who gets a lollipop at every doctor visit, I had fallen into a habit of rewarding myself for every obstacle I overcame and every unpleasant or anxiety-provoking situation. This was a habit I would take decades to shake.

The spring I was determined to learn how to swim, I stopped by a neighborhood boutique after almost every lesson and bought earrings or a necklace to celebrate my bravery and the fact that I didn’t drown. Holding my breath each week as I dipped below the water’s surface, I pushed fear away with thoughts of jewelry shopping.
Whenever my chronically single status made my apartment feel like the fortress of solitude, I grabbed my passport and headed abroad to nurse my wounds.

Because I once worked for a boss who let it be known every day that she found both me and my work lacking, I splashed out on a membership to a pricey Pilates studio and monthly massages. And because I clearly needed to seek new opportunities, I’d go out for $16 cocktails and pricey dinners after every networking event. It was a reward for my bravery in putting myself out there.

Since I hadn’t amassed a closet full of designer clothes or hundreds of shoes, I justified my spending. I was employed again and working hard. I pushed myself past every setback through sheer will. I deserved. Savings account be damned, I was the queen of #selfcare. But this meant feeling good until the Visa bill arrived. I made payments on time, yet I frequently dipped into my savings.

I got laid off a second time.

I updated my resume then used a chunk of my severance to jet off for a weekend in Stockholm. But when months of unemployment coincided with the economic crisis of 2008, I was forced to face some hard realities. I may have deserved to treat myself, but I sure as hell couldn’t afford luxuries on intermittent freelance income.

I gave up indulgences one by one. I switched from daily newspaper delivery to Sundays only. I swapped restaurant meals for occasional takeout. I cancelled my Pilates membership and my subscription to Massage Envy. Then my unemployment ran out.

I got a job in the same cute boutique where I’d bought so much jewelry. Often, customers were women I recognized from Pilates. As I retrieved delicate rings and statement necklaces for them to try on, I felt as though I was looking at my old life from the other side of a mirror. But a job was a job and I was happy to have it.

I stopped getting the Sunday paper. I quit the gym. I cooked most of the time, limiting takeout to every other Saturday. Hard and humbling as this period was, a splurge to help soothe the hurt was out of the question. For a while, I was miserable.

But that feeling gradually gave way to something more profound: I was managing through tough, scary times. I was resourceful and resilient, even without the crutch of emotional spending. While relying on my reward system, I hadn’t realized how strong and capable and fearless I had become.

In that safe emotional space, I reaffirmed that I deserve happiness no matter what. But I’d never be happy if focused on experiences I couldn’t afford. I shifted to budget-friendly activities as an emotional boost. I got my bicycle tuned up and started cycling all over town. Both my outlook and my thighs improved. I bought one gerbera daisy every other week. Brightening a bud vase on my dresser, it was the first thing I saw each morning. Instead of flying off to exotic destinations, I perused a glossy travel magazine as I planned my dream trip.

When I did splurge — a premium channel subscription, pedicures in the summer and the occasional night on the town — I carefully planned, budgeted and paid with cash. Without a bill hanging over my head, I enjoyed these treats more.

Nowadays, though I’m not so squeezed, it’s easier to forgo things I once held dear. I had paid for them in search of comfort, protective arms to wrap around a tender psyche. Figuring out what truly feeds me emotionally, and realizing I don’t have to go broke getting it, pays off every day.

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