I distinctly remember the first time I went on a food diet. Not wanting to be too ambitious, I decided to start by cutting out all carbohydrates. For the best of my life. No more pasta, bread, chips, muffins or potatoes. The first day of my self-imposed ban, I felt like I was on top of the world. Sustaining myself with vegetables and meat, I pitied the people still eating bread. As I crunched on celery, I calmed myself with the fictional notion that I was better, stronger and more capable than the weaklings who consumed carbohydrates.
Five days later, I consumed an entire batch of pancakes drizzled with syrup and loaded with butter in less than three minutes.
Although humorous, the story of my first diet illustrates two soul-sucking activities: dieting and binging. It took me over five years to understand that no diet would ever be successful or help me create a fulfilling life. Restricting my food by following arbitrary rules or religiously following a set of predetermined workouts was pointless because life is complicated and food is emotional.
As soon as I stopped dieting and restricting, I lost 10 pounds in a month and never gained it back. I stopped the crazy-making cycle of dieting and binging and my body thanked me. I became happier and healthier because I started to listen to my body and trust it. The same is true for money.
The Money Diet Myth
No budget or complicated financial diet will solve your financial stress. Unless you are living in poverty and resources are truly scarce, the stress is emotional and no amount of “number crunching” will fix it.
For the majority of humans, food isn’t simply about nourishing our bodies, it’s about comfort, fear, memories, and happiness. It brings friends together and provides joy when it’s delicious. At it’s core it’s about nourishment and survival, but humans are complex and in the same way sex isn’t merely about reproduction, food isn’t merely about survival and neither is money.
From infancy, we are made to understand that money is power. As children, our parents wielded the power of the dollar. They had the power to say “yes” or “no” to us and the reason was simple: they had the cash.
For some children, the awareness of money’s power was subconscious. For others, it quickly became a driving force and obsession. Either way, money became an important centerpiece of existence.
Parents yell at their children about it, couples divorce over it and people kill themselves because of it. There are very few things in the world that can provoke such powerful emotions, yet we still attempt to treat it like a mathematical equation that can be solved.
Although it’s true that 3,500 calories are equivalent to a pound of fat and four quarters make a dollar, the math is pointless after a certain point because it’s not about numbers.
It’s about the way money makes you feel. Whether you’re scared by it, obsessed with it or believe you’ll never have enough, it’s emotions that drive our finances. Because of that, you should never go a financial diet.
What is a Financial Diet?
A financial diet is any sort of intense budget or tracking. It’s pledging to “never buy lattes again” or to “only eat beans and rice for an entire month.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the act itself; instead, it’s the restrictive pledge that motivates it. The minute you pledge to “never” buy something again is the minute the binge and purge cycle begins.
Suddenly, lattes will become the only thing you can think about. Your days will spent distracting yourself from the thought of them and your nights will be spent dreaming of their tauntingly warm taste. Think I’m exaggerating? The same thing happens with food.
Ultimately, quick fix financial diets result in a binge. At a certain point, your new obsession with lattes will become too much to handle and you will break. As you take your first sip, you’ll feel giddy and almost high. After you’ve bought three lattes in one day, the crushing guilt will set in. You’ll feel like a failure but tell yourself, “I already failed. None of it matters anymore.”
After buying a latte everyday for a month or two, the cycle of dieting will begin again as you promise to once again cut out lattes for good.
The True Cost of Dieting
Financial diets ensure that you world shrinks. Instead of looking at the big picture of finances, you become obsessed with a single (fairly insignificant) thing. In this case, it’s lattes. But even beyond the psychological damage, your bank account will be lower than it would have been because you probably didn’t even want a latte every single day. Chances are you only truly desired it one twice a week but the restriction skewed your perception.
For me, the cycle of financial dieting and binging was at it’s worst when I was in college. I was responsible for every expense and I became obsessed. In some ways, my obsession was necessary in order to survive, but that didn’t make it healthy. I put myself on a strict budget: $100 of “spending” money a month. That meant every expense that wasn’t food or bills came from the $100.
There was one month in particular where I became obsessed with an arbitrary purchase: flowers from Trader Joe’s. It was all I could think about and I felt deprived and depressed. For some reason, I started to believe that the flowers would be able to make everything better. They would make my apartment nicer and help me study better. Their very presence in my life would increase my happiness ten-fold. All of these thoughts are absurd, but the self-imposed restriction and corresponding obsession made them feel true.
Finally, I cracked. My partner and I were at a farmer’s market one weekend and I bought flowers. But I didn’t stop there. I purchased handmade soap, Indian curry, chips, fresh guacamole and countless other trinkets I didn’t need. My monthly $100 was spent in less than 20 minutes. The worst part? I didn’t even want most of it. I simply wanted a nice $5 bouquet of sunflowers for my apartment, but the viciousness of my money diet had caused me to momentarily lose my sanity.
Finances are about moderation and self-punishing budgets or restrictions will never create happiness. Diets (of any kind) ensure that you end up obsessed, unhappy and poorer than when you started.
Life is more than counting pennies and imposing bans. It’s about getting to the root of your money issues and creating a life of self-informed balance. Unsure of how to start? Start with these:
1. Buy What You Want
Don’t blow $1000 on a jacket, but if you’re truly craving a latte, buy the damn latte! Life is too short to never drink a latte again. If you catch yourself on autopilot and buying a latte every single day, make time to sit with yourself and discover if it’s truly increasing your joy.
2. Track Your Emotions Instead of Expenses
Each time you buy an item, big or small, track how you feel. Rate your overall happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 before the purchase and after. You’ll probably start to notice a pattern. Adjust your purchases accordingly.
3. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Chances are that you are trying your best. We’re all human and sometimes life is complicated. Stay smart, but also don’t beat yourself into submission. It’s not worth it.