Money Guilt And What to Do About It

Money Guilt And What to Do About It

January 25, 2024

Rich or poor, young or old, married or single, pet or human parent…a lot of people feel guilty about their money. Remarkably enough, the guilt can emerge from polar opposite places.

Some feel guilty about spending money; others feel guilty while saving it.

Some feel guilty about not paying attention to their finances; others feel guilty that they spend too much time and attention channeling their inner Ebenezer Scrooge.

Some feel guilty about paying for important things (like visiting the doctor’s office about that nagging pain or strange lump). Some feel guilty about paying for the less important things (like your 20th pair of shoes that may never again see the light of day).

Quite a few people feel guilty about simply having money. Quite a few more feel guilty about not having money (“I should make better choices and save more”). Then there’s the people who have money but feel like they don’t, and they feel guilty about not having enough money when they have plenty!

Or how about giving money? I meet people who feel guilty that they don’t give enough to others. They report feeling guilty about their own financial success, discipline and perceived sacrifice aside. This guilt is not reserved to those who don’t give–many clients who already give feel like they should do more.

Then I meet others who feel guilty that they give too much money. Usually this comes from giving or paying for their own children and family; they feel guilt and worry about whether they made their children too dependent on the Bank of Mom and Dad to be self-actualized, happy people. Or they feel guilty about spending money on their parents for their care (“I should be the one taking care of mom, not throwing money at the problem and having her stay in a home.”) Still others feel guilty about overdoing it with gift giving at Christmas or birthdays. And those who come into wealth tend to be absolutely wracked with guilt when friends and family reach out for “their share”.

Perhaps not shockingly, crowdsourced shopping platform Slickdeals commissioned a survey of 2,000 Americans and found that more than half of people feel guilty spending money.

There is also the idea of how we perceive ourselves–less the idea of “I am what I own” and more of “I am what I do”. When who you are is what you do and how you spend your money, the stakes become higher–paving the way for guilt when you worry about whether your spending aligns with your values.

So what can we do to feel less guilty?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, there are a few things we find that tend to help.

1. Recognize why you feel guilty.

Naming the reason why you feel guilty is the first step to getting over it. There are different solutions for different sources of guilt. For many of the “simpler” transactions, for example, you can save yourself a lot of guilt if you find a great perceived deal on something. Buyer’s remorse from finding the same thing at a much lower price is one of the most common sources of everyday, transactional purchase guilt.

But you can’t find a “deal” to help you feel less guilty about having money in the first place, or for buying something you don’t actually need. For more complex guilt, it is less about constantly searching for a discount and more about uncovering those old money stories and experiences we have. Worries about spending money the right way are part of the overall larger problem of having a scarcity mindset. This leads into another way to assuage your guilt.

2. Understand if you are financially okay to spend money on something.

It is tough to feel good about spending money when you don’t know if it is disposable income. You don’t feel safe to spend on a nice vacation or something you want because it might be the dollars you actually need some day to pay for your groceries.

It is part of the reason why planning your savings can actually feel good. Done right, you know you have filled all the necessary buckets and can spend guilt-free with what remains.

It is the same thing in retirement after you are done saving–you can feel good about spending if you have done enough retirement planning to understand how much you can safely spend. When you grew up in a family with very little, went through a bankruptcy, or had overwhelming credit card debt, even years later it can take an enormous amount of self-convincing that you don’t have to feel guilty about buying something.

So how do we accomplish this? There is the old-fashioned but effective envelope method, featuring an envelope for each category of spending for the month with dollar bills allotted to each envelope to help you stay on track. For those looking for something a little more modern, consider the electronic version of this. You can open accounts for different purposes and have portions of your income automatically deposited into each one.

For example, you might have 4 accounts:

  1. Housing & Utilities
  2. Groceries & Household Items
  3. Entertainment & Leisure
  4. Emergency Savings

Some clients will have their employer auto-deposit amounts in each account from their paychecks. Dollars flow into the appropriate places to make it easy for money to be spent on the right things.

There can be a related challenge when you are giving to others. If you give someone money, especially when they are prone to guilt-ridden spending, they may opt to save it instead. But when you are specifically trying to give them a chance to spend on themselves, you can force the issue. For example, I deliberately get my wife Disney or restaurant gift cards so she has no choice but to spend the dollars on something she wants. With the sunk cost of knowing dollars must be spent at the restaurant or store she loves, the guilt disappears and she can enjoy spending the money.

We often simplify things for clients in similar ways. For some clients who still work, every paycheck or every month x dollars go to their accounts here. We divide the deposit into appropriate accounts with appropriate investments for different goals and timelines. Sometimes it looks fairly complicated on our end, but it is simple and easy for clients.

For retired clients, it is similar: many of them have a monthly income we generate that lands in their bank account the same day every month. Meanwhile, on our end we are paying attention and coordinating how much comes from different accounts and different investments with the goal of reducing taxes and improving returns over time. We figure out how much to withhold for taxes and ensure the income stream is sustainable over time.

There is an incredible amount of value in eliminating guilt. Quality of life rises, decisions often improve, and you literally have more time in your day to focus on what matters most.

We get it: one of the most challenging things about guilt from our perspective is that it can be debilitating. Many clients admit that when we were first getting to know each other, it took all the courage they had to come in. They were so worried about being judged that they put off coming in–even when they knew we were going to help and their friends were raving about us and practically pushing through the door (literally–we have had our more motherly clients take their friends by the hand and march them into the office).

But the relief of having a plan and knowing you will be okay is incredibly real. For quite a few clients, that relief might be worth more than the dollars we make or the tax dollars we save. I have seen it change someone’s health, improve a marriage, mend relationships with children, and even transform how they hold themselves when they walk. A plan isn’t the cure-all, and there are times when someone needs to see a therapist rather than me, but for a lot of people it can quell the uncertainty. And uncertainty is where fear and guilt love to grow.

There are all kinds of other strategies we use with clients to help them feel great about their financial life. Whether it is saving dollars, making more money, planning, or talking through tough decisions, reach out to us with your questions and concerns. We are here to help you.


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