Money can't fill a hole.
Money can’t fill a hole. Neither can clothes, success, German chocolate cake, or beer. A well-manicured exterior alone won’t make you feel satisfied inside. It also won't alleviate anxiety or provide a solid sense of self-worth. It’s not the next thing, the next next thing, or the thing that comes after that will lead to your happiness.
Having the perfect body won't give you the perfect relationship.
A nice yard won't keep the neighbors from talking.
An expensive cocktail won't keep the anxiety at bay.
Being well dressed won't create stability in your marriage.
Perfecting your home doesn’t mean you’ll feel at peace there.
A bigger diamond doesn't make you a more valuable wife.
A more expensive degree won't guarantee you the job.
A well-designed business card won't keep you from becoming an American Psycho.
(Just kidding on this last one!)
Bodies, homes, clothes, and cocktails are impermanent and subject to change. A car accident or natural disaster can strip all of these things from us in an instant. We know that material possessions don't predict happiness or life satisfaction. Yet, continually, many of us spend our money on more stuff instead of investing in ourselves or our relationships. We go for the quick fix instead of digging down into what would really make us feel better. Why?
SIGNALLING TO A POTENTIAL SPOUSE.
Some of the compulsive purchases we make have their roots in an innate human behavior that is likely as old as mankind itself. An evolutionary biology theory describes a phenomenon known as "Signalling". In a nutshell, it's how we portray our value as a potential mate to others.
Here's one example of signalling: An athlete's bulging muscle and coordination could be attractive because we unconsciously believe that these are valuable traits to pass on to our children. Athletic ability is what would be referred to as an "honest" signal. There are dishonest signals among both animals and humans too. For example, when someone buys a fancy car to appear like someone who could contribute to household income, but in reality they are drowning in debt. That would be a dishonest signal. We are surrounded by signals like the expensive car that are materialistic in nature. In fact, recent research shows that women who feel threatened in their marriage often buy more expensive handbags and shoes.
Whether or not these are cave man instincts, they can lead to us unconsciously trying to purchase positive and lasting romantic relationships. While the women in the research above may have been compelled to spend more money, there is no clear evidence that a fancy new handbag will actually add stability to their relationships or help them keep their husbands. We have all met someone with a crummy car and/or a less than ideal figure that has found happy, long-lasting love. So, unless we are mindful, our ancient instincts can compel us to hand over our hard-earned dollars out without actually enhancing our relationships.
THE HOLE THAT MONEY WON'T FILL.
While Signalling is an interesting theory, there is a much more pervasive way that we spend our dollars in vain attempting to fulfill psychological needs. Pulling out the credit card to buy brand name jeans can seem less daunting than admitting that we have low self-esteem. Paying for travel we cannot afford can be easier than facing a deep-seated fear that we are boring or the anxious feeling that we are missing out. Accepting that some people will judge us regardless of what we do can be harder to swallow than the loan on a new car. Going out for drinks with friends after work can seem like a necessity if you aren't at peace with quiet free time.
These spending examples are rooted in avoidance and can often be unconscious, but it is not uncommon for people to shop solely for the purpose of transforming their lives or creating lasting happiness. And in fact, It is these kinds of spenders who are more likely to become compulsive shoppers.
In less common instances, compulsive spending can escalate into a situation that causes great emotional and financial harm. It can be a part of a larger mental health issue that can require professional treatment or a symptom of a serious condition. But even if we are not at the point of financial or emotional devastation, there is often something more personal at play than the simple drive to have the newest, latest things.
IF THERE'S NO QUICK FIX, THEN WHAT?
Some kinds of broken budgets cannot be fixed with financial help alone. Before we can set down the shopping bags (and/or smart phones) and still retain our inner peace, we may first need to invest in ourselves.
First, it's important to know (and embrace!) the fact that some longing, aching, worrying, loneliness, dissatisfaction, and anxiety is human. When we avoid these parts of life with shopping, social media, shallow relationships, or an expensive scotch, then we may miss out on their benefits. Discomfort in all its forms can propel us to take risks, make changes, and try new things.
Worry, loneliness, and other hard feelings can be a symptom that we need to make big changes. By listening to them, we can gather clues about what choices will lead us to a more fulfilling life. They can teach us good self-care and life balance or push us into a challenging new career. When we drown out those feelings with the clamor of pointless busy-making, we can miss life-changing opportunities. Even worse, using the temporary joy of shopping or thrill seeking to mask our dissatisfaction in a job/marriage/city/friendship that doesn't suit us often results in a harder transition later down the road.
Fate demands acceptance of us at times. Despite how deeply we might want something for ourselves, sometimes its fulfillment is outside of our control. It is hard to build a family when you haven't found a person with whom you would love to raise children. The world's most talented athlete could be paralyzed in a car accident. Fate can be notoriously cruel this way. Situations outside of our control can unfortunately force us to find acceptance and choose a new path.
Invest in yourself.
Only you can decide what you feel compelled to create with this one lifetime. You could build up your career, launch an art project, keep a journal of secret writings, train to run a marathon, create a cozy home, invent a new medicine, craft a public policy, machine custom car parts, or raise a family. As noted by Vicki Robin in Your Money or Your LIfe, the ways you invest in yourself do not have to be tied directly to your paid work. The only requirement is that you listen to your guts. Choose something important to you, not something you feel compelled to do out of a sense of obligation or societal pressure.
From the outside, investing in the things we love can sometimes look very similar to things we previously did compulsively. Here's an example: Immediately after high school, I felt obligated to be the first person in my family to attend college. The expectations of others drove me down that path, and it all felt horrible once I got there. In less than two quarters, I had dropped out (with some excessive student loan debt of course). Going to college when I did so out of obligation didn't work out at all. However, when I returned later for reasons that were deeply meaningful to me, it was an amazing experience. From the outside, the actions were the same, but the experience was only meaningful when I was ready for it and truly wanted it.
Investing in yourself can sometimes look pointless or wasteful to the outside world. Do it anyway. When cartoonist Sarah Lazarovic was trying to save money, she created paintings (complete with elaborate descriptions) of the material items that tempted her to break out her credit card. This art project became a crazy amazing book that shared her very human experience with others. But even if she hadn't been published, this creative time would have fed her need to illustrate while helping her meet her goal to spend money differently.
Money alone can't fill a hole. Neither can distractions. Building a meaningful life requires us to tackle the hard stuff and seek out more than the quick thrill of shopping, social media, or shallow experiences. To have the kind of existence where we build, invent, improve on things, and otherwise continue the lifelong act of becoming requires more than our wallet. It requires our hearts and minds. It demands that we engage in meaningful ways in the world. It requires that we use the feelings that we'd rather brush under a rug as a compass to find and blaze a path that matters.
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In this shorter read, Frankl writes compellingly on how Nazi death camp survivors found a sense of purpose that drove them to survive. (Kinda puts our first world problems in perspective, no?)