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Spending Money and the Search for Happiness

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 5th 2006

Does how you spend your money determine how happy your will feel? It’s a question that was raised a couple of years ago and tested, in a survey, at the University of Colorado. The question that was presented to people being surveyed was whether a material purchase or money spent on an experience made them feel happier. The results were interesting.

The survey showed that most people felt happier when they spent their money on something experiential. Experiential items included everything from travel for pleasure to attending a concert or museum exhibition. Material items included everything from clothes to cars and books. Yet, books and cars were found to fall into the experiential column because they are experiential in nature. More than a material possession, an automobile allows people to travel and gain enormous numbers of experiences. Books have the same experiential effect because they stimulate thinking and take people on mental and imaginary journeys.

In Search of Elation:

What is also of interest to me about this piece of research is the observation I have made over the years of my psychotherapy practice that many individuals make material purchases in the elusive pursuit of happiness. In these particular cases, the spending was impulsive and unplanned. In these situations people are seeking the feeling of elation after making the purchases. Elation is a feeling of intense joy and euphoria. The elated state is related to the type of intense release experienced by the abusers of certain types of drugs such as cocaine.

So, what is wrong with seeking elation, I hear some of you ask?

The answer to the above question is that elation is of incredibly brief duration. Many people complain that the feeling is gone before they get their item home. This is how people get into debt. Once the feeling has passed they are impelled to go out the next day and make more purchase in the ever hopeful effort of finding the item that will give permanent joy. Therein lays the problem. What these people are attempting to do is to cover-up or escape deep feelings of depression and low self-esteem. Once the newness of the purchase wears away, they return to their painful state of unhappiness and discontent with themselves and their lives.

How to Deal With the Problem?

People who compulsively spend money get themselves into deep financial and personal trouble. The troubles usually involve getting into so much debt that bills cannot be paid. Family members become angry when the depths of the financial problems come to light and more than one marriage has ended in divorce because of this.

The best approach, besides seeking credit counseling, is to enter psychotherapy with the purpose of learning how to control impulsive behaviors. In some cases, anti depressant medication might be included as part of the treatment. The point is that it is important for these individuals to learn how to handle their depression and low self esteem in ways that are healthier and more adaptive. The alternative to this is financial, professional and personal ruin.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

randomly spending money - - Jan 29th 2009
my boyfriend has impulsive problem with randomly spending money just because he has it on uneeded things. it somtimes feels like he just doesnt care about family and what not because of this problem. what should i do??!

I cant drive so could buying toy cars be my midlife crisis - Garry - Dec 16th 2008

I spent £90 on Hotwheels toy cars, 4 undersized picture frames i'll prob ruin making 2 good ones. Saved there in thoery plus found some needed cd storage. So perfect i would have bought 2 more if they had them. Found 2 perfect xmas gifts for £15. Everyones like a treat but i'm 31 and never gonna play with em. I feeling leaving something thats too good price and was worth the original price. I want everyone to feel good like how i' feel at  that time.

How this makes you feel better and someone told me Women find spending money easy..... Sorry but couldnt help but think of shoes and handbags when read your post. I hope you smile. I hope i do when i set my toys up

What can we do? - - Nov 6th 2008

My church is 10 years old and has about 20 members.  My Pastor cannot stop spending money. He does not write the checks but he does make the deals. We are in serious debt well over  $60,000.00.  He is the cause of our financial debt  He is extravagant and always has a reason why more money should be spent.  He seems to enjoy presenting a certain apperance, ("Keeping Up Apperances") .  I recently learned that his home is in forclousurer for almost #300,000.00. He truly needs help.  What can we do?

It doesn't have to be a mental disorder - Chris - Oct 6th 2008

It doesn't have to be a mental disorder per se.

My partner of ten years died suddenly of a heart attack in July, 2008. Six days later, my sister died of the same thing. I find my self buying ridiculous things and starting home improvment projects to fill the void I feel. I'm okay financially so far, but I'm going to get into trouble if I don't stop. 

You might just have some issue that needs to be resolved. Talking to a therapist could help, and it doesn't mean you're crazy.

am I SICK - - May 28th 2008


  I can related to the brief analysis made in the post and sad enough its true... this strong desire for spending and buying and again spending gives me a brief sense of hapiness and releif from all this feelings inside, frustation and failure although I am a very successfull and beutiful business woman with everything to lead a happy life ... yet I keep on falling and failing and cannot understand why I am bale to run a business so complex and outside simply destroy everything by spending all I have.

  I am in serious debt and today, destroyed my credit card.

   I am looking for help and would hate to think that is could be some sort of mental disorder... not me...

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