3 Warning Signs You May Be Ignoring a Spending Problem

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California Legislature
Associated Press/Sam Hodgson
I pulled up to the drive-through window of my favorite fast food restaurant and ordered the meal that I always get. When I drove around to pay, the cashier said hi and mentioned that she hadn't seen me there in a while. I obviously go there too often.

I also find myself getting a little upset when people oust me on Foursquare as a mayor of any one of my favorite restaurants. It irks me. I'm mayor of several, and I feel a sense of competition when someone steals the title.

There is a telling pattern in this that may mean I have a spending problem. There are other clues, of course. Here are some signs that we may not even recognize as clues that we are potentially overspending.

1. When Real Life Feels Like "Cheers"

It is a bad sign when a sales clerk knows your name. I used to think that it was cool that my local bartender knew my name. Like Norm on "Cheers," it feels great when people know you.

The problem is that you have to go to a bar or a store a long time for someone to know you. It's a clear warning sign and a clue that you may be spending too much time and money in an establishment.

Even though the cashier didn't know my name at the fast food restaurant, that she recognized me meant I had been going there too much. My wallet and my midsection were taking the brunt of ordering the same meal, week in and week out.

2. When Businesses Are Emailing You More Often Than Friends

I probably get more than 100 emails every day. And more than half are from stores or online retailers, bombarding me with deals and coupons.

A daily email from our favorite retail stores is a temptation. A great way to control your spending and beat them at their own game is to get rid of as many temptations as possible. Delete the emails. Unsubscribe from the lists. Purge your newsletter subscriptions.

Will you miss great deals from these companies? Of course. But do you really need these coupons and the temptation to buy something at every turn? You would do far better at looking for online coupons from websites like RetailMeNot and CouponPal when you need to buy something instead of being solicited every day.

3. When Stores Send You Birthday Gifts

I didn't even know that stores sent birthday and Christmas gifts to their best customers until my wife received a $50 gift card in the mail from Tory Burch. She also told me her best friend received a cashmere blanket last Christmas from Banana Republic. How much do you have to spend in a given year at a store to receive a "free" cashmere blanket?

Stores are doing more than simply tracking purchases and trends with their email lists and loyalty programs. Is this the middle class equivalent to the comps that casinos give to "whale" gamblers?

So What Can You Do?

If one or more of these warnings sounds all too familiar, all is not lost. First, recognize that you have a problem. Far too often, we are in denial. Once you realize that you're spending too much in some areas, there are a few steps that you can take to get it under control.

• Skip the situations where you commonly overspend. Do you spend money with friends or have friends who live above their means? Don't put yourself into situations where you'll be peer-pressured into spending money. There's a theory that we have the same net worth as the average of our five closest friends.

• Unsubscribe to all of those email lists. They're just a temptation to spend money that you don't have, especially daily deal websites like Groupon (GRPN). I use an incredible, free service called Unroll.me. It helps you quickly opt out of the emails your don't want, and also provides you with a daily summary of ones that you want to keep. And, by the way, it can be an eye-opening experience to see just how many email lists that you are on.

• Have an accountability partner. Whether it's a spouse or best friend, enlist someone to help you keep your spending down. Before a purchases or shopping trip, discuss it with them. Is this purchase worth it? Is it a want or a need? Sometimes, simply talking about things out loud can help you realize that you don't need to spend the money.

Do you have a spending problem? Have you been ignoring the warning signs? Did I miss any? What are some other warning signs and clues that you spend too much?

Hank Coleman is a financial planner and the publisher of the popular personal finance blog Money Q&A, where he answers readers' tough money questions. Follow him on Twitter @MoneyQandA.


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