How to Stop Emotional Eating and Spending

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Senior woman holding shopping bags
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Stress can drive people to do self-destructive things ... such as using "retail therapy" as a distraction or grabbing some Ben & Jerry's to lift the mood. Whether your emotions drive you to overeat or overspend, there are strategies to eliminate the connection between your feelings and behavior you know is bad for your wallet or your waistline.

It's all about learning self-discipline, say Ellie Kay and Danna Demetre, co-authors of "Lean Body Fat Wallet."Doing so transforms your mind-set to the point where your internal motivation to do the right thing becomes natural.

Getting to that point -- the point where you "realize that you don't need to eat or spend money to feel good about yourself" -- begins with thinking about why you overeat or overspend, Kay says. "For example, I've worked with military families that have a high level of debt. Some of them spend too much money just to comfort themselves when a family member is deployed."

Breaking that habit -- snipping the connection between your emotions and your bad habits -- is the goal of the strategy that Kay and Demetre developed.

The 3D Strategy

The 3 D's are: determine, distract and delay.

Kay describes the 3 Ds in action: "If you go to the mall and just buy the shoes your son needs, you start out determined not to buy anything you don't need," she says "Then you see some amazing Jimmy Choo shoes in the window that are on sale, but you know they're not in your budget.
So you distract yourself by going to the other store and buying your son's shoes. Then you delay by promising yourself that you'll come back in a week or two if you can find money in your budget to buy those shoes. Chances are you won't be back."

Demetre suggests starting with a 10-minute delay before eating anything or buying anything, just to exercise your discipline. During that 10 minutes, ask yourself, "Why do I want this?" "If it's immediate gratification, you may have buyer's remorse," Demetre says. "Whatever you're about to do, think about your quality of life, your health, or maybe your retirement and the impact your action will have on it."

Wallet Wake-Up Calls

The "waiting period" approach is a popular strategy for building discipline.

Linda Rudnick-Smith, a credit counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Syracuse, N.Y., also recommends waiting before making any purchase to make sure you really need it. But the waiting period she recommends is 24 hours.

"Leave the credit cards at home, so when you want to spontaneously buy something you have to go back home to get them," Rudnick-Smith says. She even recommends a more extreme measure: "Try freezing the credit cards in ice, so you have to chip away or melt it to get at them."

Regular reminders about the ramifications of overspending are another strategy to help people stay on track.

Sherry Tetreault, a credit counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Clarksville, Tenn., says she worked with a client who went shopping when she got depressed, and often became so caught up in her retail therapy that she spent way beyond her means.

"During our conversation we determined that her children were the most important things in her life and that as a single parent she would do anything to take care of them," says Tetreault. "She said she never wanted to see them dealing with the financial struggles she was dealing with. I suggested that she buy a key ring that had a picture holder on it and place a picture of her children in it. That way every time she pulled out her keys to go shopping, she would see their picture and it would remind her that she had to stick with her goals and priorities. Later, during a follow-up with the client, she said this really worked for her as it gave her an immediate wake-up call."

Tetreault says the same strategy worked with a woman who was terrified that she would lose her husband if he found out about how much debt she had accrued from her shopping addiction. She advised the woman to remove all credit cards from her wallet and put them in a safe place with his photo on top.

"I also suggested that she place his picture in her wallet," says Tetreault. "This way, every time she started to use a credit card or even open her wallet to pay with cash, she would see his picture."

The Communal Approach

Strategies that work in weight-loss can be adopted for those trying to trim their spending, too.

The most successful weight-loss programs, such as Weight Watchers (WTW), exercise a community approach for accountability, says Kay.

"You can set up your own club with friends or coworkers about whatever you're struggling with, whether it's losing weight or getting rid of credit card debt," says Kay. "If you're not comfortable sharing your financial situation with a group, then you either share just a small part of it that you feel safe sharing or you can make yourself accountable to one friend."

A debt-management plan is another way to incorporate accountability -- and built-in restrictions -- into your routine. One reason clients are successful in repaying debt and getting a "fresh start" through a debt management plan is that the accounts they enroll in the program are closed, says Thomas Nitzsche, a former credit counselor and senior media relations coordinator for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in St. Louis.

"Clients are instructed that opening new lines of credit during repayment could result in some creditors dropping them from the program and increasing their interest rates and payments," says Nitzsche. "Clients are only allowed one credit card in good standing and with a manageable balance to be left out of the program."

Make the Wealth-Health Connection

Whether you struggle with overspending or overeating, it's important to create balance in your life.

Guy Penn, principal and founder of G.M. Penn Wealth Management in St. Louis, says the most important investment you'll ever make in your life has nothing to do with money.

"Invest in your own well-being," says Penn. "Eat well, make time for meaningful leisure, cultivate your relationships, and eliminate stressors. A sizable investment portfolio means very little if you're sacrificing your own health to achieve it."

Motley Fool contributing writer Michele Lerner has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Weight Watchers International.


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