Tidying Up Our Spending Habits in 3 Easy Steps

It’s no secret: Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up” on Netflix has inspired across the nation a wave of organizing, attacking clutter, and thanking items that no longer bring joy on their way to the thrift store. I can see why people have gravitated toward her and her methods. There is a sense of cleansing, of purifying the home and purifying oneself, that goes on when you discard things you no longer need. Sometimes, that involves confronting emotions that may have some particularly deep roots and, instead of ignoring or burying those feelings, allowing them to fully express, which gives you the ability to move beyond those emotional anchors.
However, I believe there is another step after what Marie teaches that is missed, another layer beyond the emotional connection with the items themselves and our confidence to part with them, and it starts with exploring a very personal question.
How did you actually end up with so much “stuff” to begin with?
When you go out to eat, or buy something for a collection you have, you likely know that you do not have a strong emergency savings built. You likely are aware that you are living paycheck to paycheck, or that if you lost your job or were accidentally injured your life could quickly be turned upside-down. Yet you still spend all that money on extra food and shopping online. As much as Marie can teach and guide you about tidying, about drilling down each category and touching each item, the root problem has not actually been identified much less addressed: Why did you buy all this crap to begin with?
The answer to that is your amygdala.

Female Basal Ganglia - Anatomy Brain

Your amygdala is your part of the brain that is involved in several brain systems. A couple of key related functions are that it links emotional perception and experience, and it also controls your fight or flight responses. What this means is that under normal conditions, your cortex, the deep logic and long-term thinking part of your brain, normally helps you make strategic decisions – the choices that are in your best interests. However, when you are immediately threatened, your amygdala actually sends chemicals to your cortex, blocking its ability to respond. This is particularly helpful if a car is coming our way to avoid hitting it, or to immediately perform first aid on someone who is injured.
However, this response can also occur when other emotional situations occur, like when we are hungry or are particularly upset about something. With how immediate it can be to drive into a fast-food restaurant, or order something we like online, we can very quickly respond to these feelings as well. This plays right into how the amygdala functions – it blocks the cortex from responding, you order online in just a minute, and by the time your cortex catches up it is too late for it to respond.
But it gets even more devilish. The amygdala not only processes negative emotions and fear, but also processes positive emotions and reward stimuli as well! To prepare you for this positive experience, dopamine is released to essentially prime your brain for the incoming reward and to make sure it is remembered for the future. Shopping and eating actually cause a similar dopamine release. But wait, there’s more! Once you get your food or get that new item your other senses enrich the experience. From the flavor and smell and umami of your food to the unwrapping of the box and seeing your brand new item, all of these senses play right into your amygdala’s response. We find fulfillment, peace, comfort, fullness, if but temporary, from our purchase.
And the coup de grace: Your amygdala is also involved in functions of learning and memory.
Putting this all together, when you have an emotional event that engages your amygdala and perceives whatever is happening as a threat, it sends chemicals to your cortex, inhibiting rational function. You then act based on the emotional response to eliminate the “threat,” and dopamine is released to prepare your mind for a pleasurable experience that you want to remember. You eat the food or acquire the new item, and you have that pleasurable experience that your amygdala remembers the next time the situation occurs. If the situation causing those emotions happens repeatedly, this reaction develops into a full-blown habit, reinforced by your brain’s chemistry.
There is a silver lining to all of this. Your brain has a really awesome quality called neuroplasticity, which means that it changes and reorganizes itself throughout your life. Your brain forms new neural pathways, forging new connections as you learn things. What this means is that you can learn a new habit, a new reaction, and forge a new pathway to replace the bad spending habit with a good non-spending habit instead. You can learn to act differently in those emotional situations and achieve a healthier outcome
To do this, there are three basic strategies I recommend to help shape a lifestyle that consistently consumes less and saves more.
1. Schedule/plan to never have the situation come up.
Schedule in advance when you are going to treat yourself to a Starbucks, to a night out, or a new item that you want. If it’s a new item, delay the purchase a month and see if you still want the item after a month’s time. Having a regular schedule and delaying “treat” purchases allows your cortex to be involved in the decision-making. Oftentimes, I find people who do this don’t just make the initial cut back – they cut back even further. That’s because the immediate emotional “high” is taken out of the experience. It becomes more and more about the intrinsic value of the experience, and if that’s just “another fast food joint” versus “saving money and eating better food,” the cortex has a good chance to win that battle make the healthier choice long-term.
2. Prepare alternatives in case the plan gets thrown off-track.
Life is stressful and busy, and unexpected things can happen. Having a Plan B for when the unexpected happens can help you mitigate the costs of being unprepared. This may mean keeping snacks in the car if you travel frequently, or in your purse, or your office desk, to help with hunger pangs. One thing I learned early on as a financial planner – if someone hits the snooze button a bunch, it is way easier to help them make breakfast sandwiches in advance and freeze them than it is to teach them how to wake up earlier on a consistent basis. Packaging leftovers in small plastic containers is a great grab-and-go solution you can prepare right after dinner. If you have storage at work, keep a few microwaveable soups handy in case you forget lunch. Have a plan for dinner each night, and chop ingredients up when you get home from the grocery store as you are putting things away to avoid lots of prep time.
3. Recognize the situation is emotional and wait to make a decision.
Even the best laid plans and contingencies sometimes just don’t go the way you want. When this happens, you may feel like you just “have” to do something. This one takes a lot of conscious thought and practice, but “waiting” is an active choice. Deliberately not acting IS making an active decision. Delaying a choice allows your logical cortex to help you come up with a plan that takes into account your immediate needs and balance it with your long-term needs.
Tidying Up This Article
When we approach a situation without a plan or perceived alternatives, our irrational selves will govern our reaction. We can anticipate common situations and plan ahead to avoid many problems from ever occurring. Additionally, by accepting that we are wired to make reactive decisions, we can prepare ourselves to unexpected situations through making alternatives available and by practicing “waiting” as an acceptable response. We take Marie’s lessons one necessary step further by not consuming as much as we have in the past. Neuroplasticity kicks in to form new neural pathways and healthier habits. This frees not only our space to enjoy, but more money in our bank account.
It is about building a road around your irrational mind instead of trying to plow through it like a brick wall.

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