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Spend money mindfully to stress less
June 8th, 2012
03:19 PM ET

Spend money mindfully to stress less

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

Would you consider embarking upon a mindful spending challenge?

In poll after poll, Americans say that the state of their finances is one of the biggest sources of their stress.

“People are spending money they do not have to buy things they may not need,” observed Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard’s Technology & Entrepreneurship Center and author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” during our recent interview.

While researching his book, Wagner discovered that more than 70% of our economy is based on consumer spending. Increasingly, over the last 20 or so years, that consumer spending has been fueled by debt. The savings rate in 2007, immediately before the economic collapse we are still slogging through, was negative 2%. That kind of spending is unsustainable, said Wagner, “economically, environmentally and spiritually.”

When we consider mindfulness, most of us think of yoga, meditation, even mindful eating - not the way we spend.

But our spending habits are often mindless and automatic, like a constantly dripping faucet, as we dig ourselves further and further into debilitating debt. Embarking upon a mindfulness practice when it comes to spending can help reduce stress and improve mental and physical health, according to a significant body of scientific research on the practice of mindfulness.

It also provides us with a greater sense of control. It introduces an individually driven, spiritual aspect of the solution to our larger economic problem, and gives each of us the opportunity to reflect and gain important insights about our relationship with money and why we spend it.

Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, author of “How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness,” believes that most of us would be well-served by practicing greater mindfulness in all areas of our lives, including spending. She defines mindfulness as “deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you—in your body, heart and mind. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgment.”

Bays offers a few important suggestions for those interested in undertaking an exercise in conscious, mindful spending.

Surf the urge

Bays suggests that every time the impulse arises to buy something, you ask yourself: Do I really truly need this? Do I need it now?

This is called “surfing the urge,” a technique also used with eating disorders. When the urge arises to acquire something, surf it, stay with it for a while.

Bays asks: “How many times have you thought: ‘I need one of these things’ and for some reason you can’t get to the store. Then later you can’t even recall what it was you needed. The urge that seemed so compelling at the time disappeared entirely.”

She recommends building in a delay while you question whether you truly need to make the purchase. What are the alternatives to buying? What if you save the money instead?

Question the desire

“We have a notion that our desires need to be satisfied right away. We have this urgent need for instant gratification,” says Bays.

But what is the need you are trying to fulfill? Are you really hungry? Are you anxious? Do you need a distraction?

You must determine whether what you want to buy will truly make you happy, or if it will just keep the endless wheel of desire going.

Avoid habitual momentum

We can get caught in our habits and keep going along a well-worn track, but momentum often comes from habit and impulse, not from being present, says Lee Lesser, a teacher of sensory awareness, a mindful meditation technique. Lesser recommends resisting the momentum and becoming more conscious and deliberate about spending habits.

Stay with discomfort

Life is not always comfortable, and many of us have a problem being present with that reality. It’s so easy to be disconnected. We get caught in our thoughts and worries, and in what we think will fill up the space and take away pain.

But you will encounter suffering in life. We try in modern society to deny that, to buy our way out of it - but of course you can’t, says Bays. None of us can, not even the wealthy.

Mindfulness teaches us that there is no place to go but here, in the present moment, observes Lesser. When we are able to focus on the present, the discomfort changes and we can offer attention to things in a way that is meaningful and comforting.

Rest in your breath

Lesser recommends that you pause and focus on your breathing. Becoming mindful of the breath can be profoundly comforting. Use the sensation of your breath as an anchor for consciousness in the present moment. You may eventually widen this awareness to include other senses - sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Offer real intimacy

Resist the idea that you can make yourself, your children and your grandchildren happy by buying them stuff.

“What we really want, what our children really want, is true intimacy, a sense of connectedness,” says Bays. Research shows that true intimacy reduces stress and is protective during traumatic times. A sense of security reduces stress hormone levels in the body.

“Children want your time, your attention, your love.” These are the things that truly make us happy. The desire for material things is only satisfied briefly, and then more desire arises.

Value your life’s energy

Ultimately, says Bays, money is a symbol of energy. It’s a way to buy energy, to trade energy.

Before you make any purchase, ask yourself whether it’s worth your effort and your (or someone else’s) life’s energy. Would you prefer to use it to buy yet another pair of shoes, or would you rather spend it in another way? Save it, perhaps, or use it to go on a retreat or vacation that may change you or expand who you are, in some substantial way?

“Perhaps you decide you prefer the shoes,” notes Bays, “and that’s fine. Just be sure you’re making that decision consciously.”

Opt for true satisfaction

In the end, says Bays, we all want to be happy, but not the happiness we see in advertisements, where you are on the roller coaster, laughing hysterically and holding up a can of soda!

We want the simple kind of happiness, the kind that does not come from stuff.

There are things we need to sustain ourselves. For everything else, pause and consciously consider: Will this buy me happiness? Or will it go on to contribute to more stress, anxiety and dysfunction?

Follow @amandaenayati on Twitter or at facebook.com/amanda.enayati


soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. Jess

    great article

    June 8, 2012 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Tom

    Slow news day?

    June 8, 2012 at 16:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Harel Ho

      You kidding? This is fantastic! It has politics written all over it! Choose your side, Democrat or Republican, and take a swipe! The national debt is just us individuals but magnified a billion times. How can we expect politicians to tax and spend responsibly when the individual voter is financially irresponsible? C'mon people, where are all those crazy comments?

      June 11, 2012 at 19:58 | Report abuse |
    • ellis

      Says the guy in debt.

      June 12, 2012 at 00:10 | Report abuse |
  3. BL

    This problem is close to my heart. I have a huge house but you can barely even walk around because it's crammed full of stuff. Honestly I don't know why I bought half of it. Okay MOST OF IT. Now it just gives me heart palpitations to look at all the junk. I think maybe I'm just depressed or something.

    June 8, 2012 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Don

    Thank you for the article. I'm a 65 year old man who has always practiced handling money mindfully. Most people give me a blank stare when I explain my reasoning on the subjects of consumerism and materialism.
    I was albe to fully retire at age 55 with no debt and a house paid in full. My retirement is very pleasant and I have all the money I desire as my true needs are few. I would say this article is 100 percent correct from my perspective.

    June 8, 2012 at 23:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Paul

    I read this article as I lay on my couch again today, as I have for the last two months. My huge house filled with cars, art, big screens, and every possible creature comfort one could imagine. Yet I'm paralyzed with emptiness and depression. Don has the right idea as does the article. No matter what is bought, or how much of it is possessed, the hole never gets filled. It's always there, always beckoning. It's the deepest valley I have ever experienced, and if one were to be looking in, it would appear my life and existence is blessed. I have been contemplating the retreat as the article suggests as I know I must do something before its too late. BL has a level of frustration I am painfully aware of. I hope I can muster the strength to finally make some changes. Great article, maybe today I take a first step.

    June 9, 2012 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sandy

      Paul, the answer you need may be found through a man named Eckhart Tolle.

      Good luck to you.

      June 9, 2012 at 19:06 | Report abuse |
    • znhcats

      Possessions sometimes give us stress & emptiness. Instead of lying on the couch I suggest you spend times in doing some voluntary works to fulfill your meaningful life. There are a lot of places need volunteers in your community.

      June 10, 2012 at 18:20 | Report abuse |
  6. Anna W.

    @paul You just gave me goose bumps. I am with you too and I will take a first step today. Thank you Paul.

    June 9, 2012 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. ComeOnMan9

    I think so many people in American society get brainwashed with the idea that they should have certain possessions whether or not they can afford them. Children and Cars fight for number one on the list. But baby the homeownership thing is something y'all can have. I just about pee my pants in fear that I will HAVE to go to Home Depot as opposed to wanting to go. I love calling my landlord and freeing up a lot of disposal income for me to throw away my very own special stupid way. Because I am brillant.

    June 10, 2012 at 22:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ComeOnMan9

      Big ups to the Eckart Tolle, the master Guru!

      June 10, 2012 at 22:16 | Report abuse |
  8. Sara

    After working for years as an expat, when I return home to the US for visits to my family and friends it always strikes me at how much stuff everyone has. I am from the Midwest where people have a lot of space to store things. Since I have lived to a place where the cost of living is extremely high and the space is limited I have really truly learned the art of do I really need it? And most of the time, the answer is no. If I had not moved into this situation, I would be like all my other family and friends drowning in needless stuff. How many toys do children REALLY need?

    June 11, 2012 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Harel Ho

      Good point. Seems to me the more toys kids have, the less grateful they are.

      June 11, 2012 at 20:03 | Report abuse |
  9. andrzej palak

    Wonderful article that challenges you to evaluate your motives. I believe Spiritual Faith is the number one focus that will change the Possessions and Clutter mentality that I have in my life.

    June 11, 2012 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Victor

    I love this article...I am so glad that mindfulness practice...in all its many wonderful forms...is coming into the mainstream!

    June 11, 2012 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Don

      Victor, you are so right. Mindfullness and expanded awareness of life in general is something well worth pursuing
      for all of us. It's a never ending concept of constant growth and personal development.
      The reward for such action is tremendous, well worth the effort.

      June 11, 2012 at 17:59 | Report abuse |
  11. maribeth2

    Reblogged this on Blissful Living Notes.

    June 12, 2012 at 06:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.