I Deserve It: The Fastest Way to Lose Control of Spending

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Sarah was finally making money.  She had slogged through almost three years to get her business off the ground and, at last, it was taking on a life of its own.  What wasn’t taking on a life of its own was her finances

She had taken a couple of personal finance classes and talked to some accountant friends.  Yet there was never anything left at the end of the month to put into savings.  In fact, a few months she still had to scrimp to make ends meet. 

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If there’s one phrase that can sabotage even the finest spending plan, it’s “ I deserve it .”

Where does this come from?  Typically it comes from women making up for all the years—or even a short period of time—when they “went without” as kids or young teens.

Maybe they were teased about their clothing or about not having what other kids had.  Or maybe they just felt “different” because their parents made comments about how poor they were, or how rich other people were.  Or maybe an incident was seared on their brain when they went to buy something and were embarrassed to have to put it back because they didn’t have enough money to buy it.

In any case, that feeling of deprivation is a pretty strong trigger for unnecessary buying.

That trigger can make them feel they have the right to spoil themselves.  (And if they work hard to earn their money, that’s even more reason!)

The “ I Deserve It ” Mindset

So, although enough money may be coming in to cover all expenses, plus an amount for pleasure spending, the “ I deserve it ” mindset can make it really easy to fall for must-haves that they see in magazines, in boutiques or online:

  • Something pretty or luxurious, something that says “you’re special.”
  • A Thai yoga massage.
  • A new anti-age cream that makes that 49-year-old model look 35.
  • A quick weekend cruise to an island where “everything’s included.”
  • Dinner and drinks at the new little place downtown.
  • Or all of the above.

And before you know it, the amount set aside for pleasure spending looks miniscule compared to what comes in on that month’s credit card statements.

One of two things happens next:  either credit card debt creeps up, month after month, or (if credit cards are paid off each month) it becomes difficult to close out the rest of the month’s expenses with what remains.

So how can the “ I deserve it ” mindset be defeated?

Understanding Needs and Wants

Most people have trouble differentiating between needs and wants.  To defeat the ” I deserve it ” mindset, stop and think of what your needs are.  These are the things you absolutely, positively have to pay each month:  mortgage or rent, food, insurances, credit card minimums, installment payments on loans, gas, anything else that someone could come yell at you about if you don’t pay.  Or that will cause you true lack if you can’t buy (food, gas, etc.)

Everything else is a want.

Make a list of all those needs.  Look at your disposable income.  Whatever is left after earmarking money for your needs is available for wants.

Then give some real thought to your wants.  Ask yourself:

  • Do I want to be able to take a vacation next winter?  If so, how much do I want to set aside each month towards that?
  • Do I want to pay down my school loan faster than required?  If so, how much do I want to set aside each month towards that?
  • Do I want to start feeling better about my retirement prospects?  If so, how much do I want to set aside each month towards that?
  • Do I want to go out to dinner once a week? If so, how much do I want …

You get the idea.

Instead of coming from a place of deprivation, realize you have full control over how you spend your money.

Figure out what brings you the greatest joy.  Is it always having instant gratification?  Or is it having some fun, some nice things, but also feeling like an adult who is making adult decisions?  Is it feeling that you’re taking care of yourself for the long term?

What is it you want to feel?

(Have you noticed that you are no longer coming from the place of “ I deserve it ”?)

Let us know in the Comments section below if you see how a gentle shift in perspective can change how you make your decisions.


Bio: Sharon O’Day fixes financial lives. She is a tell-it-like-it-is money expert with a successful career in global finance, plus an MBA from the Wharton School. Today she specializes in getting entrepreneurial women over 50 back on their game so they can have more money, less stress and more joy. With her “Over Fifty and Financially Free” strategies, they take actions that lead to their ultimate goal: financial  peace of mind.

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  • Kung Phoo

    Needs and wants are two completely different things. Nobody deserves anything. Everything is what you make of it in my opinion! Thank you for sharing this great post!

    • You’re right, Robert. That “deserving” muscle seems to get developed for purely psychological reasons. I just wanted to be sure anyone who used it was aware of the danger … 😉

  • Diana Foree

    I love your blog. You put the truth right in front of your readers about finances. I never buy because “I deserve it”. I always think “do I need it or want it?” A honest answer to that question could save a lot of money for the future.

    • Diana, in addition to your “do I need it or want it?” question, there’s another one I use: “Does buying this move me TOWARD or AWAY FROM my goal of financial peace of mind?” Between the two, you’ll be fine! 😉

  • Nate Leung

    We are deserving. I think that most people have a ‘lack’ mentality if they feel they don’t deserve anything. I’ve always believed in abundance, and everyone deserves it! Thanks for the great post!

    • Nate, the question is if people use “deserving” as a reason to purchase when doing so means they can’t meet their financial obligations. You and I may have different interpretations of abundance, which is fine. I don’t feel that we have to have endless material things in order to lead an abundant life … and carrying personal debt doesn’t make us feel particularly prosperous. Does that make sense?

  • Veronica Solomon

    That phrase “I deserve it” has gotten a lot of people into serious financial problems. It is all about what your needs are vs your wants. It also is about seeing money as a tool to help us achieve our goals, instead of being our master

    • You got it, Veronica! Money is a unit of exchange, a facilitator …

  • Scott Glaze

    Very true! You may be able to afford it today, but will you cost you something else and possibly more important in the long run??

    • As I see it, Scott, it comes down to whether that purchase brings you closer to or further from your most important goals … one of which ought to be financial peace of mind!

  • Wingate Wyndham Sulphur

    I have been guilty of spending too much on food. With pregnancy comes an appetite for more and better foods. I like to get out of the office for lunch and have been spending too much on cravings….

  • Susan Schiller

    Where I get off-balance is Amazon and books… it’s so easy to push the ‘one-click’ button! My husband and I have our own “mad money” and so it helps! As long as I stay away from Amazon books! As always, you love-kicks keep me pointed in the right direction – thanks, Sharon!

    • We all have “little pleasures,” Sue. For you it might be books, for someone else it might be beautiful yarn … or pedicures. Having “mad money” set aside for those pleasures is the solution. It’s when the mad money is gone … and the light bill money, too … that it becomes problematic! 😉

  • Alexandra McAllister

    Yes, I believe too many people feel they deserve this or that but truly don’t need it. This can get them into financial trouble. Thanks Sharon for bringing light to this subject. It definitely is an eye-opener!

    • You’re welcome, Alexandra! I felt it was worth writing about because it’s not so difficult to shift one’s perspective and come from a place of power … instead of a place of deprivation, as I explained.

  • Love this post Sharon!!! Thanks so much for this awesome value you shared! Great stuff!

    • You’re very welcome, Joan, glad you found value in it!

  • Sharon, when I see that you posted a blog, I am immediately drawn to it, because I know I will learn something new or gain a new point of view. I truly look forward to reading your posts. When I was in college, I had a professor who advised us to save 10% of every dollar we ever made. I don’t remember the professor, I’m not sure of the class, but her wisdom has helped my family get through some rough patches.

    I would add one thing to hypothetical Sarah, who feels she “deserves it” to the point of financial ruin: psychotherapy might prove to be a wise investment; this kind of insecurity needs to be addressed and dealt with.

    • Oh, but that everybody might have a professor who manages to plant that message in their brains early, Ana! What’s amazing is that if we take 10% our income out first and set it aside, most of us can find a way to make it on what’s left. What is much harder is to expect to have 10% left over at the END of the month.

      My hypothetical Sarah is a composite of things I see and hear from the women I mentor … or just talk to in the course of this activity … and more often than not the behavior can be curtailed by becoming aware of what’s driving it. However, you’re right: in the extreme, psychological help is needed.

  • Roslyn Tanner Evans

    Sometimes it’s not so easy to separate needs and wants when emotions are involved. I often say “I don’t need this but I want it and I can afford it, therefore… Never had an entitlement habit but close friend does and I have seen it affect her relationship. You provide an amazig service with your wisdom.

    • But you DO separate needs and wants, Roz. You simply acknowledge that it’s a want and that you can afford it. Proof? Contrary to your friend, the net effect of all those decisions over the years has left you in a healthy financial situation, right? 😉

  • I guess it’s just a matter of how you prioritize your spending based on what’s really important to you – buying something that gives you momentary satisfaction today or buying/investing in something that will make your tomorrows more comfortable. After this most recent ‘crash’ we went through in the economy, you’d think people would be wiser (or at least more cautious) about the future. That’s not to say ‘I deserve it’ has no place – it does. Just not all the time as a matter of habit. Great post. Thanks Sharon!

    • We all need gratification, Dawn. We work, we put out effort. We buy ourselves things that bring us pleasure. But it comes down to whether or not that gratification grows to where it becomes detrimental to our long-term financial security. I have to agree, I too had hoped the lessons after the 2008 crisis would have been longer lasting …

  • Lorna Tedder

    This was an especially good post, Sharon. I had to share it immediately with several friends when I saw it. It’s so easy to medicate other pain by buying yourself little things–or big–that you “deserve” and filling that gap in your life.

    • Thank you, Lorna, for sharing it forward! That form of “medication” becomes an even greater problem if it starts adding financial stress to the already existing pain. I’ll tell you what I think I “deserve.” I deserve to be financially stress-free and to enjoy financial peace of mind!

  • Emma

    I love this post… and if I was making enough that I didn’t have to dip into my savings every month to cover the basics, I would be completely on board. The trouble I have is that I’m not. And where I end up spending money I don’t have is when I have been feeling deprived for a month or two, then I blow a bunch on clothes and eating out when I know I shouldn’t. All that scrimping and saving for nothing. Any advice?

    • Emma, if you’re dipping into savings every month to cover basics, it sounds as if an overhaul is needed in the structure of your “basics.” If that has already been done and there is no chance of making more in the not-too-distant future, a reality check might be in order: you might ask yourself what will happen when the savings are gone. If you do see some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of greater earnings, so that it’s a temporary situation, you might want to budget a small amount each week or month to treat yourself with (even if from savings). That will help you avoid blowing “a bunch” when the “deprived” feeling builds to the point of you losing your terrific normal control.

  • Pat Moon

    Sharon, The ‘I deserve it’ thing is a huge problem and has been for us at times. We have now gone back to paying cash for groceries, clothing, eating out, etc. That definitely makes you stop and evaluate your wants. Somehow it is more difficult to break a $50 or a $100 bill than to pull out a credit card. In thinking back to our younger years & earlier married life, we accepted our income and lived within it. We didn’t even have a credit card. I believe credit cards are not a healthy alternative for young people or even old people like us. Pay cash or write a check (I know checks are old fashioned, but are they?)

    • Pat, you are absolutely right! When I compare us as kids having to pull old crumpled dollar bills and bunches of coins from our pockets to pay for something … with a kid pulling a piece of plastic out of his or her backpack … which has a better sense of the money itself? And that comparison is the same as we go through life. With rare exception, I only use debit cards (and, yes, write a few checks) because, as you say, the money has to BE there … 😉

  • Robin Strohmaier

    Sharon, you have nailed this! The “I deserve it” mindset has seemed to permeate our society’s entire thought process. Teaching our young people to think differently is a real challenge. Credit cards do make impulse buying too easy. I do know of a young couple that have broken the mold. They pay almost everything in cash and are very disciplined. They don’t even have a check book.

    • Robin, I love it when young people get their act together … either because their parents shared solid financial knowledge with them or because they simply figured it out. They have the powerful “multiplier” called “time” working in their favor, which makes long-term savings so much easier!

  • So glad I read this post before my birthday. I ended up at the mall today and I was saying to myself “It’s my birthday, I got a new job, I deserve it!” Lol then I remembered this post and I Was like..hmmm maybe not! lol

    • No one says you can’t spend, Marielle. Just be sure it’s in your budget and you’re getting something you will truly love and enjoy … as opposed to an impulse purchase that met an emotional need for a moment, then hung in your closet or never brought any joy!