A splurge, a little something to treat yourself, an impulse buy: Whether it's a fancy hot chocolate or a fabulous cashmere sweater, there's no question that buying something nice for yourself can be a rush. But is that rush going to linger as a warm glow, or turn into regret? Life is too short to waste time feeling guilty about money. With a little common sense, you can treat yourself without feeling bad about it. Before you swipe your credit card, ask yourself these questions:
1. How does this purchase fit into the context of my larger financial goals?
Any purchase, no matter how much you love the item, will eventually cause some heartburn if it is too burdensome to your finances. Maybe you keep a budget with different categories. It might be fine to bend your budget categories on a special occasion, or because you find an item you've always coveted at a deep discount. But if you're stuck for months with a grocery budget that won't even cover ramen noodle packets because you splashed out on a sound system, the music will start to sound a lot less sweet over time. Even if you don't keep an exact budget, this question can usually be answered with a quick gut check: Can I afford this given other expenses I have and goals for which I'm saving?
2. Is there another splurge I'm going to want more in the near future?
Let's say that you do have some room in your budget for treating yourself. How do you want to indulge? I remember being a teenager and burning through a wad of hard-earned summer job cash at the local mall in an afternoon. A couple weeks later, visiting family in New York City, I was sad that I had used up my money back home when there were so many interesting and new-to-me stores in New York.
3. Do I need to have this item right this minute? If so, why?
There may be times, like a local street fair, when the item you covet won't be available if you don't buy it right away. Flash sales online, where clothes in your size are disappearing by the second, will have you rushing to fill your virtual cart. But in most cases, you can come back to buy something the next day, and you can always at least take a few moments to consider. The idea is to figure out if your desire to splurge is an impulse that will fade. Will you still want this item the next day? The most important thing is to check in with yourself about why you want to make the purchase. Sometimes it's totally okay to self-medicate with a feel-good purchase. But buying things when you're upset, just like binge eating or drinking alcohol, can lead to overload. Being honest with yourself might help you exercise restraint and save a shopping hangover later on.
4. Is this going to be a lasting pleasure?
Over the last few decades, researchers have observed that buying experiences — like a trip abroad, or a scuba diving adventure — rather than things, tends to lead to more lasting happiness. And that makes sense. But it bears asking: Is this thing I want so badly to buy going to be just another piece of junk in the closet next year? You can focus on buying something that will last, such as a well-made leather handbag. There might be purchases that promote experiences, like a great pair of running shoes. Or maybe there's something that will remind you of a special time. My sister bought a nice perfume for her wedding several years ago. She sprays just a little bit of it now and then and associates the scent with the memory of her wedding. I bought a handmade ring on a trip to Mexico with co-workers this fall. It's a small lopsided opal in filigreed metal. I found it at an art gallery early in the trip, and didn't get it, but kept thinking about it. On the last day of the trip, I went back to buy it, and now it makes me smile and think of Pacific sunsets when I wear it. It wasn't expensive, but it has meaning to me. Other pieces of jewelry, bought in online sales, sit forgotten in my jewelry box.
5. Can I get the satisfaction I seek from something else?
If you're upset or sad, maybe buying a box of chocolates will soothe you, rather than those chocolate brown leather boots that cost more than your car payment. If there's a designer you love, maybe buying a small item, such as a scarf, will give you the same pleasure as the coat that's too pricey. Or maybe an experience — having beers with a friend at your favorite pub — will satisfy your urge to treat yourself.
Or not. Sometimes, you just want that cashmere sweater. If you've asked yourself these questions, at least you know you'll feel good when you wear it.