Three ways to avoid doom spending

April 9, 2024 Matthew Wright
Spend now, worry later is no way to manage your finances (or your future). Here are some smarter alternatives.

You can’t blame Gen Zers for feeling gloomy about their finances. Many entered the workforce mid-pandemic amid surging student debt, decades-high inflation, and seemingly unattainable housing prices. And now some are indulging in so-called doom spending: impulsively buying things they don’t really need or can’t afford as a way of coping with anxiety. But the short-term emotional fix can lead to long-term financial issues.

“Doom spending is responding to a poor outlook on the future of your finances or the planet we live on by saying, ‘What’s the point of saving for the future?’” explains Giovanna González, author of Cultura & Cash: Lessons From the First Gen Mentor for Managing Finances & Cultural Expectations. “The thinking is, ‘I’m just going to spend in the now and not worry about long-term goals like retiring or purchasing a home.’”

Preferring to live in the moment, 73% of Gen Zers are hesitant to set long-term goals, including planning for retirement, per Intuit’s Prosperity Index Study. But Gen Zers aren’t alone in their pursuit of retail therapy—more than a quarter of all Americans admit they spend on unneeded items as a way to momentarily escape from stress. 

While superfluous spending can provide instant gratification, there are healthier ways to cope with stress. Next time you’re tempted to doom spend, consider these three strategies:

1. Make it harder to mindlessly spend.

Doom spending often occurs when consumers don’t consider whether they need (or even want) an item or what the impact of the purchase could have on their finances. One way to break the doom spending cycle? Put up some barriers. 

Retailers have done an excellent job at modernizing payment methods to make it easier for prospective shoppers to part with their money. Paying with a few quick clicks on your laptop or by waving your phone over a store reader can almost make it feel like you’re not even spending, Giovanna warns. 

Instead, give yourself a chance to think a bit about your possible purchases by removing any credit card information you’ve stored with online retailers and switching to cash for in-store purchases. The process of typing in your credit card information or digging through your wallet can help you recognize the impact of your spending more acutely and really think through whether the purchase makes sense. For discretionary online purchases, consider pausing 24 hours before clicking “confirm purchase.” You may discover you don’t even want those super-cool sneakers you spotted on a late-night Instagram binge. And that brings us to the next tip…

2. Change your social media/online habits.

Doom spending has the same root as doomscrolling, in which people endlessly wallow in bad news on social media or on news websites. While staying abreast of current events is important, reading and watching too much content on heavy topics can reinforce the perception that there’s no reason to plan for the future. 

That’s when it may be time to unplug and do something for yourself offline, “whether that’s exercising, getting together with friends, or just taking your dog to the park,” Giovanna says. 

Social media can also make you feel like you need to keep up with the Joneses, spending your money the same way you see others doing. Yet social media only shows you part of the story: Your friends or those influencer VIPs may have other sources of income or be taking on debt to fund next-level lifestyles.

Consider cutting how much time you spend on social media or consciously interacting with posts that make you feel good. Not only will this help shift your mindset to a more positive space, but it’ll mean algorithms start to show you more of that warm-and-fuzzy content.

3. Engage in financial self-care for future you.

Using spending to deal with your current stressors will likely set you up for even more stress in the future. But if you take steps to put yourself on more secure financial footing, you can help slash those anxiety levels. 

Even if saving the recommended 10% or 15% of your income for retirement isn’t possible right now, earmarking even a tiny amount will put you in a better financial position than saving nothing at all. (Check out our calculator to see how even small investments can add up to significant savings over time.) 

“We have these goals that society has set for us, and we’ve gotten away from how to make progress, even if it’s small progress,” says Alaina Fingal, a financial coach and founder of The Organized Money. By lowering the bar on your savings goals, Alaina says, you can achieve them more realistically and feel a sense of accomplishment. This encourages you to save more and puts you on a path to achieving more significant milestones.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Like anything worth committing to—an exercise program, a healthy relationship—financial security means focusing on long-term results. The trade-off is sacrificing the momentary rush you might get from those shiny new objects in your cart. But be realistic, too. Suddenly depriving yourself of all discretionary spending can be an unwelcome shock to your system. Just remember that treating yourself is just that—a treat, not a daily occurrence. With that in mind, you’ll realize it’s not all doom and gloom.