Mindfulness, Well-Being, and Spending: The Benefits of Being Aware

Have you ever dismissed a concept because it sounds too “soft,” that it won’t help or be applicable to your practice, life, or clients? One of those concepts that has suffered from a branding problem in the financial world is mindfulness. However, with the increased focus on holistic financial planning, it’s gaining some ground a an increased reputation as a way to help achieve financial success. Let’s consider it in light of spending.

News-flash: Excessive spending can (and usually will) wreck our financial plans. As one (somewhat ironic) reminder of this truism, a recent Vanguard economic-outlook report wrapped up roughly 30 pages of macro-economic analysis with the conclusion that the best way to improve your future financial position was to save more and reduce investment expenses (see the punchline at page 30). The data is clear: frugality is positively related to net worth regardless of your income level or age. And there are negative side-effects to less-than-frugal spending habits: excessive “stuff” cluttering your life tends to drain cognitive resources as well (where do you store it? How should you protect it? What do you do when it breaks? How do you get rid of it?). Maybe you have tried lists and/or checking the budget (let’s call it a “spending plan”). But if every “want” is cast as a “need” that makes its way onto the list of necessities, the list is useless; and more often than not, we shop “off list” anyway. Once you add ubiquitous consumer credit into the mix, it’s a cycle that often takes extreme measures to counteract and change.

We’ve been taught to spend mindlessly in our culture, starting with advertising that was pushed on us as children, but it continues in adulthood in more subtle ways. We are conditioned to be impatient with respect to new purchases–moving on to the next big thing as quickly as possible–which makes shopping something that we do without much thought in many cases. Compulsive shopping and shopping addictions can be more advanced and serious types of clinical-behaviors that can result from both environment and our innate characteristics, resulting in harm to finances, relationships, and typically require the assistance of licensed professionals to help intervene. Even if your shopping and spending behaviors don’t reach the clinical stage, it’s difficult to compete with an industry such like retail that generated $3.5 trillion in gross revenue in 2017, and that funnels large chunks of that revenue into marketing departments and consultants that employ consumer psychology to persuade us into buying stuff we don’t need.

How can we counteract this sub-conscious attitude about spending money (and perhaps years of behaviors related to shopping)? One method psychologists have been using to help treat shopping addiction is mindfulness. Mindfulness is state of awareness and an offshoot of the personality characteristic of conscientiousness, the one that allows us to do the job we set out to do, to pay attention to details, and to fulfill promises and follow rules. Mindfulness includes concepts of attention–thinking about and paying attention to the emotions and sensations around you at the present, versus thinking about something else in the future, while in the present moment. Even if our behaviors don’t reach a clinical stage, mindfulness techniques can help us be attuned to what we’re doing in a retail situation if we allow them to become habits. The authors of one of the seminal works on mindfulness conclude that “mindfulness can be cultivated by practice” (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 843), so while we might all differ on how aware we are of what we’re doing and what’s going on around us, we can practice mindfulness techniques to improve behaviors.

There are countless books, websites, and blogs detailing techniques for implementing mindfulness, but how effective are these methods in helping us overcome a habit or mindset that has become hard-wired in our brains? We took a look at one of the assessments of mindfulness from Brown and Ryan’s 2003 comprehensive mindfulness study to see how those questions could be used to create recommendations for more mindful shopping. A few of their items in their assessment of mindfulness focus on past behaviors as indicators of what we might do in the future, and can be re-framed around spending behaviors:

  • I rush through activities without being really attentive to them. Think about this in the context of fitting a shopping trip into a short window of time or grocery shopping when you have somewhere else to be: having to be under the gun in a shopping situation takes our attention away from what we’re buying and places it on finishing the task quickly.
  • I drive places on “automatic pilot” and then wonder why I went there. Consider this in a shopping situation, whether a physical store or an online shopping experience. You’re looking for one item at one store or one site, and an hour later you’ve visited 10 stores and bought items that were not part of the original objective.
  • I snack without being aware that I’m eating. Here again we see the overlap between spending behaviors and health-related behaviors. Thinking about this item in light of spending, it could be framed this way: I shop without really being aware of what I’m buying.

Mindfulness for the future can also help with long-term saving behaviors. This review highlights some of the ways in which we can frame our finances to increase the likelihood of better financial behaviors long-term, from changing round numbers to decimals and focusing on specific dates versus number of years in the future. As an example, if you’re trying to decide on a (perhaps) frivolous item at the store today, framing the future value of your money in terms of decimals and exact dates might improve the likelihood that you’ll save today. It’s better to ask yourself (or your client) if you would rather spend $99.98 today or have $201.91 on October 15, 2020 versus asking yourself if you want the $100 today versus $200 in two and a half years.

Taking what might otherwise be thought of as a psychologist’s tool in his toolkit (or maybe something New Age and wellness-related) and making it practical can help with some of the basics of spending and saving. Even if you’re not into meditating or aren’t into the idea of being “in the now,” consider the long-term potential benefits of increased awareness for your financial health.

 

References

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology84(4), 822.

Brown, K. W., Kasser, T., Ryan, R. M., Linley, P. A., & Orzech, K. (2009). When what one has is enough: Mindfulness, financial desire discrepancy, and subjective well-being. Journal of Research in Personality43(5), 727-736.

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