The Money Series, #2: On The Compulsion to Spend Money

It’s an endlessly fascinating thing: the compulsion to spend money.

Last week, as I sat down and played a repeat of The Tommy Tiernan Show from RTÉ television recently (a friend had recommended I tune in for the Joe Brolly interview), I found the concept of money, and the compulsion to spend it, ebb and flow into my mind several times in half an hour or so.

Money is an emotional construct. Or at least, for many of us, money has become almost indelibly and all but inextricably linked with our emotions. When we have money, our emotions are joyful. When money is in short supply, or we have none at all, the emotions can be bleak: anger, bitterness, despair, depression.

Money itself is, of course, inanimate. The emotions arise from our relationship to it, the feelings coming from what money brings to our lives. If our relationship with money is mature, money can bring freedom, peace of mind, opportunity.

If our relationship with money is under-developed, however, money brings only fleeting feelings of joy, often quickly replaced by regret or guilt or shame.

Even these fleeting moments of joy that come from spending money on something can be utterly compelling.

While watching the Tiernan show, (the show is worth catching: Tiernan doesn’t know who his guest is until they walk into the studio, and while most of the interviews here will only be of particular interest to Irish audiences, the concept of interviewing without pre-planning and preparation allows the conversations to develop in natural and human ways) in almost every case that money arose in my mind, the primary sensation was the feeling associated with spending it impulsively.

It was money as a salve for a creeping feeling of ineptness, a balm for the sense of emptiness that threatened to grow up around me and suck me down. (I’ve got to know these feelings well. I’m fortunate to be able to recognise them now for what they are, as something that must be witnessed and allowed to pass on and through; if I respond to it, the response can send me into an eddy, and from there the only direction is down and under.)

Although I often don’t succeed, I try to console myself with these two statements:

  1. The feeling of ineptness is, I believe, a basic human condition. The state of thinking oneself “not good enough” is something many people deal with, and arises more from feelings than facts. Do I feel inept? Often. Am I inept? No. Without exception, I can improve in everything I do — from writing to being a father and husband, to running a business to running a half-marathon to learning leadership skills to the craft of negotiation. My skills might be lacking, but I myself am not inept. Being inept is a choice of perspective.
  2. The sense of emptiness is something I must channel and challenge. What is the base reason for the sense of emptiness that occasionally inveigles its way into my day? Whether it’s a disconnection from what’s meaningful that I can rebuild, or inactivity and rumination when I just need to make a start. The five-second, five-minute rule is helpful here. Five seconds: Count backwards from five and get moving. Five minutes: Give whatever I’m moving on at least five minutes. If after that I am still pushing water up a hill, then it’s okay to stop for a while. From my experience of the five-second five-minute rule, it is rare that I stop after those five minutes. For the most part, just starting was the most important thing.

While watching Tommy Tiernan’s interviews, money flickered into my brain multiple times:

  • With Joanne O’Riordan, a sports journalist with Tetra-amelia syndrome, a congenital disorder which meant she was born without any limbs, Tiernan asked her about the cost of her wheelchair and other equipment. (She joked that she saves lots of money on shoes and gloves. Tiernan, quick as a tack, responded that she probably has loads of hats…) Maybe this immediate reference to money caused the infestation that was to follow.
  • With Joe Brolly, a Gaelic football analyst, former footballer and practising barrister, I found my mind defaulting to thoughts of Brolly’s livelihood. A freelance barrister, he says he’s not duty-bound to anyone apart from the clients he chooses to defend. I found thoughts popping into my head. “Is it very expensive to have him in your corner in court?” “How much does he get paid for a Sunday afternoon in a TV studio?”
  • With Moya Brennan, the Clannad singer who hails from west Donegal, a part of Ireland I know well, I was rapt by her a capella renditions of two songs (an old Irish air about the Gweebarra river in Donegal, and “Theme from Harry’s Game”, another Irish language song which became the hit that catapulted Clannad to global fame), I had my phone in my hand to check the ticket price for their Belfast concert in a few weeks’ time and was already calculating in my mind the exchange rate to purchase them.
  • Mick Flannery closed out the show with a beautiful rendition of his new song “Come Find Me”, and almost of their own accord my hands again had my phone screen on, thumbing to his website to see whether his new album was available in vinyl (a retro record-player arrived in the house as a Christmas present…)

Where does this come compulsion to spend money from?

Is it the dangerous combination of a mind already susceptible to distraction and the unprecedented convenience of answering that tendency via the phone in my pocket?

Is it mere habit?

Or could it be coming from something deeper or more serious?

Could it instead be that there’s something going on in my mind and in my life that makes me so uncomfortable with being with myself that I’m compelled not just towards distraction, but past it, something unsettling that urges me forward to spend money on impulse?

That the very act of spending the money — that five-second high, and not, somewhat mysteriously, on the object or experience that I spend the money on — will fill the cracks that are appearing for now, will manage to paper them over for the time being.

This promise — that the act of spending money will momentarily fill the cracks — does not occur when the spending comes with careful planning, consideration, budgeting, saving.

No, instead it’s an impulse. An impulse that promises an instant injection of dopamine to the veins.

It’s an impulse that must be held at bay.

It’s the same impulse, I think, that starts the tumble towards addiction. The impulse to spend money can be the same as the impulse to gamble, the impulse to drink, the impulse to take drugs. It’s an impulse to take a short-term high irrespective of the longer term pain. (Gabor Mate, the great doctor and specialist in addiction treatment, defines addiction as “any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in, but suffers negative consequences as a result of and can’t give up”.)

The compulsion to spend money, and putting a shape on the beast

However I am to hold these impulses at bay, hold them at bay I must.

This, here, right now — the act of writing through the discomfort of this impulse — helps in ways I find it difficult to convey. This act of writing is not done primarily so that what I write is read. (Although I’m very pleased and humbled that you are here, reading.) This act of writing is, primarily, an exercise in exploration and understanding. This act of writing helps me to recognise the foe I’m dealing with: it throws a handful of magic dust at the undefined, unseen beast before me and gives it a shape that I can deal with. I might not like it, but much better the devil you know, and all that. So much of our fear is the unknown undergrowth around the path, and not the path itself.

Writing helps me comprehend, but if comprehension right now is still too big a leap — and the journey of self-knowledge is lifelong, with mountains to climb and pitfalls to plot a way past, so comprehension can be fiendishly difficult to even attempt, never mind fully grasp — then finding any way to wait out the compulsion, without inflicting lasting damage, is a good thing.

For me, walking helps. Music helps. Cooking helps. Reading the right book or watching the right movie helps. Doing anything even remotely creative or productive helps.

My phone screen usually doesn’t help. Ruminating doesn’t help.

Staying in bed usually doesn’t help, apart from the very bad days when it’s the one thing I need to prevent an act of self-destruction and I must save myself. Staying in bed a while might save me from myself, but I know that there are quickly diminishing returns from this and I must recognise that point and stop myself before I reach it.

Life isn’t easy.

But I fear we make it harder for ourselves by short-term balms which rarely cure the long-term pain and often makes the long-term pain worse.

Life isn’t easy, but scattered amongst the inevitable hardships there are moments of real transcendent beauty, if we can keep ourselves alive and open to experiencing them.

Life isn’t easy, but it’s all we’ve got, and if we can keep going long enough, and resist the almost endless and often daily opportunities for self-destruction, we can in the end paint something arresting onto its vast blank canvas.