“How do I stop overspending?”
Mar 21, 2024
Season 9

“How do I stop overspending?”

We get answers to the money questions keeping you awake at night.

Do you ever feel like you can’t get a handle on your money problems? Is your spending out of control? Or does looking at your account balance make you break out in hives?

That’s unfortunately relatable for a lot of us, and even if you’re an accountant or stockbroker, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good with money.

That’s where financial therapist Megan McCoy comes in.

“Financial therapists help get to our history with relationship to money, how our family taught us values around money and what values we actually want to ascribe to,” McCoy explained, “so we can create financial goals and financial peace.” Basically, it’s about digging into the touchy-feely side of money.

A while back, we asked you to share your money struggles, and we heard from many of you! In today’s episode, we booked a session with Megan to answer your burning financial questions — navigating financial differences among friends, talking to an avoidant partner about money plans, making big career decisions and learning to let go of money guilt.

As promised, here are some of the research studies and articles discussed in the episode:

If you like this episode, share it with a friend. And to get even more Uncomfortable, subscribe to our newsletter. Each Friday, you’ll get a note from Reema and some recs from the Uncomfortable team. If you missed it, here’s the latest issue.

We’re hoping to do more of this in the future, so if you have a question for a financial therapist, email us at uncomfortable@marketplace.org or fill out the form below.

This is Uncomfortable March 21, 2024 Transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.


Reema Khrais: So if you’re at a dinner party and you introduce yourself and you tell someone that you’re a financial therapist, what reaction do you typically get?

Megan McCoy: Oh, I need that, is usually what I get, 

Reema: Yeah? [laughs]

Reema: Megan McCoy is a financial therapist and teaches at Kansas State University.  People tell her all the time, “I need to book you ASAP, please help me.” And then there are people who just have a basic question for her…like what is it that you actually do?  

Megan: financial therapists help to get to our history with relationship to money, how our family taught us values around money, and what values we actually want to ascribe to so we can create financial goals and financial peace so that we have true well being.

Reema: So it’s basically the touchy feely side, the emotional side of money. 

Megan: Yeah. I love this one quote that says, “Money is the object in which we project our deepest fears, dreams, and hopes into.” And I’m like, that is it! 

Reema: ‘Cause even if you have the practical tools to handle money…like you know how to make a budget or how to invest… that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be good with money. Megan says so many of our financial hang ups have more to do with the messages we absorbed growing up

Megan: These are unconscious beliefs around money that developed at a very young age in life. That we are not always aware of because they’re so ingrained in us at such a young age and usually very culturally bound, meaning that our loved ones in our circle all kind of see the world the same way, see money the same way.

Reema: These stories we tell ourselves about money are what a lot of therapists call “money scripts,” which I’ve always found really fascinating. People usually fall under one of four buckets: money avoidance, money worship, money status or money vigilance. Megan says people with money avoidance tend to distance themselves from money and are more likely to sabotage their financial well-being. 

Megan: And those are individuals who are either insecure about their financial literacy or they have like a sense of morality tied up with money. 

Reema: On the other side of the spectrum is money worship. People with those beliefs tend to think money is the answer to all their problems. They’re the kind of people who are more likely to put work ahead of things like family and leisure. 

Megan: Those are individuals who think that having money will just make us, um, happier. And so, it’s a chase to get money without attending to what that money actually will do for us. And so that’s money worship. 

Reema: And then there’s money status – those are people who tend to connect their self-worth with what’s in their bank account, they like to appear wealthy.

Megan: And so they might have a desire to buy things to show others they’re worthy. Like if I really believed that, like, you would judge me by, um, the shirt I was wearing, you know I would probably spend more money on that shirt, so it’s not materialism, it is a desire for others to see them as good or see them as accomplished.

Reema: And lastly, money vigilance – those are people who are generally on top of their finances… but they tend to be more anxious about the future, which makes them more frugal. And of course, you can identify with more than one of these.

Megan helps her clients get to the bottom of their beliefs so they can adopt healthier financial habits.

Megan: if you really dig into what were all those messages that you received about wealthy people, about poor people, about getting rich, about staying poor, about bills, about debt, about savings, about earning and interest. If you really dig into all those micro messages, there’s a ton there that you can work with.

Reema: Yeah, and then figure out how much of those messages you’ve internalized, and…

Megan: Right

Reema: … separate that from how you actually feel. 

Megan: Yeah, absolutely.


Reema: I’m Reema Khrais and welcome to This is Uncomfortable, a show from Marketplace about life and how money messes with it. In today’s episode, we booked a session with Megan to answer your burning financial questions. A while back, we asked you all to share some of the money struggles you’re grappling with right now, you know, the things keeping you up at night. We got dozens of questions and chose a few of the most common ones for Megan to help answer.

Reema: This first question comes from a listener named Miss B. Here’s her audio message. 

Miss B:  Hello, this is B. I am from Harlem, New York. Love the show. Here’s the question. How do I get over the fear of spending money on myself? 10 to 12 years ago, I’m a single mom of two kids. Our back was really against the wall, like really against it. I’ve worked hard. I’m in a better position now. My kids are older and have jobs of their own. I find myself being able to buy for them and others, but I’m so scared to buy for myself cause I’m having, I have the fear of not having the money. How do I get over that, so that way I can enjoy and reap the benefits of what I have worked for?

Reema: Yeah, what guidance would you give her and people like her who are afraid of spending money on themselves?

Megan: Yeah, I just want to first say, like, how great and impressive it was that she did all that, and I think that she should take pride in that, that she was able to get her financial situation corrected and take care of her family. I think spending on ourselves is an interesting dynamic because we know that spending on others makes us happier because there was studies with college kids: They gave like one group of college kids $20 and said, “go buy something for yourself,” and they told the other one, “you have to spend on someone else It can be a charity, it can be a friend, it could be a strangers, spent on someone else.” And the kids who spent on others were happier. 

RK: Really? 

Megan: Yeah! 

RK: That’s so fascinating .

Megan: So like, spending on others brings us joy!

Reema: So it makes sense that Miss B would find it easier to spend on others than herself… “pro social” spending can make us feel great. But Megan says we’re also helping the people in our lives when we invest in ourselves… 

Megan: Taking care of ourselves is great, and so there’s all this research on, like, what makes good outcomes for kids, but one of the most powerful is that the parents are okay. Like, happy parents have happy kids. So if you want a massage, or if you want to get some new clothes, or you want to upgrade your household items, if that’s going to bring you joy and you’re going to be happier, that’s also a gift to loved ones. And I think that framing can kind of help it, that I’m taking care of myself so that I can model to my loved ones how they should take care of themselves. I think that makes things easier a lot of times.

Reema: Well, it sounds like she is still carrying some financial baggage and has a scarcity mindset … 

Megan: Yeah

Reema: …and it makes me wonder, have you actually had clients who’ve been able to work out of that frugality mindset?

Megan: Yeah, I think so. I think it matters how long you were stuck in that zone of actual scarcity. I think it matters how many generations were passed down that same value of frugality. I think scarcity mindset boils down to seeing what you don’t have versus seeing what you do have. I think it is about having an underlying fear that there’ll never be enough, or there isn’t enough. And I think that what we know in the research is that being able to focus on what we do have is one of the greatest gifts, like recognizing that we do have some privilege, whatever level that is in your life cycle, there’s some privilege associated to yourself, that is an abundance mindset. 

Reema: Are there any exercises, like personal experiments, that you would suggest for someone who has trouble spending money on themselves?

Megan: Yeah, I believe strongly in having multiple accounts set up, and nowadays, most companies will be willing to split your paycheck even automatically into those accounts. And so I think one thing that helps us if we have a scarcity mindset is to pay ourselves first, pay our savings first. So you can have your rainy day account get a percent of your paycheck, right? You can have your retirement accounts get a percent of your paycheck. You can have your bill-pay accounts get a percent of your paycheck, and then you can have a fun money account, or maybe even two fun money accounts: one called “to spend on others” and one called “to spend on myself.” And then your goal is to spend those accounts, those last two down every month. It helps if you have clear goals that you’re working for that you have set aside accounts to fund it. Because like my goal in life is not to become Scrooge McDuck and swim in coins! Like my goal in life is to create money for something. So what is that something?

Reema: Mmhmm.

Megan: And perhaps like she did so much years of self sacrifice. It’s more about discovering what does give her pleasure, rather than the actual number amount she spends.

Reema: Right.

Reema: Alright this next question is kinda the flip side of that first one… It comes from a listener named Heather.

Heather: I am a 49-year-old woman with serious financial problems. I get credit and then somehow always end up spending beyond my means. I’m currently in a debt settlement program which has led me to the lowest credit score of my life. What advice would you suggest for a perpetual overspender?

Reema: What are some practical ways for her to curb her overspending?

Megan: Yeah, I think the big one is tracking spending. I think oftentimes, when we’re in a pattern of overspending, we’re not even seeing where the money is going, and if we saw on paper the specifics of where it was going, we might be able to identify some areas that are just like accidental purchases that we’re not being intentional about, or purchases that maybe there could be a better situation for, like you’re always paying for parking at work, whereas it would be so much easier to walk. 

I think another thing is recognizing the research around delayed gratification can be really helpful. There’s this amazing article that I highly recommend by Elizabeth Dunn that says, “if money’s not making you happy, you’re probably spending it wrong.”

Reema: So I looked up the article and it’s pretty cool. We’ll include the link on the show page. But here’s the gist: To get more happiness out of your money, Professor Dunn has a few suggestions: Buy more experiences and fewer material things. Use our money to help others… that’s the prosocial spending we just talked about. Treat yourself to many small splurges instead of a single big one… like, go buy a book and a candle and a set of colored pencils, instead of a $200 handbag. And maybe most useful for Heather, lean into the power of delayed gratification. 

Megan: It’s almost like why we tend to be happier the week before vacation than the week of our vacation. 

Reema: Yeah, the anticipation.

Megan: Yes! And so I think with spending, it’s not like, “I cannot buy these items,” but it’s instead saying, “I’m gonna save this for when I finish my bills this month, when everything is cleared to my account. And then I will spend some time intentionally shopping about what I still want.” So like, putting things in the shopping cart and saving them for later. And then be intentionally, “Let me wait three weeks, and then in three weeks, I can explore the shopping cart with a budget and say, these are the things that actually will bring me joy, and these are things I don’t care.” You’ll actually be happier from delaying that gratification.

Reema: Interesting. I love that. I mean, that makes sense, but it’s so hard to counteract those impulses in those moments. 

Megan: Right! And I swear, sometimes I have just as much fun with my pre-shopping, like just looking at fun things and not actually… 

Reema: Like window shopping, yeah.

Megan: Yeah, not actually getting anything. So I think that’s a secondary benefit. You might get the coping that you’re looking for in the shopping experience without actually using the money. 

The other thing I want to mention is that sometimes impulsive and compulsive shopping can be a side effect of other mental health issues, such as OCD, bipolar, depression, anxiety, addiction, and so on. And so it’s a good sign that perhaps something else may need to be dealt with, so I think seeing a mental health professional can be really, really helpful.

Reema: Yeah that’s a great point to make. 


Reema: Okay, our next question comes from a woman named Nasreen. She writes, “I’ve spent the last several years in medicine training for a profession that I realize I don’t actually like. I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this career trajectory, so many sleepless nights and made so many personal sacrifices.  I’m miserable, but it feels too late to quit and try something else. I don’t even know what else I would do. I also attach a lot of my identity and self worth to my work. I try to convince myself that I don’t have to love my work, that I can make other parts of my life my priority, but I’m not so sure. Would love any insight into how you think I should navigate this predicament.” What do you think?

Megan: Yeah, the first minor point I want to make is something called the “sunk-cost fallacy.” And that’s the idea that, like, once we put so much time or effort into something, we should just keep on putting time and effort into it. And that’s actually not true. Like, it’s like a gambler with a 2-3 chasing after the pot, you know: you’re going to lose, don’t put more money in it. So if it’s truly a sense of like this is not the right place for me, I think it takes bravery, but it ends up often being great to make big life choices like that.

Reema: There was an experiment about this conducted in 2017 by Steven Levitt, the co-author of Freakonomics. He gathered a group of volunteers who were each struggling to make a life decision, big or small: some of them were weighing divorce or career changes… while others were considering dyeing their hair. When he checked back in with them 6 months later, those who had actually made a change were substantially happier. And this was especially true for those big decisions. So Megan says while it might feel daunting, there’s likely value in shifting course if you feel a strong pull to do that…

Megan: But I think her point about how, “I don’t even know what else I would do” is so valuable, and I would love to hone into it. Because I wonder if there could be time spent reflecting on what led her to want to chase medicine in the first place: What were the values, or the goals, or the things she loved about it? And really making that list because maybe she’s just in the wrong niche, and so she doesn’t have to give up on her education or her license or anything like that. But rather shifting her focus into a less stressful position or a more patient-centered position or a more, um, administrator position. And so I think really making that value checklist of “why did I want to become a doctor in the first place” is great.  

Reema: Right. And you know, I think she’s getting at something that a lot of us feel, which is attaching our work identity to our self-worth. And I think, you know, a lot of us measure our success through our titles or compensation. How do you suggest she detaches her worth from her job? Like what are some practical things she can do?

Megan: Yeah, it’s so fascinating to me that in U.S. we often introduce ourselves by our work role. Like, I’m a teacher, I’m a podcast host, I’m this thing. Like, the rest of the world doesn’t put that as their introduction to other people. And so I think really, if you were no longer working, let’s say retirement, or you make a massive windfall, how would you introduce yourself? What do you want to be known for? What do you think are your passions? And so I think really finding that meaning outside of work is self-reflection, it’s about developing community. It’s about developing purpose, and really, really exploring what would be the reason you’d get up in the morning if it wasn’t for a job. 

Reema: Coming up… Megan answers more listener questions, including one about navigating relationships with a financially avoidant partner. That’s after the break. 




Reema: And we’re back. I’m here with financial therapist Megan McCoy, answering listener questions. Our next one comes from a listener named Brandy. She sent us this message: 

Brandy: Hi, Reema and staff, my situation is that I was, you know, raised in a working class household, and I am the only one in my family that quote unquote made it, and I have a lot of guilt surrounding that sometimes, and I was wondering how the financial therapist would advise that I go about navigating that space, because it’s really hard for me sometimes. Thank you so much. Love the work that you all are doing. 

Reema: That’s a great question. What would you say to Brandy? 

Megan: Yeah, I think exploring where that shame arises from is so powerful. Thinking to herself: what were the values around money that we had in our family growing up? What were the narratives we heard about wealthy people? What were the stories or the side eyes or the comments that were made offhand about wealth? And uncovering, like, what those beliefs were can help eradicate some of the shame. 

Reema: Right.

Megan: And then I think, in terms of behaviors she can do now is recognizing again how hard she worked, and also thinking about how she wants to support her family. Like research, has shown over and over again that us spending on others will make us happier than spending on ourselves. Does that mean that people who have made success in their life should give all their money to their family? Absolutely not. But if she wants to make small gifts that are, are pointed, like, “I want to get you out of this credit card debt because I have this ability to give this gift to you right now. And then when you succeed, if you want to pay me back you can, or you can pay it forward yourself.” You know, and it’d be a time-bound, one-time gift to give someone a clear, tangible step up or… Or “I want to support my niece and nephew in their college endeavors. Let me make a small like account that can grow and invest over time for when they go to college.” Again, time-bound specific gifts can be an outlet and will make her or anybody who wants to give to others happier. 

Reema: Mmhmm. Right. Instead of having this general feeling of like, “Oh, I need to help. I need to be there for my family.”

Megan: Yes.


Reema: Our next question, it comes from a listener named Omar.  

He writes, “As I’ve gotten older, I have friends who are doing much better than me financially, in some cases making triple what I make. It’s dawning on me that I’ll never be on the same financial level as them. For example, I noticed the other day one of my friends was wearing a $15,000 bracelet. I don’t care for material things in the same way, but I do worry about it causing problems later on. Like if they suggest going on a vacation I can’t afford, if they provide opportunities for their kids that my kids will never be able to relate to. What advice do you have for navigating financial differences among friends?” 

Megan: Yeah, I think my first thought was when he was talking about it, like, he’s worried about down-the-road-issues that may arise. 

Reema: Anxiety! 

Megan: His financial situation may change. Yeah! Their situation may change, too. And so that anticipatory anxiety at any time in our life isn’t useful. But it also is kind of a sign of, like, now is a perfect time to engage in those conversations about your values, why you chose your profession, or perhaps what they maybe had as a stepping stone that you didn’t have that led to these differences in finances. And so the more you can express your money values openly, honestly with your friends, I think the better off the relationship is. And I think exploring any hesitancies you have about why you may not want to engage in these conversations might be good to ask yourself, too. Am I scared that they won’t want to be friends with me? Or I’m scared that they’re gonna judge me? Or am I scared I’m gonna judge myself? And finding the answers to those questions may richen your relationship with them, may help you gain insights that help you feel healthier. 

Reema: Yeah, yeah. So like being transparent, not just with your friends, but with yourself.

Megan: Yeah, yeah. And I think that often we get pushed into this, “We need to have so many friends, or we need to keep these massive friends circles,” but the research shows that, like there’s this great Harvard longitudinal study… 

Reema: Megan’s talking about the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It’s a really amazing research project that’s been going on for more than 85 years! These doctors at Harvard have been studying the same group of guys since 1938, tracking their physical and mental health. And surprisingly, the number one factor that predicted lifelong health… more than cholesterol or exercise or anything else… was having close friends! It turns out, people who have strong social relationships with family and friends will actually live longer and healthier lives. 

Megan: In that study they found just having one true friend, one person that you are transparent and honest with has a host of emotional and physical benefits, not having hundreds of fake friends, but one real friend.

Reema: Alright, our last question, read aloud by a Marketplace colleague…comes from a listener named Stephen…

“Stephen”: What are some ways to constructively approach discussing financial planning with a partner who exhibits anxiety about financial matters but clams up at the very mention of any financial question? I’ve tried asking questions, listening for clues, scheduling a meeting on a topic, sharing self help books & preparing financial summaries.

Reema: I imagine this is a common dynamic you come across in your work when one person in a partnership is financially avoidant?

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. He has made so many attempts, but the thing is, I think oftentimes when we’re trying to do something different, we just do more and louder of the same. And so, in each one is probably focused on, “we have to talk about the numbers, we have to focus on the end game, we have to worry about spending…” in kind of like a scarcity mindset. And I think if we can shift and kind of come from it at a different perspective, it can open the door to conversation. 

In couples, there’s also this thing called “polarization,” that over time, if there’s a slight difference between us, we almost repel each other to be more different. So, perhaps over time, as he’s become the person who’s in charge of the finances, it’s almost made him hyper aware of their limitations, and made, potentially, their partner kind of say, “They have it handled. I don’t need to participate.” And kind of repel even more avoidant. 

Reema: Right. Because I imagine having a negative experience will just reinforce the habit of avoidance: like, “See, this is why I was avoiding. I knew it was going to be bad, and now I don’t want to do it again!”

Megan: Right! Absolutely. So I think one great tip for helping money avoidant people talk about money is talking about the positive aspects of money, Like, my favorite date with my husband is we go and get a Powerball ticket, and we really have like a long conversation about like: “If we won all this money, what would we do with it? What passions would we pursue?” And I think if you start with: “Let’s talk about your goals. What do you wish we could save for?” Like the positive aspects about money, then money becomes less and less scary. And that way, that emotional response to money is not like a “Oh gosh, I don’t want to talk about this,” but like, this is a fun thing that we connect over. 

And so, then you can kind of get into the conversations about where does the avoidance stem from. Like, what are their greatest fears, or what are they worried about when we come to this conversation, or where do they feel insecure? Because nowadays, like, with the boom of AI, things are easier than ever. Like, you can tell your partner, if you don’t want to talk to me yet, why don’t you just use chatGBT and ask them questions about, like, this account, or the difference between these things, and like, get yourself comfortable so that we can engage in conversations you not feel, I don’t know, insecure.

Reema: Wow. I did not think you were going to suggest AI but I mean, you know, if it works, it works. [laugh] When we… so we talked several years ago for the first time on This is Uncomfortable, and you said something back then that really stuck with me. You said, “Money fights between couples tend to not get resolved.”

Megan: Yeah. 

Reema: … which was very disheartening to hear from a financial therapist! Can you please expand on that?

Megan: Yeah, I know. I think they can get resolved over time, but I think we become so emotionally aroused in these conversations. We get flooded with our hormones that we end up shutting down or using nastier tactics at communicating. And so we just kind of go to our own corners, and we’re not able to problem solve together. And so I think the more that we can stay calm or, you know, my favorite trick is bringing out a piece of paper because it helps you focus and use a part of your brain that is less likely to get flooded by emotions. And so you can write down, like: “Here’s what we’re trying to fix together, here’s how we both contribute to the problem, here are all the solutions we tried.” And then brainstorm a ton of solutions you didn’t try. And I think that It’s a really beneficial exercise in all conflict. 

Reema: Mmmhmm. Before you go, I would love for you to impart some final words of wisdom. As a financial therapist, if there was one thing you could get through to people, what would that be?

Megan: Oh gosh, I really want to say two! So one is that, um, the quicker you deal with your money problems, the more relief you’ll have. The longer we wait to deal with them, the bigger the problem, the more stress you experience. It’ll be more exhausting, so just deal with it and get it over with. Pull that bandaid off.

Reema: Just do it. Mmhmm.

Megan: Yeah, just do it. And then the second thing, is just have these conversations with your loved ones. The more we talk about it, the more we can learn from each other, the more we can understand our values, the more we can teach future generations good values too.  


Reema: Alright that’s all for our show today. We’ll include the research articles we mentioned in the show notes, along with a quiz you can take about the four money categories I mentioned earlier, to see if you track more closely with money avoidant, money worship, money status or money vigilant.

Also if you have more questions that you want answered by a money therapist, let us know, you can always email me and the team at uncomfortable@marketplace.org.

And for this week’s newsletter, we’re including a few more questions for Megan to answer that we weren’t able to squeeze into this episode… plus some timely links to help you get through tax season. If you’re not signed up for our newsletter already, you do that by going to marketplace.org slash comfort.

This episode was produced by our senior producer, Zoë Saunders, and hosted by Reema Khrais. We wrote the script together. 

We got additional support from Alice Wilder, Hannah Harris Green, H Conley, and Marika Proctor. 

Our editor is Jasmine Romero.

Sound design and audio engineering by Drew Jostad.

Bridget Bodnar is Marketplace’s Director of Podcasts.

Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital.

Neal Scarbrough is Vice President and General Manager of Marketplace.

And our theme music is by Wonderly.

Special thanks to everyone who sent in their questions for Megan. 

Alright, see y’all next week. 


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