The Secret to Mindful Budgeting

Our lives are busier and more stressful than ever.

Careers, side hustles, family obligations, wellness, money, and the 24-hour news cycle make it impossible to relax.

The word mindfulness is mentioned a lot.

But it feels inaccessible to most of us.

Like some exclusive club of wellbeing we won't ever belong to.

We hear things like:

“You should try being more mindful at work.”

“Mindfulness-based stress reduction changed my life!”

Sounds great. But I never really understood what it meant.

Until recently.

For the first time, I've managed to lose almost 15 pounds without dieting.

Let me be clear—this isn't something I accomplished alone.

I've worked closely with a personal trainer, therapist, and body positive group to transform my relationship with food.

My favorite tool?

A free app called Recovery Record where I have logged all my meals (not calories!) and feelings associated with each time I ate.

chart showing weight loss over 6 months

What does weight loss have to do with budgeting? A lot, actually.

Because I never addressed my emotional attachment to food, even my most “successful” diets were always doomed to fail.

Once I learned my emotional eating triggers, I could substitute a healthier behavior.

For example, the stress of freelance deadlines has often led to binge eating sugary foods or salty snacks to power through.

Now I know a quick walk around the block or a 60-second plank offers the boost of energy my brain craves.

It's possible to learn about our spending behaviors in the same way.

My Own Destructive Emotional Spending

I've experienced bouts of emotional spending, too.

In my mid-twenties, I often spent money to try and sooth negative feelings about my incredibly stressful job. The years of long hours, excessive travel, and a high-stress environment proved to be too much.

I would drop $300 on designer shoes because I deserved them.

Or I paid for my friends' giant bar tabs because it made me feel like I had more control over my life.

But the positive feelings I got from spending large amounts of money were fleeting. I was often left with feelings of guilt or shame when I finally checked my credit card statement.

I lived in this vicious cycle for years before taking back control of my budget.

How Mindful Budgeting Helped Me

After a few years of spending every penny I earned, I knew it was time for a change.

I couldn't afford my lifestyle and my lack of savings reflected that.

It didn't take me long to realize my spending patterns did not align with my values.

Through mindful budgeting, I learned that designer clothing, fancy trips, or expensive meals were less important building my six-month emergency fund.

My six-month emergency fund offered me something much more important—the financial freedom to change careers.

Start Your Own Mindful Budgeting Experiment

Budgeting often fails because we don't address underlying behavioral patterns.

Like dieting, the results never last because we easily fall back into our old habits.

By observing how and why we spend money for 30 days, we can learn more about our emotional spending triggers.

After tracking our spending behavior for 30 days, we can also see what is most important and where we can easily cut back.

You can download my FREE mindful spending journal at the bottom of this post!

How To Use Your Mindful Spending Journal

I tapped my sister for some expert tips on how to use a mindful spending journal.

She has 10 years of experience working in the mindfulness and compassion-based psychotherapy field. She is also a graduate social work student and tarot reader.

Here are her tips for how to use this journal:

  1. Start by simply noticing your behaviors objectively.
  2. It's not easy, but try your best not to judge or evaluate what you're observing. For now, just notice.
  3. If the judgmental, inner critic won't let up, try self-compassion. Speak to yourself the way you would a friend who was hurting.
  4. Give yourself credit for taking this step. It takes serious courage to look at your habits—especially those you hope to improve—with honesty.

At the end of each week, take some time to reflect on any spending patterns you notice. For example:

  • Did you tend to overspend more when you were with certain people?
  • Do you recall any stressful events around the time that you overspent?
  • How did you feel at the time of overspending, and how did you feel when you logged it? (Remember: This is not about judging. Just notice which feelings came up, if any.)
  • Which kinds of purchases did you feel good about, and why?

Proven Stress Relief Tactics

Spending can be an effective—but temporary—self-soothing tactic. You may feel better in the short term, but the stress is still there when the high wears off. As for your hard-earned money? Not so much.

If you think you may be spending to cope with emotional stress, here are some inexpensive, evidence-based ways to self-soothe instead.

  • Go for a short walk. Moving your body increases feel-good endorphins and helps improve your mood.
  • Take a moment to breathe deeply. It has been proven that deep breathing can help soothe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
  • Listen to some relaxing music. Studies have shown music can help decrease stress hormones.
  • Watch standup comedy on Netflix. Laughter can help improve your immune system, relieve pain, and boost your mood.
  • Try a free yoga class. Many communities offer free or donation-based classes, making it affordable for everyone.

If you uncover difficult feelings from the mindful spending exercise, it's okay to seek professional help. You can start by asking for a local therapist referral from your primary care physician.

Readers: Do you have a mindful budgeting strategy? Let's hear your best tips!

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Discussions — 8 Responses

  • Chonce June 12, 2017 on 8:10 am

    Mindful budgeting sounds a lot easier and more satisfying than typical budgeting methods. I think I may just give it a try. What could it hurt? Thanks for sharing!

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  • FrugalView July 28, 2017 on 8:12 am

    My problem has always been getting into a rut. I will do well with a diet and be happy, then if I even break the pattern of the diet once then I will get into a situation where it makes me unhappy, I feel like I have failed the diet and get into a habit of spending far too much on takeaways every single day. I will get unhappy at how much I have spent on takeaways and then spend on other things so that my expenditure isn’t only on takeaways. It is a terrible trap and I am aware of it and trying to improve the problem steadily.

  • Joe from PaperStackers August 17, 2017 on 6:17 pm

    Awesome tips! I’m really into meditation and mindfulness but I’ve never considered applying it to my finances. This is definitely something I’m going to try. I think it’s so important to analyze why we do the things we do without judging and there’s really no reason why this can’t apply to money as well. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  • Jake January 26, 2018 on 12:21 pm

    Great post! I’ve never been a fan of strict rules-based budgeting systems. Once the how and why are addressed for our spending habits, we don’t really need to track every penny we spend anyway, imho.

  • Sandra July 23, 2018 on 1:42 am

    I don’t spend $5 notes. This has become a good habit as I will usually not break a larger note if I know I will get a $5 in the change. Hence I don’t end up eating snack foods or buying that coffee as I will receive a $5 and these always go into a separate money box. I use this money every 6 – 12 months to buy myself something I really want.


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