Finding financial wellbeing when… your relationship with money mirrors your disordered relationship with food

by | May 13, 2021 | Articles, Finding Financial Wellbeing When..., Wellbeing

By Meg Leach

When I started a recovery program for an eating disorder, my therapist gave me plenty of warnings about what to expect. She warned me that I would want to justify overexercising and undereating and needed to manage my stress through the process. She also told me to be gentle with myself, take plenty of time to reflect, and engage in self-care. However, neither of us anticipated that the urge to “diet” would slowly start to take over other parts of my life. 

Since my therapist and I knew I restricted food due to stress, we thought it would be a good idea to limit lifestyle stressors to help focus on recovery. One way I thought to remove stress was to get control of my finances.

I decided to start my financial wellness journey by going on a 30-day spending cleanse. I figured it would help me get control of any poor spending habits and help separate my “needs” from my “wants.”  Financial cleanses are relatively common, and several money-minded bloggers and successful companies recommend them, including Charles Schwab and Amazon. With such popular endorsements, what could go wrong?

My cleanse had a fairly standard format. I restricted all spending except for needs (food, gas, utilities, etc.) and wrote down every single debit from my bank account. Being newly into my recovery from anorexia, these seemed like reasonable steps because I followed the same recipe when I wanted to get my food intake in order. 

This behavior went under the radar of my therapist, as I optimistically discussed the benefits of getting my finances in order and removing stresses from my life. However, in less than a few months, I found myself crying in her office about needing to buy new running shoes. That was when my therapist realized that my eating disorder had turned into a full-blown money disorder. 

Clinically, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, a diagnostic guide regarding mental illness) recognizes very few money disorders. Generally, when mental health professionals refer to money, they’re focused on symptoms of another condition. For example, people living with addictions may steal money, while compulsive spenders may ferret it away. However, in a world where money issues are increasingly more complicated, some mental health professionals are taking the initiative to identify and treat actual money disorders, where fear, anxiety, and compulsion circle around currency itself. 

Most money disorders generally don’t start the way mine did. Typically, they arise due to traumatic experiences that can cause anxiety about money. These experiences are unique for everyone but can include financial insecurity during childhood or bankruptcy due to medical bills. That trauma can develop into a disordered relationship with money that is as unique as the person diagnosed with it.

Mental health professionals recognize a few types of money disorders. Financial restriction, addictive gambling, compulsive spending, and financial infidelity are all subtypes of money disorders that refer to a specific subset of behaviors that mental health practitioners look out for when treating patients. However, diagnosis and treatment for money disorders aren’t always easy because they often have overlapping symptoms. Someone who suffers from compulsive spending may also exhibit financial infidelity (hiding accounts and credit cards from a family member.) In my case, I mixed restriction with financial infidelity, making it hard for my partner to see how much money I was hoarding and how damaging the regulation had become. 

At the height of financial restriction, I was paring my grocery bill down to the bare essentials, living off of pasta, beans, and one-ply toilet paper without need. I prided myself on a life of frugality, free of wants and frivolous purchases. The best thing was, unlike my eating disorder, no one could challenge my behavior (except my partner.) Frugality is seen in our society as wholly positive, regardless of the toll it takes. 

Most people know that if you spend all of your time dieting, you will eventually binge. Extreme financial restriction has the same consequences. These binges manifest in wallet benders at Target, late-night Amazon purchases, and exorbitant gift-giving (I convinced myself that buying gifts for others didn’t violate my no-spend goals.) After a spending-bender, I’d feel frustrated, shame, and like a failure. It was frustratingly similar to how I’d feel after a food binge. 

The most important thing to know about money disorders is that they generally don’t come from financial illiteracy. Despite my poor relationship with cash, I consider myself very knowledgeable about money. I paid off my student loans in five years thanks to shrewd investments and often helped my friends build budgets for themselves. It’s likely my knowledge and comfort in the financial industry that made me vulnerable to developing a money disorder. 

The good news is, money disorders, like eating disorders, can be treated. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and financial therapy are the two most common methods of treating money disorders. Financial therapy helps target money-based traumas and uses education to help build a care plan. Behavioral therapy helps by treating the thought patterns that lead to disordered actions so they can be redirected and become healthy habits. 

The hardest part about treating money disorders is recognizing you have one in the first place. After realizing I was physically uncomfortable making purchases over $100, I started discussing it with my therapist. Now, instead of praising me for eating three square meals a day, she encourages self-care spending celebrates buying new running shoes when my old ones wear out. 

Money disorders will continue to rise unless the financial community makes changes to how we approach frugality.  The pervasiveness of positivity regarding frugality is part of what allows financial restriction to persist and makes it harder to recognize. Similarly, the shame we place on compulsive spenders and gamblers can prevent them from getting treatment. As a community, there needs to be a focus on mindful savings and spending, with the understanding that money disorders exist. That way, we can strive for financial health, which serves everyone in the end. 

About Meg:

Meg Leach is a writer living in Long Island, New York with a strong background in budgeting and investing. They have been freelance writing for three years, focusing on topics regarding living with neurodivergence, eating disorder recovery, and social justice. When they’re not writing, Meg can be found long-distance running, writing fiction, or caring for their pets.