Doom spending is not the same as caring for yourself | Mint

Doom spending is not the same as caring for yourself

Consumer economies thrive by stoking our fears that we’ll be left behind if we don’t buy the latest things.
Consumer economies thrive by stoking our fears that we’ll be left behind if we don’t buy the latest things.

Summary

  • ‘Doom spending’ is expenditure motivated by a need to cope with stress and it is a nihilistic coping mechanism that can strip us of our savings.

Please don’t dabble in doom spending. The term, which first bubbled up on social media, has gained steam following a recent survey by Intuit’s Credit Karma. Consider it 2024’s sequel to last year’s “girl math." If girl math was a light-hearted buddy comedy, doom spending is a horror film.

It’s not the same as retail therapy—shopping to ease personal woes like a breakup or a bad day at work. Doom spending is “spending money despite concerns about the economy and foreign affairs to cope with stress," says Credit Karma, a credit-tracking company, and about 27% of Americans say they’re doing it.

Self-reported rates of doom spending are higher among men; according to the survey, 33% of men admit to doing it compared with 21% of women. It’s the women I’m more worried about, because they already typically face a tougher road to financial independence. They earn, save and invest less, and have more student debt.

The survey finds that young women are much more likely to doom spend than their mothers and older sisters. Throw in the financial precarity dogging millennials and Gen Z—the New York Fed noted that rising credit card and auto loan delinquencies were especially pronounced among younger borrowers—and you have a recipe for misery.

“The economy sucks, there’s global warming, there’s constant political and social unrest globally," a 24-year-old told Bloomberg News, justifying her purchase of the occasional “little luxury," like the vintage Chanel bag she picked up for $2,500. “It’s just easier to spend money on things that will bring you immediate fulfilment," she continued, especially when saving doesn’t seem to bring life’s major expenditures any closer.

She’s right that the rising cost of living has hit younger people, along with lower-earning people, especially hard. But at the risk of sounding like a scold, a little luxury is a latte, not a four-figure bag.

Consumer economies thrive by stoking our fears that we’ll be left behind if we don’t buy the latest things. “Our susceptibility to status symbols comes from our deep need to be accepted, but it is also a way of protecting ourselves," writes psychology professor Bruce Hood in Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need. Luxury goods may change how people perceive us or how we see ourselves.

When resources feel scarce or our situation chaotic, we focus on what we can control. Expensive items carry more heft in social groups where truly big-ticket items like houses are seen as out of reach, Hood notes in the book. The power of luxury goods comes from the way we constantly compare ourselves. It’s easy to forget that the couple posting enviable photos of their new home might not be able to afford it or that they may well have benefitted from inherited wealth.

Corporate marketing departments have long been aware of these psychological tricks and have chased after the female consumer, who controls the majority of household’s discretionary spending despite her lower earning power.

Historically, those appeals targeted the female buyer’s independence and self-worth, whether that’s “You’ve come a long way, baby," (Virginia Slims pitching equal opportunity) or “Because you’re worth it" (L’Oreal selling hair dye). The modern equivalent would be algorithm-targeted ads selling teas, acupressure mats and subscription supplements as ‘self-care.’

Young women can’t afford to give into such cynicism. In a 2022 report by the Financial Health Network, 44% of women ages 18-29, compared with 34% of men the same age, said debt has led them to delay major life milestones like marriage, homeownership and children. Women are also more likely to say their debts are unmanageable. Putting yourself in a financial hole isn’t smart or empowering.

Real self-care is creating and sticking to a budget. It’s true that the old rules of thumb—50% for needs, 30% for wants, 20% for savings and paying down debt—might not be possible, particularly for younger earners early in their careers. Housing, food and transportation could eat up 50% of your budget before you even get to necessities like healthcare or education. But that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and buy Chanel. It means we save whatever we can manage and try to move up the income ladder.

There’s nothing wrong with a little girl math but there is something deeply wrong with seeking a momentary mood-boost by spending money you don’t have, and then ending up with credit card debt or with nothing saved for retirement.

If we ignore that math, doom spending may go from nihilistic coping mechanism to self-fulfilling prophecy. ©bloomberg

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