There is no such thing as selfless spending


Full disclosure: I have a dog and a cat. They get Christmas presents.

Now, to be fair, I don’t go crazy or anything. They generally get the kind of treats and toys they’d likely get at some point in time during the year anyway; just more of them, and stuffed inside a pair of pet-sized stockings.

It’s important at this point to note two things: they have no idea what Christmas is, and they have no idea why they’re getting these special treats. To them it’s just a randomly awesome Thursday morning (they don’t know it’s Thursday, either).

The presents are for them, but on another, arguably deeper level, they’re for me. Neither one would be particularly bummed if Santa stiffed them one year, but I would be. Rationally, I can see that buying Christmas presents for my pets is neither necessary nor practical, but on an emotional level I need to do that for them.

Everything you buy, you buy for you

Time financial reporter Taylor Tepper recently wrote about buying Christmas presents for his 11 month old child. Children that young generally have no concept that Christmas is even a thing that’s happening. They certainly won’t remember any gifts they did (or did not) receive.

But for many parents (such as Tepper’s wife) it’s unconscionable to not give your child a Christmas present, even if there’s no way a child so young could ever appreciate such a gift. Those gifts, in many ways, have little to nothing to do with the wants and needs of the recipient – it’s all about the giver.

Which is not to say that there’s something wrong or selfish about that kind of spending. Tepper cites a 2008 experiment by Harvard researchers where random participants were given money and instructed to either spend the money on themselves or on others. The participants who spent the money on others reported the highest increase in personal happiness.

Giving to others simply makes us happy, and that’s a good thing. But it’s also a crucially important thing to remember when we consider our spending habits. Giving is not a selfless act. When we give, we feel better. When we buy presents for our infant children, we feel good. When we give gifts to dogs and cats, it makes us happy.

When we spend money we are always looking to get something back. That’s not a bad thing! Just because our spending isn’t selfless doesn’t mean that it’s automatically selfish.

Every penny you spend, you spend for a reason

The takeaway here is simply this: most of our struggles with buying, spending, and debt come about because we don’t see why we buy the things we buy. Our needs motivate every purchase we make. We buy to fulfill an internal obligation. We buy to prevent disappointment. We buy to create joy.

At the very heart of it, though, most spending boils down to one thing: the maintenance of happiness. We buy to make ourselves happy or to prevent ourselves from becoming unhappy.

Again, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to buy silly, impractical things. At the end of the day, your money should serve your happiness, not the other way around.

But going forward, it may not be a bad idea to pause before making certain purchases and ask yourself, “What do I hope to get out of this?”

By understanding the personal needs you’re attempting to address with a purchase, you can then ask yourself, “Is there a better way?”

For example, let’s say buying your infant a series of cute outfits and new toys for Christmas makes you feel good because it satisfies your need to include your child in an important personal ritual. Is it possible for you to achieve that feeling in a different way? What if you gave your child a handsomely wrapped box, filled with nothing but tinsel and a slip of paper representing the new savings account you’ve opened for them?

Sometimes there may not be an alternate path, but many times there will be. If you can find the why behind every purchase, you’ll never have to sacrifice the emotional for the practical, or the practical for the emotional. You can have both. You’ll be the savviest kind of spender possible – the kind who’s completely satisfied, financially and emotionally.

Jesse Campbell photo.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, with over ten years of experience creating valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • Better Business Bureau A+ rating Better Business Bureau
    MMI is proud to have achieved an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit organization focused on promoting and improving marketplace trust. The BBB investigates charges of fraud against both consumers and businesses, sets standards for truthfulness in advertising, and evaluates the trustworthiness of businesses and charities, providing a score from A+ (highest) to F (lowest).
  • Financial Counseling Association of America Financial Counseling Association of America
    MMI is a proud member of the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA), a national association representing financial counseling companies that provide consumer credit counseling, housing counseling, student loan counseling, bankruptcy counseling, debt management, and various financial education services.
  • Trustpilot Trustpilot
    MMI is rated as “Excellent” (4.9/5) by reviewers on Trustpilot, a global, online consumer review platform dedicated to openness and transparency. Since 2007, Trustpilot has received over 116 million customer reviews for nearly 500,000 different websites and businesses. See what others are saying about the work we do.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development - Equal Housing Opportunity Department of Housing and Urban Development
    MMI is certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide consumer housing counseling. The mission of HUD is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD provides support services directly and through approved, local agencies like MMI.
  • Council on Accreditation Council On Accreditation
    MMI is proudly accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA), an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. COA’s thorough, peer-reviewed accreditation process is designed to ensure that organizations like MMI are providing the highest standard of service and support for clients and employees alike.
  • National Foundation for Credit Counseling National Foundation for Credit Counseling
    MMI is a longstanding member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), the nation’s largest nonprofit financial counseling organization. Founded in 1951, the NFCC’s mission is to promote financially responsible behavior and help member organizations like MMI deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.