This morning I gave a talk to the graduating seniors of a prestigious arts college. One of the questions I got asked was how to deal with wanting to treat yourself. "I work so hard," the young man said, "and I feel like I deserve to spend money on something nice for myself once in awhile, even though money is tight."
As far as I'm concerned, you should be spending money on nice things for yourself all the time. I am not the treat police. Completely the opposite, in fact. I feel like meaningful treats** should be part of EVERYONE'S regular spending plan. But treating yourself has little to nothing to do with how hard you work, and everything to do with whether or not you have the money to afford your treat of preference.
When you try to buy yourself a treat that you can't afford just because you "deserve" it, you end up in a mental spiral:
Prosecution: "Do not buy those shoes! You will just go into more debt!"
Defense: "I deserve these shoes! Wait, I NEED these shoes. My other shoes are worn out and scuffed, the heel is broken, and I never have any nice shoes to wear when I have to go out."
Prosecution: "When you have to go out? Really? That's your defense? Maybe you want to try again."
Defense: "Whatever. Work has been making me crazy. I hardly ever buy myself anything. I should get myself something nice once in awhile. Besides -- these are on sale. It would be a waste of money not to buy them!
Prosecution: "Your Honor, the Defense should recuse herself because she is starting to sound insane."
Defense: "Ha! While you were talking to the judge I snuck up to the register and paid for them! Too late!"
And later... the "Defense" is nowhere to be found as you mope about, feeling ashamed that you spent money on shoes that you meant to put toward paying down debt. You're still tired, anxious, and overworked, but now you get to feel guilty and regretful on top of it. How is that a treat?
Buying something on impulse that you can't afford and telling yourself you deserve it is a self-esteem grenade.
A real treat starts with a plan. You think about what would be a meaningful, enjoyable way to spend money on yourself. If it's shoes, great. Or it could be going to the movies, meeting a friend for dinner, or buying fancy bath salts. When you know what it is you want to spend money on, revisit your monthly spending plan. Put said treat item into the plan. If you need to, pare back other expenses that are not as valuable in order be able to afford it. If things are really lean, see if you can identify what it is about your preferred treat that makes it so meaningful, and then try to find a lower-cost alternative (for movies, see if you can set a date with yourself to watch a movie at home with a favorite snack and no interruptions, or for fancy bath salts try mixing your own).
When you consciously and deliberately give yoursef a treat you get to enjoy every part of it: the dreaming, the planning, the selecting, purchasing, and using. Using money as a means of self-care can be an amazingly empowering experience. And THAT can be the real treat!
**For our discussion here, when I say "treat" I specifically mean SPENDING MONEY on something fun, indulgent, or frivolous. I don't just mean doing something nice for yourself.