For a month, following a breakup in early June, I oscillated between empowered mania and Wuthering Heights-style anguish. If I had access to the Scottish moorlands, I would have wandered through them every night like the tormented hero of the book, Heathcliff, with wild hair and a disheveled tie. But I was in Austin, Texas, where there are no moorlands and it’s too hot to wander. So, as I had done after previous breakups, I turned to retail therapy.
Once, I spent $100 on a wooden gorilla. On another occasion, I bought a philodendron, a climbing plant, which has since taken over my house like in Jumanji (if your goal is to purge the memory of a lover, I suggest a less invasive plant). However, after this latest breakup, I moved from retail therapy to shopping addiction. Unfortunately, the only thing that seemed too expensive was talking to a therapist. Instead, I bought a plane ticket to Mexico to go to a resort with my sister, which was too costly for me. I signed up for a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card with a $550 annual fee and impressive travel benefits, thinking that it would allow me to take more trips to Mexico. I spent $165 on a deep tissue massage and $130 on an annual subscription to MasterClass. I took advantage of the lingerie sales at La Perla, which are still incredibly expensive (a perfect cleavage does come at a price: $173).
After months of not using DoorDash, a food delivery app, due to a New Year’s resolution, I started ordering delivery again. My ex and I used to cook together often, and cooking dinner alone made me depressed. When I reviewed my credit card transactions at the end of the month, I wished I had made a budget.
Financial advisors often encourage us to have an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses or home repairs. But we are less likely to budget for emotional contingencies, even though when they happen, we may allow ourselves indulgences whether we can afford them or not.
Scott Rick, a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan, co-authored a 2014 study that showed retail therapy can reduce residual sadness because it restores the feeling of control. His study found that even hypothetical and simulated purchases can be comforting, which could validate those who find relaxation in building houses in The Sims.
“Shopping is about making choices,” Rick said in an interview. “It’s a matter of ‘I want A and not B.’ You exercise some control over those simple outcomes of what you bring home.” He pointed out that choosing between pleasant options, like summer bedspreads, another product I bought after my breakup, is likely to be more therapeutic than choosing between unpleasant options, like expensive home improvements. “That helps interrupt that negative cycle of thoughts and sad feelings,” he said. “You can become the architect of your own destiny again.”
Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist from Los Angeles, noted that we have been taught to process our emotions through consumerism throughout our lives. For example, as children, we would alleviate nerves about a new school year with back-to-school shopping. “We’ve been conditioned and taught to do that in many cases,” Clayman explained. “For us, it’s more natural to turn to a field of consumer expression and processing than to say, ‘These are my feelings; I’m going to sit on a couch and meditate on them for the next two weeks.'”
The financial therapist pointed out that Americans tend to attribute tremendous personal and cultural significance to shopping. When others told me about their post-breakup splurges, ranging from an embroidery course to a $3,000 chair and first-class tickets to transport two cats across the United States, I was struck by how diverse and personal they were. (Although the Dyson Airwrap, a $600 wand that dries and styles hair, seems to be the standard scepter for those seeking reinvention, carpets have also been described as transformative on several occasions).
A friend who invited several people to an Airbnb in Montana a few years ago said that, in retrospect, they would characterize that vacation as a breakup splurge. Lauren Fish, a 33-year-old consultant from Chicago, invested in boxing classes and equipment that is now unused in her closet. Jennifer Sinski, a 36-year-old publicist from Austin, bought a Peloton, the trendy at-home spinning bike, and a dachshund dog named Honey. Julie Vadnal, a 38-year-old editor from New York, paid $650 for a custom-made sequin dress by designer Batsheva Hay. “I was so depressed, and she took my measurements in person, and I felt so loved and cared for,” Vadnal recalled. “I don’t regret anything, even though I only wore it once.”
Clayman suggested that instead of trying to maintain complete control over our behavior and feeling guilty when we fail, we should give ourselves permission – within reason – to follow our impulses. When I proposed the idea of a breakup budget for those of us who struggle to comfort ourselves “within reason,” Clayman was enthusiastic. “When doing this kind of budgeting work, one of the things I emphasize a lot is that we allocate money – after covering basic needs – or at least time to emotionally nurture ourselves,” she said.
At a certain point in my post-breakup bacchanal, I realized that my spending had ceased to be therapeutic and had become a mere habit, much like other behaviors that emerged from sadness, such as staying in bed for an extra hour after the alarm rings and listening exclusively to Billie Eilish. I assumed that a budget could have served as a limit not only for my shopping therapy but also for my overall lamentation.
So I was surprised when Rick, who studies the relationship between behavior and money, advised against a breakup budget, at least in the way I had conceived it – as a fund that would constantly grow throughout the duration of the relationship. “When you have a backup plan, you put less effort into what you’re doing,” he said.
He clarified that he was not opposed to breakups or divorces and agreed that some relationships should fail. He added that he would support a breakup fund “if it’s something you and your friends decide when you’re 18 and not in a long-term relationship, something like, ‘Oh, this is something we should do for the future in case we ever break up with someone’. I don’t think it’s good to do it three months into a relationship.”
I agreed that it might be a sign of trouble if someone were already funding their post-breakup haircut as the first quarter of a new romance unfolds. However, there was something perversely optimistic about creating a separation fund before even starting a relationship. I deduced, from the long hours I spent among the wise on Reddit in recent weeks, that being open to disappointment is a key component of moving on from a relationship.
In Qapital, a personal finance app that connects to your bank account and automatically deposits money into various “goals” every time you make a purchase, I set up a recurring weekly deposit of $5 into a breakup fund. I don’t check the app often, so I hope to forget about it until a post-breakup cosmetics binge from Glossier reminds me that there is a piggy bank to break.
My month of excess, particularly a plate of ceviche I ate on a beach in Mexico with a loved one, truly made me feel better about my breakup. At least I spent so much money preparing my mind and body to start dating again that I felt committed to doing so.
But I could have done it without the guilt and the months of asceticism it will take to stabilize my finances. Next time, though I hope there isn’t one, I’ll try to find a balance between indulgence and restraint. After all, as Clayman put it, “We’re not always rational beings. We’re emotional creatures.”