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Hey big spender!

How to know when your luxury spending is controlling you

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

December 15, 2011

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You like to shop — but not just anywhere. Only the best will do for you. But there's one problem: You don't have an unlimited budget. So why do you still feel entitled to have designer labels when it makes more financial sense to grab the sale items?

"This is not much different than buying a bigger house or buying a slightly nicer car that you really shouldn't," said Carl Richards, a certified financial planner and author of "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

"The question becomes, what are you getting out of that item?" he added. "I mean, if it's recreation for you or gives you joy, it's contained and you're not hurting anyone, then how is that different than buying 100 books? It's hard to figure out the line between a need and a want with luxury items."

Richards said there could be an argument for having to dress for success, depending on your career.

"If you're a real estate agent and you're convinced that it will help you earn more money to wear that designer suit, I could see playing that mental trick on myself," he said.

But there could be more going on in your brain when it comes to buying that high-ticket item, said psychotherapist James Kowal.

"This is a form of anxiety," said Kowal, who is also a neurotherapist. "When you do something that is compulsive, such as feeling the need to buy or have something, the familiarity of that activity calms the anxiety in the brain. That process becomes a pattern in the brain and the brain is a pattern engine. It loves to execute patterns. We also call that habit. That's why they're so hard to break."

So how do you know if your habit is harmful?

"It's not about whether it affects your functionality, it's about whether you have control over it," Kowal said. "Control is when you actually stop — if and when you want to."

Here are some warning signs that you're not in control of your luxury spending:

You choose luxury over essentials.

"If you need to buy new ski equipment, but you can't feed your family, obviously this is a problem," said Richards. "If you have higher priorities that aren't getting the attention they deserve because of this spending, then maybe you've crossed a line you want to address."

You act like an addict.

"The behaviors that typically identify with an addict can apply here, "said Richards. "Are you hurting other people or are your activities having a negative impact on others? Do you want to stop and can't? Do you make a commitment to quit and then find yourself doing the opposite? Also, hiding things from your spouse is a big warning sign."

Your work is suffering.

"Are you sneaking out of the office to go to a purse show?" asked Richards. "You don't want to risk your job, but if you do it on your lunch break, that's a different story."

You are defensive.

"When someone points out, 'Gee — isn't that the seventh pair of shoes you bought this week?' and you get defensive, this is a sign that you are now caught up in that activity controlling your life rather than you having control of your own behavior."

If any of this sounds familiar, here are some tips to stay in control:

Keep track of how you spend your time and your money.

Richards said you can tell a lot about your spending habits by looking at how you spend your time.

"Are you going on vacations? Do you travel frequently or go out to eat? The checkbook and the calendar never lie," said Richards. "If I really want to know what's important in your life, I don't care what you tell me, let me see your checkbook and your calendar. Really ask yourself, 'What's important about money to me? What do I really value?' If the answer is getting your child into a university, and you're spending instead of saving, then we have a problem."

Designate a certain amount for luxuries and stick to it.

"Setting a limit is always a good exercise to keep the brain from repeating patterns and habits that are hard to control," said Kowal.

Think differently.

"I'll say this to clients and they'll say, 'How do I do that?' But research shows you can create new patterns and new pathways by making your brain focus on different things. We've been training people to lower the activity of anxiety, mood swings, obsessive or compulsive behaviors with neurofeedback," he said. " … You can train the brain and choose not to let these things control you."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel