HALT: Stop Overspending

If you struggle with overspending like I do, you may feel there is no way to predict or control your behavior. I actually spent a lot of time pondering this when I was accumulating debt. It’s not like you wake up thinking, I’m going to spend money I don’t have today! Yet for many people, the wallet is out and the card swiped before they even realize what they’re doing.

When I worked with individuals with alcohol and drug addictions, I was always amazed by the way they overlooked the HUGE negative consequences of their substance use in favor of the tiny short term high. But I was doing exactly the same thing! I knew debt was bad; I knew it didn’t make sense to buy a bunch of stuff when we were struggling to pay the bills. I knew that the clothes I bought today would keep me from paying the electric bill tomorrow. And despite that knowledge, I still thought it was worth the millisecond of joy I got from buying something new.

So how do you stop spending? You have to learn to HALT.

HALT is an acronym used in addictions treatment to help people avoid relapse. Make no mistake - spending is an addiction, though maybe not as widely recognized as drug or alcohol addictions. HALT teaches us to look at the four emotional states that lead to dangerous behaviors: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired.


Ever go to the grocery store when you’re hungry? What happens? Yep, you spend way more money than you intended. Or how about when you’re running errands and realize it’s lunchtime? Suddenly the nearest fast food restaurant seems like the perfect place to go. I’m less likely to look at prices and think carefully about purchases when all I want to do is finish up and eat. Hunger can prevent us from thinking rationally.

So what do you do about it? Shop between lunch and dinner. Carry some granola bars or crackers in case hunger strikes. Take your lunch to work. Anything you can do to avoid hunger will help keep you from spending money you don’t need to spend.


Raise your hand if you get angry sometimes. *looks around* Oh wow, so all of us get angry? That’s amazing! And guess what else? If you’re a compulsive spender, you’re at greater risk for pulling out the credit card when you’re mad.

When I was married, there were times I could have strangled my husband with my bare hands. Oddly enough, it was usually because he spent money on something he knew we couldn’t afford. And I responded by justifying a purchase of my own. Or calling up a friend to go out to dinner. Or driving around wasting gas. (In my defense, gas was much cheaper then.) I guess I thought I was really showing him!

Anger is a secondary emotion. That means you feel another emotion first, which makes you mad. Usually feeling embarrassed, helpless, or betrayed leads to anger. People want to get rid of those feelings as soon as possible. That’s why those with addictions are so vulnerable when they’re pissed off - the addiction (drugs, shopping, sex, gambling, whatever) soothes hurt feelings. The effects are temporary, but the addicted person is only thinking about the escape.

So what do you do about it? Understand that it’s normal to feel angry. Promise yourself that you will NOT use anger as an excuse to spend money. Instead, call someone you trust. Write in a journal (or a blog!). Exercise. It may take time, but you’ll find something that allows you to get rid of angry feelings without spending a bunch of money.


I’m an expert at feeling lonely. When I was married, I was lonely because my husband worked night shifts (and weekends). Now that I’m divorced, while I’m okay with being on my own, there are moments when the utter aloneness of my life takes my breath away. Further, being a licensed psychotherapist means I bear the burden of other people’s pain and secrets with no option to talk to someone about it. All this adds up to a recipe for financial disaster if I’m not careful.

It’s interesting how people react to loneliness. So often, even those without a spending addiction will spend in an attempt to belong. We join gyms and clubs, all with associated membership fees. We watch TV or spend time online, services that cost money to use. We buy new clothes, get pedicures, and try fad diets in hopes of meeting someone new. There are a million ways to combat loneliness, and nearly all of them have a price.

So what do you do about it? Become more aware of the people you already have in your life. You may have a friend you’ve fallen out of touch with. Why not give him/her a call? Does someone in your family need help around the house? When was the last time you invited a neighbor over for coffee? I’m not saying it’s bad to meet new people, but you don’t have to spend money to do it.


What adult doesn’t know about feeling tired? Sometimes I’m so exhausted I do well to make it through the day. And what happens? It’s easier to stop at McDonald’s than cook a meal. It’s more convenient to pay someone to mow the lawn so I don’t have to get sweaty. Some people (not me, unfortunately) even hire a housekeeper because their schedules leave them too tired to clean. All these conveniences, while wonderful, can add up to a LOT of money spent.

Being tired also makes you more likely to give in to temptation. Kid whining for a toy? Dogs barking for table food? Spouse wanting a new car? All of these things can seem like a good idea when you can barely hold your eyes open. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve agreed to something I would never agree to, just because I wanted the person to leave me alone.

So what do you do about it? First of all, get enough sleep. You can’t eliminate exhaustion without rest. Second, don’t try to conquer the world after a long day - save most of the hard stuff for weekends or consider swapping chores with a friend. (Example: I hate to sweep and mop. So one of my friends does that for me twice a month, and I do laundry for her. Free!) Develop and follow a meal plan where you can make/freeze food ahead of time. I admit, I haven’t had made the time to do this, but I know people who do. Organization is the key to combating tiredness.


Now you know the red flags for overspending and how to HALT before you end up in a financial crisis. Learning how to deal with these emotions can go a long way in preventing relapse for spendaholics. I actually have conversations like this in my head, What am I feeling right now? Lonely? Oh crap, I’m trying to buy happiness again. Time to call my mom! The fact is, you can’t avoid being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. But you can become aware of those feelings and find coping methods that don’t involve your wallet.

What tips would you recommend for people who overspend when they feel hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? Are there other times you are triggered to spend too much?

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