Ask Scary Mommy: My Spouse's Spending Is Out Of Control

Ask Scary Mommy: My Wife’s ‘Mom Groups’ Give Her FOMO That We Can’t Afford

December 16, 2020 Updated March 15, 2021

ask-scary-mommy-too-much-money
Scary Mommy and Flashpop/Getty

Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.

This week: What do you do when your spouse is spending your money like you don’t have bills to pay? Got a question? Email [email protected] 

Dear Scary Mommy,

I think my wife spends too much money at Starbucks, Target and TJ Maxx. I don’t try to control her spending and I’m not an asshole, but we keep having discussions about our budget (very tight right now because we are a one-income family with student loans, medical bills and a mortgage) and mapping out our expenses and every month it’s blown. She says she sometimes gets duped because everyone will be posting on social media about their special Target finds and then she feels like she needs them too. And the coffees she gets are like $7 each! Every day! I know she needs some money for herself and being a SAHM is hard, but we are barely scraping by here and it sucks for us all. I can’t keep borrowing money from my parents to tide us over. She’s not ready to go back to work, and we likely couldn’t afford daycare for our kids if she did, so we need to find a way to get on the same page. What do I do?

It sounds like your wife has one of the most expensive habits of all — FOMO. That, if you haven’t heard, means “fear of missing out” — defined by Dictionary.com as “a feeling of anxiety or insecurity over the possibility of missing out on something, as an event or an opportunity.” It’s not the coffee, so much as it’s the desire to relieve the bitter taste in her mouth that’s left by feeling that her friends are somehow privy to things that she’s not.

You are absolutely correct that she needs some money for herself, and whatever she spends it on should be totally up to her. But going to the point of destroying the family finances just so she can get her Maxx fix is symptomatic of a larger problem. Your wife needs a major wake-up call … and some major help with her self-esteem.

But as much as you probably want to Hulk-smash the bags full of goodies she just “couldn’t pass up” and rage Stop! Spending! Money! We! Don’t! Have!, being angry and commanding isn’t going to cut it. Remember how much it sucked when your parents would lecture you? Well, this is pretty much the same type of thing. When you have a discussion about her overspending, set it up in advance – so it’s a conversation, not a confrontation. Because confronting her angrily about it is only going to make her defensive, and no progress can be made while she’s trying to defend strolling through Target with a venti latte the size of her head.

Instead, lay it all out. A visual might help, so write down the actual numbers … and the projected numbers, if she keeps up her spending habits. Let her know that you’re not trying to control her, but that it’s putting major stress on you to keep juggling the bills and mooching off your folks for no good reason. Tell her that you understand those trivial purchases might make her happy, but they’re hurting you – and, by extension, the rest of the family. Use “I” language (“I’m stressed out” vs. “You’re stressing me out”) and a gentle, non-accusatory tone.

Then, work out a budget (I know, again) and get her input about what she really wants, and what she can let go. Don’t completely take away her “fun money” — because SAHMs are grossly underpaid and deserve all the dollars. But aim for a compromise; something like Starbucks once a week instead of daily and stick to the Dollar Spot on days that end in “y.” At least for a while.

Or, here’s a radical idea: let her do the budgeting. It sounds bonkers to let your free-spending spouse take control of the finances, but as financial coach Paul Moyer told US News, “By putting them in charge of drawing up the budget, they get a full view of exactly what their spending is doing.” The majority of people, he says, don’t want to put their family in financial trouble.

Of course, not even the most rational discussion will fix the underlying FOMO issue that’s fueling the compulsion to begin with. A social media break would help, if she’s willing. Remind her that what she’s seeing on Facebook and Instagram is the highlight reel of other folks’ lives, the carefully-curated shots that make it look like they’re living the Starbucks-and-TJ-Maxx-laden dream. But behind the scenes, they’re just as much of a hot mess as the rest of us. Maybe worse.

The key is going to be shifting her focus from social media, and instead putting the spotlight on the things she does have. Ask her to imagine losing all the things she’s got, which may help her realize how fortunate she actually is (even sans Target sprees). Gratitude is essential for happiness; in her book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky says, “[T]he more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.” Together — as a show of solidarity, you can both do this — write down a few things each day that you’re grateful for. If you can begin to show her the beauty in her own life, she’ll do less looking to emulate someone else’s.