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Get Out of Debt

Is Money Your Drug?

Hey friends! Today we have a guest post from Elsie Brown, who blogs over at Gundo Money. Thanks, Elsie, for sharing your wisdom with CashBlog readers. 

I’m fortunate to have the time to read a lot of cool articles. Not just in the area of finance and economics but also science, fashion, food, politics, whatever catches my eye. One recent thing I read was titled on NPR’s website was called “Your Brain Thinks Money is a Drug.” The article cited some different scientific papers and limited studies on the affects of money on the brain and it’s got me thinking, are we using money like a drug?

I think if you ask good savers and frugality nerds about the way they treat money they’d say it’s a lot different than the average person. I write over and over about how changing your financial situation is about your attitude as well as the way you treat money and I’m going to keep writing about it until everyone’s financial cows come home. People who are good with money don’t tend to use money to fulfill them.

This is because your money is there to work for you, not fill some emotional void. Money is about security. It is not about happiness, stress-relief, pleasure, excitement, satisfaction, or any of the other wonderful things we get to experience as humans.

When we use drugs, be it alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine, we are changing our consciousness and how we feel. For some people life is too painful to face and for others it’s just fun to go out on a Saturday night and forget about all life’s responsibilities. Whatever the reason you might take in a substance, the fact remains that it usually provides some escape. I think we’re all familiar with the fact that spending money is a convenient escape. Why else would people go shopping for things they don’t need? Well, turns out that money affects our brain in a very similar way to drugs.

When someone wins money the same areas of the brain get activated as if they had used cocaine. ABC news recently reported, “They [researchers] found that in the gambling experiment, blood flow to the brain changed in ways similar to that seen in other experiments during an infusion of cocaine in subjects addicted to that drug and to low doses of morphine in drug-free individuals.”

Money seems to short-circuit our pleasure-reward systems. Just like an addict gets exhilarated by the process of scoring drugs and shooting up, people who win money get their brains flooded with chemicals in mere anticipation of winning a large amount of money. In the article featured on NPR, participants who counted money even reported feeling less physical pain than those who didn’t.

I see people use money for all sorts of misguided purposes these days. The hallmark of a good drug is that it acts as a good substitute for actual connection and belonging. Money is often used as a substitute for self-esteem and self-actualization. “If I made as much money as Dave I’d feel so much more professional.” Money is used to create status and belonging. “My Honda Fit doesn’t fit in amongst all my neighbors’ Land Rovers and Mercedes.” Money is used to alleviate fear. “If I had X amount of money I would have no worries.”

The truth is that money does provide us a level of security and happiness but it is not a cure-all. People who make $1 million a year are just as stressed as the rest of us, they’ve just found new material to worry about. The same goes for wants. People (myself included) tend to be unsatisfied with acquiring things. Whenever I get that new item I’ve been wanting I tend to find new things to want. If money created satisfaction we would not have billionaires with five mansions that mostly sit vacant through the year. It seems to me that much like a drug, the more money you get the more you have a need to acquire more.

Thankfully you can stop using money as a drug whenever you make the choice. The first step is to change your perspective on money. You turn longing into sympathy. When I see someone driving an expensive car I think “wow, they could’ve spent that $100,000 on an index fund and made 7% on it. How sad for them.” I know 3-person families who live in 3,000 sq ft houses and I wonder how much extra they must have to work for all that extra space they never get to enjoy.
Getting financially savvy is about using money for appropriate reasons and not letting it become your all purpose happiness-seeking machine. There is nothing outside of yourself that can give you peace; least of all spending money. If you get your insides right first you won’t have a need to fix your outsides.  In the words of one of the late George Carlin, “trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.”
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Erin Thompson

Erin Thompson spent years managing her own blog about budgeting and debt. Because of that, she has great insights not only about managing spending and borrowing but also about running websites profitably. When she's not writing articles for us, she's traveling and looking for new types of wines to try.
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