Essays & Confessions

Imaginary Guilt Debt: What It Is, And Why I Owe $100 Of It

By | Monday, June 27, 2016



I often find myself thinking about what “expensive” means to different people. I have had points in my life where $20 felt like a fortune, and points in my life where $20 felt like nothing, and was super easy for me to toss at any unnecessary purchase or dispose of on a whim. I also often think about how and why my idea of “expensive” changes depending on if I’m spending the money on myself or others.

This has been issue for me for a while, particularly in terms of dating. I have mentioned in past posts that I definitely go back and forth on how I factor money into my dating life. I like to make sure that no one I’m with is a financial disaster, but other than that, money isn’t an issue. I don’t worry about how much they have, or being treated or taken care of a certain way by them financially, because quite frankly, I don’t think there will ever be a point in my life where I think it is anyone else’s job to take care of me in that way. If someone is buying me dinner, I want to know that they’re doing it just because they want to – not because they have to, or because I can’t do it myself. But other than just being an issue of feminism, my own stubborn ego, or dating in general, my obsessive over-thinking about evening the playing field is prevalent in most all of my relationships.

This past weekend was my birthday weekend, and I found out that this means having all the wonderful people in my life spend money on me. People spending their money on me isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with, because I often feel really guilty when treated to something by someone else. I never want anyone – family, friends, or people I’m dating – to feel like my affection is something they need to purchase. I also do everything in my power to ensure that I’m doing what I can to treat them to things too.

It is tricky, because I also often find myself in the company of people who are in a much better financial position than I am. I’m pretty young, and my savings account exists, but isn’t exactly robust. When someone buys me dinner, I want to do the same for them. The problem there is that no matter how badly I want to, 50 bucks plus tip is sometimes harder for me to swing, depending on where my pretty lean paycheck had to go that week. The amount of money a restaurant meal costs feels like a shit-ton to me sometimes, but I do it, because it is for someone else, so the expense feels less expensive. A $7 order at a coffee shop that is just for myself feels way pricier and much more like a splurge to me. The amount that I find acceptable to spend on someone else is ridiculously higher than the amount I find acceptable to spend on myself for any reason (other than the very necessary bill payments, and boring grown-up stuff). It stresses me out to think about this, because I really do feel like if someone picks up the check or buys me a drink, I have to reciprocate in an equal or better way for it to be at all meaningful, or else I will be continue to owe them. (I know this isn’t the right way to think, but it is just what happens in my head – I have no control!)

So, instead of enjoying my birthday wholly, and enjoying being taken care of and made to feel special by my (incredible) friends and loved ones, I thought about the money. A lot. I thought about my Imaginary Guilt Debt.

Imaginary Guilt Debt (n): The money that I feel like I owe someone in exchange for them doing something nice for me.

I added in my head, and even made lists on my phone, of everyone who spent money on me for my birthday, and how much exactly they spent – just so I know I will be able to equally repay them in the future (on their birthday, maybe).

I thought about how my mom bought me a pair of shoes to replace my favorite ones that ripped in the heel, and spent $45 on those, even though she just recently spent a lot of money on a summer vacation. I thought about how my best friend bought me my favorite flowers (yellow roses) and a bottle of prosecco, spending at least $35 of her very hard-earned income that I know she’s been saving diligently for her upcoming trip to Peru. I thought about how my friend gave me $40 as a birthday gift to pay my overdue library book fines, (which was honestly the best gift I could have ever asked for) even though he’s about to spend a ton on his cross-country move from New York to Los Angeles. I thought about how a very sweet guy I only met recently thought it necessary to spend a truly undetermined amount of money buying me dinner and drinks and movie tickets to celebrate my birthday, even though he just funded his own move to a new home and started a brand new job, and was surely feeling the financial and emotional toll of both situations.

It kills me that I am not able to count down to the very last cent what someone has spent on me, and return exactly that amount (or more) to them. No one ever makes me feel like I owe them anything, and their kindness only makes my guilt stronger. I wish I could return the favor financially, but I know that it isn’t always realistic. And I also know that no one is particularly upset about that.

I know my neurosis is not cute. The high anxiety I experience when someone swipes their card instead of me is, presumably, more annoying than endearing. And after having it pointed out to me on my birthday, I’m doing my best to try and rid myself of this truly unhealthy way of thinking.

I try to remind myself as often as possible that someone doing something nice for me doesn’t mean I necessarily owe the same to them. It is extremely nice, and definitely an important part of a healthy human relationship to have some amount of financial give-and-take between the two friends, partners, or family members. If my friend buys me a coffee one day, I can pick up her bagel next time. If a guy buys me a drink on a date, I can buy him one the next time. And even if I spend a few bucks less, that doesn’t mean that I’m not as good a person as them, or that I’m less caring of them.

I’m also trying my hardest to wrap my mind around the fact that most people will not spend their money on me unless they genuinely wanted to, and won’t expect something in return. The same way it still gives me joy to pay for a meal for my friend even if I’ve been cash-strapped, maybe she just really wanted to buy me my favorite beautiful flowers for my birthday, and will worry about the money later, if ever. I love her, and all the wonderful people in my life for that. And I should be able to trust and respect their decision enough to stop fighting their kindness, and settle for being eternally grateful that I have them in my life to take me to the movies and buy me sushi on my birthday.

Mary is the summer Media Fellow at The Financial Diet. Send her your summer intern stories (your lessons, failures, triumphs and good advice) at

Image via Pixabay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.