My Year Of Grief Spending: How Tragedy Took Over My Finances, And How I Reclaimed Them
I was 27 years old and just beginning my fourth year of medical school when my mother was very unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. I temporarily withdrew from school to take care of her, and six months later she died. We had an extremely close relationship; she was my favorite person in the entire world. Her illness and subsequent death left me feeling as if a bomb had been dropped on my life. For an entire year after her death, I felt like I was stumbling around in the aftermath of the explosion, my ears ringing from the blast, trying to make sense of my surroundings. The best way to describe how I was feeling, is this – it’s as if I was in a fog of grief. As a result, I made irrational and impulsive decisions, adopted some unhealthy coping mechanisms, and latched onto anything I could find that would temporarily numb my pain.
One of my more detrimental coping mechanisms was overspending. A little background on my financial situation — since I am in medical school, my sole source of income is student loans. I was over $200,000 in student loan debt when my mom was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2019, and I decided to scale back on my scholastic efforts, in order to be with her.
For clarity, medical school has a very rigid schedule, dictated by the fact that you can only apply for residency once per year. Although my mom only lived six months after her diagnosis, I had to wait until the following academic year to move forward in my education, and either find a funded research fellowship or apply for a residency. Meanwhile, I enrolled part-time in classes so I wouldn’t lose my health insurance and could continue getting loan money to pay for my living expenses. This extra year of tuition, along with the fact that medical school student loans accrue interest (7%) by the day while you are still in school, made my net worth extremely negative, despite putting most of my mom’s life insurance payout towards my loans. I had no business spending a bunch of money that I hadn’t even earned. But I was already so far in debt, and my mom was dead. Nothing really mattered to me anymore.
“I was already so far in debt, and my mom was dead. Nothing really mattered to me anymore.”
***Author’s Note: I would like to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege. I am extremely fortunate to have had the money to cover my living expenses, along with the extra to use as a coping mechanism for my grief. It is a huge privilege that many people don’t have, especially during this pandemic. My heart goes out to everyone experiencing the loss of loved ones with the added stressor of financial struggles.
It started off innocently enough. I began perusing Poshmark for purses, thinking I had been through so much that I “deserved” a little ‘Treat yo’self’ moment. Then I got such a great deal on a new Marc Jacobs work bag that I checked to see if perhaps there were any cute Ted Baker bags; I needed a bag for going out too, after all. I ended up finding one with dragonflies on it – my mom’s favorite insect – and knew it was meant to be. And because I was taking more yoga classes and attempting to flush out my sadness with sun salutations and “Namastes”, naturally I needed some new Lululemon leggings. I rationalized my purchases by telling myself I was saving so much money by getting them thrifted off of Poshmark.
It spiraled downwards from there until I was receiving multiple packages per week at my doorstep. Each package was a tiny hit of dopamine that (very temporarily) filled the hole in my heart.
“Each package was a tiny hit of dopamine that (very temporarily) filled the hole in my heart.”
I am not alone in my use of spending money as a coping mechanism. In a WebMD Grief Experience survey of over 1000 respondents, 51% of people reported engaging in harmful coping behaviors, while approximately 23% of people reported turning to excessive spending to cope with their loss.
I began spending money on a wider array of things. When you lose someone you love, you get this urge to burn your old life to the ground to try to start over fresh. I wanted to shed my old identity because without my mom as an anchor, I no longer knew who I was. I felt as if I had aged 10 years over the course of 6 months. I cut off my beloved long blonde hair, got more piercings and tattoos, and decided to “invest in myself” by throwing money at anything I thought would make me a better person: art classes, subscriptions to services or magazines, new clothes and makeup. I redecorated my entire apartment. I wanted to be anyone else besides the girl who had just watched her beloved mother slowly wither away.
Below is an honest breakdown of how much money I spent over the course of the year following my mother’s death. I was embarrassed when I went back through my bank statements to add up those totals because, until I emerged from my fog of grief and was able to start fully using my brain again, I had no idea how much money I had been spending. But I am publishing it here in the interest of full transparency and in the hopes that someone else who has been in my position can relate.
For starters, I created a graph by going back through all of my credit and debit card statements and my Venmo account and tracking each type of purchase in an excel sheet. I recorded spending from August 27,2019- August 27, 2020. I chose the categories seen above because that is what I spent most of my “grief coping” money on. I spent the most money by far in the “Retail” category, which includes purchases from any store that wasn’t a thrift/second-hand store, or that fell into the other categories. Some examples of things that fell into this category included: purchases from Amazon, Anthropologie, West Elm, Sephora, Target, etc.
The “thrifting” category included Poshmark (which by itself came to a cringe-worthy $850.71), Facebook marketplace, and my favorite local thrift shops. Most of the things I bought in the thrifting category were used to redecorate my apartment. Subscriptions were anything with a recurring monthly charge- this included magazine subscriptions, MasterClass, and Pimsleur Spanish lessons, to name a few. Also, I somehow spent $800 on plants??? Yikes.
There’s a psychological phenomenon where our minds adapt very quickly to the experience of having nice, new things. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains that, when humans repetitively experience something good (e.g. a new purse or Lulu leggings), the good feelings associated with that thing wane with each repetition. As I attempted to make myself feel better by purchasing more and more things, I was actually experiencing less pleasure with each purchase.
“I was actually experiencing less pleasure with each purchase.”
Things I regret spending money on:
- Lime green Lululemon yoga leggings ($45): No one looks good in lime green spandex. These leggings were completely see-through, and thanks to my other unhealthy coping mechanism of overeating, they were also way too small for me. There was a reason they were heavily discounted on Poshmark.
- Exotic Coffee Subscription ($32.95/month): I thought I needed to be a person who was educated about all the different types of coffee, so I bought a subscription to a fancy coffee service that sends coffee from a different country each month, along with tasting notes. This was super impractical because I always ran out of coffee, and it is way cheaper to get it at the store whenever you need it! I am a person who likes to be in control way too much to rely on a subscription service to choose a coffee for me. I canceled this and went back to buying coffee from Trader Joe’s.
- Random crap from the thrift store (~$200): I am all for thrift stores and I think they are perfect for decorating an apartment on a budget. But at some point, I was buying things just for the thrill of the thrift. I bought four vintage silver platters (I needed one for my jewelry. The other three are collecting dust in my closet), multiple candlesticks, too many cheap glass vases, a pudding bowl (I love chocolate pudding but I absolutely do not need a dish specifically to house it), and dozens of random tchotchkes. This only created clutter in my apartment, so I ended up donating most of it back to the thrift store when I moved.
- A Carolina blue Kate Spade bag from Poshmark ($95): I stupidly didn’t ask the seller for its dimensions and thought it was going to be smaller than it actually was. It ended up being a super awkward size — too big to use as a crossbody, too small to use as a work bag. I resold this on Facebook Marketplace after using it exactly two times.
- Exotic plants I only bought because they were popular on Instagram (~$150): I went through a very niche exotic plant phase where I followed rare plant Instagram accounts, joined exotic plant Facebook groups, and shopped for specific hard-to-find plants on eBay and Etsy. Needless to say, exotic plants are rare because they are very hard to take care of and only thrive in tropical environments that are very different from the climate of my living room. After I promptly killed them, I decided I would stick to my trusted plant favorites: a good old pothos, philodendron, or snake plant. They are gorgeous, budget-friendly, and thrive despite my lackadaisical watering habits.
What I don’t regret spending money on:
- Therapy: This was by far my best investment. I needed someone I could tell all of my worst thoughts, fears, and regrets about my mom’s illness and death. My therapist brought me out of my darkness and taught me healthy coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, my insurance did not cover most of the cost of my therapist. I had originally gone to Campus Health for mental health resources, but they had a limit to the number of therapy sessions they provided, so I ended up having to find a therapist in my community, most of which were out of network. Lack of access to mental health services is a huge problem in this country and I am thankful I had the resources to pay for it.
- Classes: I enrolled in a pottery class through the community art center; that was so fun and very therapeutic. Working with my hands in a creative way was very healing and took my mind off of my sadness for the duration of the two-hour classes. I also took several wine tasting classes at a local wine shop, and I learned so much about wine types, production, and tasting. Learning new skillsets that I could enjoy for the rest of my life was definitely worth the modest price tag.
- Books on grief: I found great comfort in reading about the stories of other people who had been through a similar experience such as mine. Grief is so isolating, it can often feel like no one around you understands what you are going through. Reading about grief helped me feel less alone — like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It also made me feel less guilty about my coping mechanisms since other people had written about being very impulsive, feeling up and down, and drinking or spending too much. Some of my favorite grief writers are: Nora McInerny, Kate Spencer, Joan Dideon, and Claire Bidwell Smith.
How I Got Back On Track:
- Find out how much you spent: The first step is being honest with yourself and assessing the damage. Go back through your credit card and bank statements and see where your money has been going. Even the simple act of being cognizant of your actions and keeping track of your habits can help you kickstart a change in your behavior.
- Unfollow/Unsubscribe from things that make you spend: Unfollowing Instagram accounts that encourage spending (such as influencers or aspirational home décor accounts) and unsubscribing from marketing emails from my favorite brands, helped keep me from online shopping just because I knew a sale was happening.
- Turn to healthy coping mechanisms first: Now when I get the urge to shop, I stop and assess how I am feeling. If I am sad or upset about something, I start with a healthy coping mechanism such as taking a walk or calling a good friend. Often, that is enough to reset my mindset and make me think more clearly, and I no longer feel the need to overspend.
Most importantly, have compassion for yourself. If you are turning to overspending because you are grieving the loss of a loved one, understand that you have been through a traumatic, life-altering event. Don’t beat yourself up for engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Recognize that they are unhealthy and make a game plan to change your behavior or redirect your energy towards more positive activities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, and mental health professionals. The pain of grief doesn’t get better overnight. It takes a long time and a lot of work to feel better. As grief writer Nora McInerny says:
“We don’t move on from grief. We move forward with it.”
(This story was originally published October 2020)
Maggie is a fourth-year medical student at UNC School of Medicine interested in global public health, infectious disease,and OB/GYN.
Image via Pexels