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Early signs that you have a spending problem, and what to do about it

Pedestrians wearing protective masks carry shopping bags in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For many Americans, the post-pandemic normal is exciting.

After more than a year stuck inside and forgoing travel, entertainment and more to curb the spread of Covid-19, many people are ready to get back out in the world.

That excitement, however, could lead to overspending and a debt hangover in the coming months.

"We are now coming out of a cave, basically, and there's a lot of emotions around that," said Susan Greenhalgh, an accredited financial counselor who runs Mind Your Money LLC in Rhode Island.

Here are some red flags that financial experts say may signal a spending problem.

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You're piling up debt

An early sign that you might have a problem with spending is that you're piling on debt, especially with high-interest credit cards.

This is especially concerning if you suddenly find that you can't make a full payment at the end of the month, or reduce the amount you owe, or even pay the minimum amount, according to Jacqueline Schadeck, a certified financial planner based in Atlanta.  

Of course, it's likely that credit card balances will increase after a year of not spending much on going out, said Greenhalgh. Having a higher bill one month isn't immediate cause for concern, but is something to monitor for the next few credit cycles and consider if you need to reestablish a budget.

"We were kind of getting used to very low credit card statements every month, and now they've gone up considerably," she said.

While it's fine to treat yourself on occasion, the key to doing so is to be within your budget and comfort zone, said Greenhalgh.

Your credit score suddenly dips

Another thing to watch for that could indicate you're spending above your means is if your credit score suddenly dips.

This is because a component of the score is your credit utilization, which is how much you've spent against your total limit. As your credit utilization ticks up, meaning you're taking on debt, your score will likely fall to reflect that, said Greenhalgh.

"If all of a sudden you've now put travel and clothes and restaurants on it and you're not thinking about it, don't surprised if your credit score goes down," she said.

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You're letting your emotions guide spending

After a year of not doing many of the things we'd like to do, it can be tempting to let our emotions take over and spend without limits. This may be especially difficult amid an uneven recovery, where the pandemic was beneficial or net-neutral for some Americans but very damaging for others.

"You see some people get in trouble around this because they're using spending as a way to just be accepted and keep up," said Adam Blum, a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Gay Therapy Center. He added that this has particularly been noticed as a problem among gay men.  

"When we go unconscious and don't think about what we're doing, it's more likely we're going to make mistakes that we regret," said Blum.

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You've tried to budget or curb spending, but are having trouble

Of course, some things post-pandemic will cost more due to inflation and overloaded supply chains.

If your spending is boosted as a result of this, it might be undesirable, but it isn't necessarily a problem, said George Blount, a financial therapist and managing partner at nBalance Financial in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

On the flip side, if your spending has become uncontrollable, that's a red flag, he said. And, if you've tried to budget using a system or a product that just isn't working for you, that's also cause for concern.

"You have to use the tools and you have to use them effectively," said Blount.

In addition, if you make a lot of money but just aren't sure where it's going, that could signal overspending, according to Schadeck.

We are now coming out of a cave, basically, and there's a lot of emotions around that
Susan Greenhalgh
accredited financial counselor, Mind Your Money LLC

The solution? Mindful spending

To solve a spending problem, financial experts recommend getting well acquainted with the details of where your money is going and the emotions behind purchases.

"I always encourage people to get mindful about their money," said Greenhalgh. That means looking at their spending for a few months in a row, she said.

Set aside some quiet time with your bank account and credit card statements and really see where the money is going, she said. Then, assess what you feel good about, and what you're not so happy about. This could include comparing expenses to a pre-pandemic budget, identifying any shifts in spending and course correcting if needed.

Being connected to where you're spending can help you form new habits, she said.

If you're still having trouble with spending or feel it might be tied to emotions you're struggling to control, seeking help from a therapist or financial therapist can help you work through those issues.

You can also do certain exercises such as checking in with your emotions before making any purchase, said Blum.

"Everything we do has an emotional component, and if we don't know what those are, we're kind of operating at a loss, we're stuck," he said. By asking yourself why you're making a purchase before swiping your credit card, you can become more aware of the emotional component and address it.

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