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Psychologist: 'Healthy guilt' can help you be good with money

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Chris Browning knew he and his wife were spending too much money on food when they first wed in 2012, but it wasn't until two years into their marriage, when he sat down and calculated exactly how much dining out and buying groceries cost them, that he felt the need to make a change.

"I think we were spending about $1,200 [per month] on food," he says "That's when the guilt hit."

Browning, who founded the personal finance podcast Popcorn Finance, now says that feeling guilty was key to changing his behavior. Experts back him up: You can use guilt to do better, they say. Here's how.

To make guilt work for you, first get specific

"I really didn't want people to know how I was struggling" with his financial situation, Browning says. "It felt like everyone was doing the right thing and I was the one screwing up."

So how do you harness that guilt and put it to work? First, don't let it paralyze you. Slow down, pay attention, and "do some journaling," suggests relationship psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. Journaling is one way to visualize the specific choices you've made in the past and how, specifically, you're going to do better.

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This is the approach Browning took. He calculated exactly how much he was overspending. Before he tried that, "I knew I was eating out a lot of spending a lot of money at the store, but I never looked at the combined impact of that," Browning says.

Once Brown had a sense of what he was actually spending, he was able to make a plan to cut down: He would put aside $300 cash from each paycheck, and this was the only money him and his wife could use to buy food. This resulted in the two of them cutting down their food spending per month by roughly half.

Taking the time to figure out where he was going wrong, and facing up to the reality of it, helped Brown course-correct. He also started following the hashtag #debtfreecommunity on social media, which helped him see that he wasn't the only one who felt not in control of their money.

Guilt can be motivating, but shame is not

Guilt can be a very positive and helpful emotion, experts agree, and used wisely it can motivate you to make change. Shame is different, though.

"While appropriate guilt is helpfully saying, 'You could have handled that better,' shame is much more abusive," Bobby says. "Shame says, 'You are a horrible person.'"

Appropriate guilt is helpfully saying, 'You could have handled that better.'
Lisa Marie Bobby
relationship psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Boulder, Colorado

It's important to make a distinction between feeling like you've done something bad and feeling like you're a Bad Person. In her 2014 TED talk, Brene Brown, who researches shame and empathy as a professor at the University of Houston, said that "shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior."

When you feel like a bad person, you are more prone to inaction, which can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle. "As people feel worse emotionally, they are less in control of their behaviors, which leads them to feel [even] worse," Bobby says.

So let go of shame and lean into what you can learn from appropriate or healthy guilt. "Many times, seeking to understand feelings of healthy guilt can give you more clarity about your values, your goals, and help you develop into the person you aspire to be," Bobby says.

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