Even millionaires have money guilt, financial therapist says: Here's how to conquer yours

"It was years into my adult life until I told myself it was okay to buy an appetizer."


Money was tight during Kendra Adachi's childhood. "I didn't know that we were poor, but we lived in a trailer for the first few years and my mom worked multiple jobs," she says.

Adachi, now 40 and based in North Carolina, is the founder of the Lazy Genius Collective, a site that breaks down intimidating topics for everyday readers. She hosts a podcast and wrote a book by the same name.

As a child, spending on anything unnecessary felt like a splurge. "I remember going on vacations, for example, and we'd go to a beach and we would only go out to eat one time while we were there," she says. "Going out to eat was such a rarity and when we did we did not get dessert , we did not get apps, we did not get soda."

Now she makes enough money to afford to indulge. Still, having been raised in a household where money was scarce means that she feels guilty doing so.

"It was years into my adult life until I told myself it was okay to buy an appetizer," she says. "I was probably 30 years old until I didn't feel like I was being irresponsible for doing something that was excess."

Adachi's hang-up is common: The relationship between guilt or anxiety and spending is one financial therapists see often in their clients, even those who are very well off. "I've worked with millionaires who work up a sweat while cashing out at the grocery store," says Ashley Agnew, the director of relationship development at financial advisory firm Centerpoint Advisors.

How the pain of paying can affect your spending

Video by Courtney Stith

Guilt about spending can be about 'childhood memories'

If you feel guilty making certain purchases, it's likely that at some point in your life this emotion served a purpose, says Amanda Clayman, a clinician who specializes in money and behavior.

"The guilt that we're feeling is meant to be a curb on a behavior that is destructive," Clayman says. "It doesn't start out as guilt. It starts out as habit that makes sense in those circumstances, but as we move away from those circumstances, the guilt is an emotional hangover."

For example, not ordering any extras at dinner was a necessary financial choice in Adachi's family. "It's not that those decisions my family made were bad, it's just that the priorities were different," she says.

As she got older, her money situation changed, but her attitude about spending did not.

That could be, in part, because many people consider their class a large part of their identity, Agnew says. So if they identified as working-class during their adolescence and they've moved into a different class as an adult, they can experience some cognitive dissonance when they spend money on things they couldn't afford growing up.

"One woman [I advise] inherited $300,000," Agnew says. "She told me, 'But I've always been a poor person.' That's how she identified."

Identifying with having less can sometimes implant an aversion to those with money, too, Agnew says: "Someone who grow up in a household with not a lot of money might have this idea that people with money are bad people," she says. So realizing they've become a person with money can be disorienting or even anxiety-producing.

"It's all about how childhood memories transcend into adulthood," Agnew says.

Regardless of the origin of your guilt, there are ways to cope with it. These four strategies might help.

1. Have a money talk with yourself

In the moment, it can be hard to address why you're feeling guilty, says Nashira Lynton, a certified financial counselor and the CEO of Breaking Cycles. At a restaurant among friends or at the grocery checkout aren't optimal places for reflection.

However, this anxiety might creep in later when you're trying to sleep or relax, she says. That's why it's smart to regularly put aside time to have a money talk with yourself.

"Block off a time on your calendar," she says. "Think about the fear or feeling behind the anxiety. Stress can come for many different reasons whether it's good or bad. If it is from a past experience, think about what feelings it was causing."

If talking to yourself seems strange, you can journal, she says. You can even address your journal entries to your bank account. You can write, "okay, money, here's how I feel. I'm feeling guilty and I don't want to buy the appetizer because I feel like I'm going to run out of money. I feel a sense of guilt like I don't deserve it."

Once you pinpoint the reason you're feeling what you're feeling and where the guilt might come from, assess your budget.  

2. Consider feelings, then funds

Reflecting on your feelings before looking at your bank account can help you decouple your anxiety from your money.

"Don't avoid it now that you've already reflected on what you feel," Lynton says. The numbers will reveal whether the thing you feel guilty spending money on is actually out of your budget.

3. Budget for bigger, indulgent purchases

Create a budget that incorporates an occasional splurge.

"One of the most transformative things people can do when it comes to financial help is having a spending plan where they budget for these things that are sticking points for them," Clayman says.

The numbers will tell whether you can you actually do this.
Nashira Lynton
certified financial counselor and the CEO of Breaking Cycles

This might mean getting specific, she says, like allocating an amount of money exclusively for three new pieces of clothing that month or one manicure.

If you feel anxious spending all of your discretionary money, you can build up to it, she says: "Start small. Even if you can afford to spend X dollars, first endeavor to consciously spend half of X dollars."

4. Make a 'money mantra'

Take negative self talk and turn it into a positive "money mantra," Agnew says.

"What are your limiting beliefs, and how can you change that into a money mantra you are confident with?" she says. "You can even write it down and put it in your pocket."

If you're taking the time to budget for items or experiences you enjoy, your mantra can be "I am great with spending on things that are important to me," she says. "That's good. That goes from 'I'm a terrible saver' and changes that to, 'I'm good at spending on things that are important to me.'"

Perhaps your guilt is coming from a place of comparison, Lynton says. If those you grew up with still can't afford dinners out but you can, you might feel undeserving.

"If it's a worth issue, say, 'I am worthy of treating myself to an appetizer,'" Lynton says.

Remember to give yourself time to adjust to this mindset and mantra, she adds: "Maybe this time you start off with just ordering an appetizer. Then, plan next time to not only get an appetizer but also an extra drink."

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