Since moving into independence and (more or less) adulthood, I’ve noticed a fresh tendency to focus my anxious energy on money. I’ve become a budgeter, albeit not a very good one, with a spreadsheet that charts my allowed spending per month based on my minimum possible income – which happens to be about half of what I’ll actually be taking home – just in case. It’s frustratingly vague, with rows for rent, utilities, food, alcohol, and video games (hey, I said my adulthood was only more-or-less), but until I get a better idea of my spending habits, that’s how it will have to stay.
Beside the budgeting, an obsession has arisen with unit prices. I’ve always tried to buy relatively inexpensive products, but now I check each and every per-ounce/per-pound/per-unit label to find the best possible deal down to the fraction of a cent. I don’t doubt it drives my roommate crazy that I spend five minutes poring over chicken, trying to calculate exactly which package is the best deal, only to decide on the first one I picked up.
But still I find a way to contradict myself. Small purchases I agonize over, yes, but I will happily splurge on clothes with the justification that “it’s for work.” I know in my gut that this justification is hollow at best – mostly, I just like pretty things, and it lifts my mood to buy them for myself, at least for a little while. Then the inevitable crash comes when I view my bank statement, the hollow sinking in my stomach as I realize just how much I’ve spent, the frantic calculating – surely all those dresses and skirts don’t come to that much, do they?
Little purchases, I believe, fit into my background anxiety. They’re not a large enough or exciting enough thing to warrant their own swells or spikes. As such, they fall under the standard schema of check-doublecheck-focus-on-details that applies to most of my life. The large purchases, on the other hand, are exciting enough to lift above the anxiety. They raise my heart rate in a different way. They make me giddy, almost manic, pushing off the anxiety until the initial rush has passed. Some people get high with drugs. I get high with shopping.
I think also that my obsession with unit prices has to do with a need for control – much of my anxiety stems from a feeling of helplessness, of not having control over my own life or circumstances. To wax psychological, my locus of control is heavily external, though not in the traditional sense. Typically an external locus of control is used as shorthand for religiosity or a tendency to blame others for things that go wrong. In my case, it’s the exact opposite: I see myself as having no control over the good things that happen to me, or the general direction of my life. My schooling, my career, my CV and resume…it all comes from pure luck, being in the right place at the right time. I follow the flow of cultural expectations. Any bad things, though, are purely my own fault: my bad grades in college were because I couldn’t get my shit together and fight my brain effectively enough, my tiger following me is because I’m inherently a bad person…
Many of these characteristics are similar to Imposter Syndrome, which essentially describes an inability to take credit for success and a belief that any achievements are due to luck or deception. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have this syndrome, exactly – I’m always happy to take credit for small things that I feel personally responsible for, like successfully completing a task at work – but that reversal of the traditional view of an external locus of control fits in very well with my broader experiences.
Essentially what this comes down to is that micromanagement of my finances helps me feel in control of my life, just a little more than usual, which allows my anxiety to subside slightly, at least to the point that I can take a few deep breaths and purchase my damn food. Obsessing over money puts numbers to the formless anxiety. It gives it a direction that I can then address: “I budgeted $50 for food this week and only spent $45, so I’m okay.”
I wouldn’t say that it’s a compulsion to check unit prices – more of a coping mechanism. It’s one of the rituals I’ve written about prior. While I can go without doing it, it’s much easier and more comforting if I just spend the extra five minutes at Target doing some minor comparison shopping. It saves me half an hour of freaking out later, so really, it’s just economical, and not only for my wallet.