Why does spending money feel so gooooood?

We love spending money. It makes us happy. There’s just something about exchanging our hard-earned dollars for objects and experiences that feels so, so satisfying. 

But oddly enough, the purchases that bring us the most joy aren’t always toys or gadgets or concerts. This 2017 study found that when people spend impulsively, they don’t buy luxury goods or frivolous tchotchkes  — they buy utilitarian products. Like window cleaner. Or tools for the house. Stuff that makes us feel like we have our sh*t together. 

Researchers think it’s because this type of spending makes us feel in control. 

“Consumers who experience a loss of control are more likely to buy products that are more functional in nature, such as screwdrivers and dish detergent, because these are typically associated with problem-solving, which may enhance people’s sense of control.”

It’s so easy to feel a complete lack of control over your own life, including your finances, that buying certain products can make you feel productive. Hitting Buy Now on something you “need” feels like you’re accomplishing something. When you’re stressed out, that small accomplishment makes you feel better, if only for a moment. Maybe it’s not even about the stuff we buy, but our ability to buy it. The act of spending can feel subtly powerful.

In other words, sometimes spending money feels safe. 

Of course, this can become a problem. These small, seemingly harmless purchases  — the household goods we think we need or the fridge full of food that makes us feel abundant, even if we end up throwing half of it away — can quickly lead to overspending. And it’s harder for us to think of this as overspending because groceries and household supplies are considered needs, after all. They’re basic living expenses.

3 things to know

(because we hate to love listicles)

  1. In another study on retail therapy, researchers hypothesized that “the choices inherent in shopping may restore personal control over one’s environment and reduce residual sadness.” Choice is everything. In a statement, one of the researchers said, “When it comes to alleviating sadness, actively choosing between products is essential, even if those choices are hypothetical. Shopping is a natural, easy vehicle for choice.” 

  1. Author Charles Duhigg talks about the relationship between choice and control in his book, Smarter Faster Better. I once interviewed him about this and asked, “If someone doesn’t feel in control of their situation, how can they learn to feel more powerful?” He said:

“You make clear to people how their choices, how their actions have these positive outcomes. Then you put them into situations where they actually have to make controlled choices and in doing so they learn.”

  1. We use shopping as a mechanism for doing this, but you can make small choices in many other areas that won’t negatively impact your budget. Choose when you’ll check emails, for instance. Or choose where you’ll go on vacation this year. In his book, Duhigg says it’s best to tie that choice to a meaningful goal  — something that actually matters to you, like not feeling beholden to your inbox or taking trips with your family.

I'm busy just tell me

Spending money makes us feel in control, but it can be a harmful illusion.

behind the byline

Here’s the full interview I had with Duhigg for Lifehacker in 2016.

monthly recap


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P.S. Theo had a good holiday and hopes you did, too. See you in 2020.

How can you do everything?

I want to do everything.

I want to learn photography, make sushi, start a business, write things, meet new people, see places, teach, go on road trips, live in New York City, live in the Pacific Northwest, write another book – you get the idea.

Sometimes this feels exciting and adventurous. But there’s also a lot of stress and pressure in trying to cram so much into one lifetime. And when it comes to my career, I often feel pulled in so many different directions that I don’t know where I’m going. Sometimes it would be nice to focus on one thing for the rest of my life, like Jiro Ono in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Stand in the same spot, in the same way, every single morning until the simple act of standing becomes art. Being that focused and present sounds nice.

On the other hand, you’ve probably heard the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none,” and someone recently told me the full saying is: “Jack of all trades, master of none, oftentimes better than master of one.”

I’m not sure if this is true, but as a Jack (or Jill?) of all trades, I like the idea. It’s often frustrating to be pulled in different directions. But I think I’d feel worse to never learn photography, never make sushi, never live somewhere else  — never allow myself to dabble — just for the sake of mastering one thing. So how do you do everything and still live in the moment?

4 things to know

(because we hate to love listicles)

  1. The writer Paula Pant says, “you can afford anything but not everything.” I think the same is true for our time. There are so many things to do in life, and not enough time to do them all, but you can still experience quite a bit in one lifetime. How do you want to budget your time? I think I’d take more road trips.

  1. Author Emilie Wapnick built an entire platform on how to help people who feel like Jacks of all trades. She calls it multipotentiality. Listen to her TED Talk about Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling.

  2. I like to think of myself as a multipotentialite, but sometimes I feel torn about it and wish I didn’t want to do so many things. I wrote about this at Emilie’s blog, Puttylike.

  3. I’ve never liked the phrase, “live each day like it’s your last” because it implies you have to beat the clock, and most of us already feel overwhelmed to the point of apathy because we’re so aware of our race against time. Instead, writer and registered nurse Leanne Delle suggests “living each day like it’s your first.”

    She says, “If we live each day full of wonder and appreciation while discovering a genuine sense of joy, I believe that motivation for our truest passion would be more likely to present itself...I would argue that we can deal with day-to-day routine and responsibilities while pursuing our passion. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

I'm busy just tell me

Okay, maybe you can’t do all the things, but you can do a hell of a lot of things. But if you want to enjoy doing them, it’s probably best to stop trying to beat the clock.

k, now what?

Make an Impossible List.

This interesting take on the standard bucket list comes from entrepreneur Joel Runyon (I first heard about it via Thomas Frank of College Info Geek). It’s an ongoing, always changing list of things you’ll probably never get to in one lifetime, but hey, you never know.

monthly recap

  • I had a great time on Anthony Ongaro’s podcast, Break the Twitch. Listen here.

  • Recovering Workaholics, the podcast I co-created this year, was included in this amazing HuffPost round-up.

  • My friend Alex Webb and I finally launched the Come Write With Us platform to help writers learn the art and business of freelance writing.

  • I wrote about sustainable hotels in this month’s Travel + Leisure, which you can find on newsstands!


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P.S. Theo’s Impossible List includes eating every snack.

Who pays the price for our productivity?

Recently, NPR interviewed professor and author Cal Newport on an episode of Hidden Brain to talk about his book, Deep Work.  I enjoyed Newport’s book and the title says it all: Let’s do more focused and meaningful work, work that moves the needle. And part of making time for deep work is minimizing our focus on other types of work: responding to emails, sending invoices, scheduling things. 

But during this interview, the host revealed something that made me laugh out loud: Newport had missed the original NPR interview, forcing their team to reschedule:

Leave it to Shankar Vedantam to call someone out in the most polite way possible. I laughed because I had a similar experience. A productivity expert agreed to an interview but then wouldn’t return my email to confirm. I was scrambling that week, unsure if the interview would even happen or if I should postpone my deadline. Later, I read a passage in their book about not replying to every email. Everything worked out, but it was ironic that someone else’s productivity had made me less productive.

Then I wondered: Had I done this to someone, too? Has someone paid the price for my own productivity? The answer is, undoubtedly, yes. I pride myself on not responding to every email  — if I did, I’d never get anything done. But last week, when the receptionist at my doctor’s office reminded me that she still hadn’t received my paperwork, I felt bad for not getting it to her on time. I had an unusually busy week and needed to block out any and all distractions. It wasn’t a big deal, really, but why was my productivity more important than hers? 

4 things to know

(because we hate to love listicles)

  1. Is there privilege in productivity? New York Times editor Alan Henry (who was also my editor at Lifehacker!) recently explored this topic. Alan writes that he had to “reckon with the notion that so much popular productivity advice, including some that I’ve dispensed, is accessible only to people who have the option to use it in the first place.”

    As Vedantam pointed out in the interview, somebody ends up doing the shallow work  — or, as Alan calls it, the “housework.”

  2. In Essentialism, author Greg McKeown makes the case for doing less stuff so that you have more time to focus on the work that matters to you. In a chapter on saying no to things, McKeown makes a good point about productivity that I don’t see many experts mention: You will disappoint people.

    Maybe that’s the harsh truth. In order to do more for ourselves, we may need to learn to be okay with disappointing and frustrating others.  (Of course, I’m okay with that until I’m the one being disappointed.)

  3. All that said, I don’t think the lesson is here is, if you want to be more productive, you have to learn to be more callous to others so that you can focus on yourself. In fact, empathy makes workplaces more productive.

  4. At Quartz, Nick Morgan writes about how your email habits should be considerate, not just productive. I’m all for a world where we can be both considerate and productive.

I'm busy just tell me

Sometimes making our own life more streamlined means making someone else’s life more complicated.

behind the byline

Speaking of productivity, I wrote for Lifehacker (and helped launch their sub-blog, Two Cents) for four years. Here’s one of my favorite pieces that I wrote during my time there.

k, now what?

A lot of this seems to come down to responsiveness. It can’t hurt to be direct about your communication. For example, while I’ve never used them, I’m a fan of automatic email replies for busy weeks. Getting an email that tells me not to expect a reply might seem harsh, but as the recipient, at least I know what to expect and can plan my schedule accordingly.

monthly recap

Some stuff I've been writing: 


P.S. Theo doing deep work.

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Can envy be a good thing?

A few years ago, I found out an old workplace rival landed a fun, new editing gig. I wanted to be happy for her, but I couldn’t shake the irrational feeling that she was taking up all the success and not leaving enough for me.

Envy is an uncomfortable feeling. It reminds us of what we desire but still don’t have, and that makes us feel bad. It’s also an unpleasant reminder that, despite our best intentions, we can be kind of spiteful and mean. When I envy a friend, I also feel guilty for not being able to be completely happy for her.

But envy comes in two flavors: malicious and benign. Benign envy is, well, good envy. It’s when you want success without feeling the need to take it away from someone else. This is opposed to malicious envy, which is more like jealousy: You want success for yourself, but also because you don’t want someone else to have it.

While malicious envy proves to be unproductive, benign envy can be good for you. In one study, researchers found that benign envy is an effective motivator that can lead to improved performance. In other words, if you’re envious of your friend’s promotion, maybe it can motivate you to go after your own. The study also suggested that envy is an even more effective motivator than admiration. It’s possible that a friendly rival could influence your ambition more than a mentor. 

Either way, envy can be advantageous.

3 things to know (because we hate to love listicles)

  1. If you’re not sure what you want in life, look at the source of your envy. This article, published in Frontiers in Psychology, makes an interesting point: 

“Ironically, what you really value in life is more often revealed by asking yourself who you are jealous of rather than asking yourself directly ‘what do I value.’ The latter often taps into what society expects you to value; your ‘superego’ takes over – and you are aware only of what you should want rather than what you really want. Envy and jealousy, on the other hand, kick in as a gut reaction in your emotional/evaluative system long before you become conscious of it.” 

  1. At the Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz makes the case for having a nemesis. Again, a friendly rival can be a useful motivator.

  2. At The Star, Kate Carraway makes the case against it. Should we really engage our envy?

I'm busy just tell me

Benign envy can be beneficial. And if you can pinpoint the source of your envy, you may be able to get the benefits of envy without the drawbacks.

k, what now?

My “life hack” for dealing with envy? Networking. Reach out to your potential rival and offer your support, whether it’s congratulating them on a promotion or being on their book launch team. This can keep your benign envy from becoming malicious. After all, it’s hard to be jealous of someone when you’re rooting for them.

behind the byline

Speaking of envy, when my friend and colleague Stefanie O’Connell told me she had an idea for a line of greeting cards to celebrate women’s accomplishments beyond motherhood and marriage, I was immediately jealous. I wish I’d thought of that! But as soon as Statement Cards launched, I did the next best thing: I bought a batch of them.

I thought it would be fun to give away a batch, too. Want to win a stack of Statement cards (and some other fun surprises)? Simply hit reply on this email by Monday, 10/28 and say hi. Yep, that’s it. Next week, I’ll pick a name out of a hat. Or a fishbowl. Or some other container I have lying around. Then, I’ll email the winner.

Monthly recap

A few things I wrote this month:


P.S. Admit it. You’re envious of Murphy’s mohawk:

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A newsletter about why we do the things we do.

Welcome to Sidebar by me, Kristin Wong. I'm a freelance writer, journalist, and author who covers human behavior, identity, money, & relationships. Each month, I email readers with a single, random question on these subjects and more. Questions like:

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