Financial Anorexia? Stuck like Scrooge

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Financial anorexia: Stuck like Scrooge. What is financial anorexia? Financial anorexia is a type of spending disorder. People who suffer from the eating disorder of anorexia may obsess about food and the number on the scale. People who suffer from the financial disorder may obsess about money and the number on their bank statement. For those suffering from financial anorexia, they never believe they have enough to enjoy what they’ve got.

According to Ken Donaldson, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor in Seminole, Florida, “Anorexia is characterized by a distortion of perception.” Someone suffering from the eating disorder believes they still need to lose extra pounds, when to everyone else it’s clear they are harming themselves. Someone suffering from the financial one believes they still need more money, when it’s clear they are depriving themselves.

While the eating disorder of anorexia is deadly serious and can be fatal, financial anorexia can be dangerous in other ways – to mental health, friendships, and family relationships. Financial anorexics can seem to be more engaged in extreme deprivation than in enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Family members are most often affected by the wealthy relative whose reluctance, reclusiveness or reticence are, at a minimum, puzzling, but more often, hurtful.

Where Does Financial Anorexia Come From?

According to Donaldson, anorexia is fueled by isolation – the more the sufferer depends upon their own distorted perception, the worse their condition becomes. Ebenezer Scrooge (in the beginning of Dickens’ tale) is an isolated penny-pincher and money hoarder. He is the stereotype of the financial anorexic.

Another root cause can be fear. What are anorexics often afraid of? Stated fears might include:

  • a catastrophic world event;
  • a very expensive health issue;
  • hyper-inflation; or
  • “spoiling” family members or friends.

Certainly some of these things can and do happen. Yet our societal messages, and brains wired to look out for danger, emphasize catastrophic scenarios like these past the point of their actual probability.

Yet, other fears might be at work that aren’t as overt. Unstated fears might include loss of self-worth or security.

Anorexia is also fueled by our cultural norms. Western society still worships conspicuous wealth and Twiggy-like figures. “You can’t be too rich or too thin,” sums it up.

Most people understand the “too thin” part, but “too rich”? Is it possible to be “too rich”? Financial anorexics, like Scrooge, typically amass abundant resources. However, their wealth does not come from a healthy relationship with money. They might be “too rich” for their actual needs. Further, the more they have, the more they have to fear losing. The hoarding-like behavior only gets worse the more successful they are at it.

What Can Be Done About It?

At some point in life, many financial anorexics realize, to their immense regret, that they worried more about what might happen, and didn’t, than enjoyed what they actually had.

Exposure to new information sources is one method of help. According to Donaldson, “New information will disrupt the pattern.” Support groups, a counselor, and therapy can provide external points of view. For financial anorexia, a visit with an understanding financial professional, who can provide concrete reassurance, often is a good first step. All of this exposure also helps break the distorted perceptions brought about by isolation.

Sometimes the new information has to come from, unfortunately, a painful life-altering event. How did Scrooge turn around? The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future showed him more to be afraid of – and how his isolation and withholding were harming others – than the fears he made up for himself.

At some point, it makes sense to ask a few questions:

  • What have all the years of saving been for?
  • How much is too much to spend on seeing family or friends? 
  • How soon is too soon to leave a stressful, unhappy job if it’s taking years off of your life?
  • What is it truly worth to take the trip you have been dreaming about for so many years?
  • How much is too much to spend on self-care like massage, therapy sessions, or a manicure?
  • What if the thing you are afraid of is completely unknowable? What if it wouldn’t be solved with money anyway?

Working With an Understanding Professional

A 2017 study sponsored by the CFP Board supported the psychological benefits of working with a financial professional. The study concluded, based upon a survey of over 800 consumers, that, “Working with a CFP® professional ultimately removes the negativity consumers experience relating to their finances and instead elicits feelings of confidence, optimism, ease, and security.”

Confidence, optimism, ease, and security. Those sound better than catastrophes, worry, and fear.

How do you want to feel about your financial future? Share your thoughts below.

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Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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