Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Spending money makes me extremely anxious. What can I do? 

By Erica Digap Burson

Jul 26, 20239 minute read

Reviewed byDr. Mia Nunez

Pulling the trigger on a big purchase can be nerve-wracking for just about anyone, especially if it involves the kind of spending that puts a serious dent in your wallet. But for some people, the idea of spending money can be incredibly anxiety-inducing, to the point where every dollar spent is cause for panic. 

If this is something you can relate to, first know that you’re not alone. But if every purchase triggers distress about money leaving your bank account, even if it’s for necessities that your family needs, there may be something else at play. 

Money is a tough subject already, so it can sometimes be difficult to decipher whether your fear of spending money is normal or if there’s another issue that warrants your attention. This article will offer possible explanations as to why you might feel extremely anxious when spending money, and potential solutions that can help you feel more in control. 

Anxiety about spending money: possible causes 

For many people, issues with finances can be anxiety-inducing in and of themselves. In cases where you simply don’t have much money to spare, or if that enormous purchase is going to put you at risk of not being able to pay for your other bills and necessities, it’s only natural that you’re going to feel some level of anxiety and trepidation as you sign the check or swipe your card. 

You might also just be a thrifty spender or someone who prioritizes saving for the future. Neither of these is generally a cause for concern on its own. 

However, there are also some other, more serious potential issues that can be linked to an extreme reluctance or fear of spending money. If your anxieties around spending money are starting to impact your quality of life, it could be a clue that something bigger is going on. 

NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Patrick McGrath explains: “When you aren’t providing for your basic family needs, or if you are limiting what your family can utilize, that would be a big issue.” For example, your thrifty spending habits might be a cause for concern if your need to save money becomes more important in your mind than anything else, including providing for yourself or your family. It could also be an issue if looking out for deals and finding ways to save money interferes with your ability to be present for your family. 

In cases like these, where money fears are not necessarily tied to a tight financial situation but still impact your quality of life, the issue surpasses normal anxieties and may indicate the presence of a bigger issue. So why might someone find themselves with a paralyzing fear of spending money? 

Do these worries sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

Symptoms of OCD, anxiety disorders, or OCPD can become overwhelming—especially when they focus on something as important as your finances. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating anxiety disorders and OCD.

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Beyond general worries around your bank account, an extreme fear of spending money can sometimes be linked to some mental health concerns. For example, having extremely rigid control over your finances is sometimes linked to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD for short). This personality disorder is characterized by an extreme preoccupation with orderliness, control, and perfectionism, to the point where it interferes with one’s life. 

Unsurprisingly, OCPD can sometimes manifest in extreme frugality, explains Dr. McGrath. Someone with OCPD might view money as something to hoard rather than something to spend. They could also have fears about the future that are tied to their finances, and so view spending money as a “bad” thing, no matter what. 

Past financial trauma

Similarly, money anxiety can also sometimes stem from past financial trauma. For example, someone with a fear of spending money may have experienced a family bankruptcy in their childhood. This experience may have led them to believe that money is something to be cherished and held onto, rather than spent, just in case. This person might then hold onto money as an adult in order to be prepared at all times for the possibility of a catastrophic financial event, even if they are in a more financially stable place. 

Hoarding disorder

You might think that someone with an intense fear of spending money would have very few possessions as a result. But interestingly, Dr. McGrath has also seen overlaps between hoarding and extreme frugality. Though hoarding disorder is a mental health condition that is defined by one’s tendency to amass large amounts of items and, more importantly, an inability to get rid of those items, a hoarder can still be extremely frugal. In cases like this, though, they might gather their massive collection of items by picking up the discarded items around their town that are thrown out by their neighbors as a means to get things for free rather than buying things. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Finally, intense distress or anxiety around the idea of spending money can also sometimes be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), though this is less likely than OCPD. As the name suggests, OCD is characterized by two factors: obsessions, which can be defined as intrusive and repetitive thoughts, images, urges, and/or fears, and compulsions, which are behaviors and rituals that one might do to temporarily relieve those fears and anxieties. In the case of someone who has a hard time spending money, their obsessions would likely revolve around money. For example, this might look like intrusive thoughts about the morality of spending money and the fear that spending money is “bad.” It might then lead to the subsequent compulsive need to check your bank account or ask your partner for reassurance about your financial stability. 

How to know what’s at the root of your anxiety about spending money? 

Because there are so many different places that your money anxiety might be stemming from, it can be difficult to determine how “normal” your own fears and spending habits are. But if your extreme frugality is impacting your quality of life, it’s worth taking a closer look. 

First off, it can be helpful to start by looking at your current, actual financial situation to see if your fears are stemming from tight finances. In cases where you are actually experiencing issues with stretching your money and making ends meet, your fear of spending money might be a fairly rational one and could explain why you’re nervous to spend money that could put you in an even tighter financial situation. 

It can also be a good idea to untangle your beliefs and history surrounding money and finances since these can give you insights into general anxieties about spending money. For example, if you’re someone who has experienced a history of financial hardship, this could give insightful clues about your current anxious response to your spending habits. 

If you are still concerned about your money anxieties and believe they may be irrational, or if they are actively interfering with your ability to care for yourself and your family, then therapy is a good place to start. Talking with a therapist can help you get to the bottom of your specific triggers around money, and may even help you on the path to diagnosis if there’s a bigger mental health issue at play.  

What about OCPD? One of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria of OCPD is that people with OCPD believe that money should be hoarded instead of spent, explains Dr. McGrath. But in order to be diagnosed with OCPD, you also need to exhibit at least three more criteria that demonstrate extreme perfectionism and control, including the following:

Diagnostic criteria for OCPD

  • Preoccupation with rules, organization, schedules, and lists 
  • Perfectionism that interferes with the completion of the task 
  • Excessive devotion to work and productivity at the expense of other areas of one’s life 
  • Inflexibility and fastidiousness regarding ethical and moral issues 
  • Not being willing to throw out items with low or no value 
  • Stubbornness

In order to be diagnosed with OCPD, you would need to talk to a mental health professional. However, it’s actually fairly common that people with OCPD don’t necessarily see any issue with their behavior or want any help for it. Often, they end up seeking help only due to urging from the people around them.

It’s also important here to differentiate between OCPD and OCD, since their names sound so similar. OCPD is a personality disorder that is characterized by rigidity and strict control, while OCD is a disorder that features intrusive obsessions and subsequent compulsions done to reduce distress or anxiety. 

The OCD-related fears that center around money are most commonly linked to Perfectionism OCD and Responsibility OCD. Case in point: if someone who struggles with money anxiety has OCD, they might have intrusive thoughts that they are irresponsible with their money or fear that they are a bad person for spending money. They might then try to stave off the fear by compulsively counting their money, seeking reassurance about their financial state, and double- and triple-checking their bank accounts. 

Like OCPD, OCD is a diagnosable condition, and it’s best to talk to a mental health professional to determine which issues, if any, are at play. 

How to cope with fear about spending money 

The way that you can learn to cope with your money anxiety will depend heavily on the reason behind your fear. For example, if someone has anxiety about money based on past financial distress, you might start tackling your fear by improving your financial literacy and developing habits to help you feel confident and in control. Learning how to budget, setting reasonable financial goals, and learning how to manage your money can all be helpful for someone with a reasonable level of worry around money leaving their banking account. If their worries about money stem are out of proportion to their actual financial situation, however, seeking therapy to treat their anxiety can make a big difference.

Treatment for OCPD is a slightly different issue, as people with OCPD often don’t want treatment in the first place. As Dr. McGrath explains, the first step of this kind of treatment might actually come from concerns from one’s family and might involve convincing the person with OCPD that they have a problem in the first place. From there, you might coach them into a compromise between themselves and their families. 

Where to go for help with anxiety disorders or OCD

Finally, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the most effective form of treatment for OCD—and it’s also highly effective in treating anxiety disorders that may be related to your financial fears.

In ERP therapy, a trained therapist helps you confront your most distressing obsessions and dissipate the stress over time. If you believe that your fear of spending money is tied to an anxiety disorder or OCD, please know that you don’t have to live in fear forever, and the right form of specialized treatment can help you change your relationship with your financial situation, whatever it may be. I strongly encourage ou to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based, accessible approach to treatment for anxiety disorders and OCD.

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