For Your Broken Heart, Consider a Breakup Budget

We’re likely to spend more after a relationship ends. So why don’t we budget for it? (Kiersten Essenpreis/The New York Times)

We’re likely to spend more after a relationship ends. So why don’t we budget for it? (Kiersten Essenpreis/The New York Times)

For a month after a breakup in early June, I wavered between empowered mania and “Wuthering Heights” anguish. If I’d had access to Scottish moors I would have roamed them nightly à la the book’s brutish, tormented hero, Heathcliff, wild-haired and sporting a messy cravat, but I was in Austin, Texas, where there is nary a moor and it’s too hot for roaming. So, as I had done after previous breakups, I dabbled in retail therapy.

Once, I spent $100 on a wooden gorilla. On another occasion, I bought a philodendron that has since taken over my home, “Jumanji”-style. (If your aim is to purge a lover’s memory, I suggest a less invasive plant.)

After this most recent split, however, I left the sphere of retail therapy and waltzed on the plane of shopping addiction. Sadly, the one thing I deemed too expensive was talking to a therapist. Instead, I bought a ticket to Mexico to join my sister at a resort I couldn’t afford. I signed up for a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, with its $550 annual fee and impressive travel benefits, reasoning that it would make more trips to Mexico possible.

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I spent $165 on a deep-tissue massage and $130 on an annual subscription to MasterClass. I mined La Perla’s sale items, which are still preposterously expensive. (You can put a price on a perfect décolletage, and it is $173.)

Having been DoorDash-sober for months after a New Year’s resolution, I began ordering delivery again. My ex and I had cooked together often, and making dinner alone felt too depressing. Studying my credit card transactions at the end of the month, my hand over my mouth, I wished that I had made a budget.

Financial advisers often encourage us to have a rainy-day fund to cover small expenses that we haven’t accounted for, such as unexpected bills or home repairs. But we are less inclined to budget for emotional incidentals, despite being likely to indulge in them whether we can afford to or not.

Scott Rick, a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan, co-wrote a 2014 study that showed that engaging in retail therapy could reduce residual sadness by restoring a sense of control. His study even found that hypothetical, simulated purchases were soothing, which may validate those who unwind by building homes in The Sims.

“Shopping is all about choice,” Rick said in an interview. “It’s all about ‘I want A and not B.’ You’re exerting some control over those simple outcomes of what you go home with.”

He noted that choosing between pleasant options (such as summery coverlets, one of which I also bought after my breakup) is likely more curative than unpleasant ones, such as expensive home repairs.

“That helps to disrupt that negative cycle of thoughts, and sad feelings,” he said. “You can become the captain of your own destiny again.”

Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in Los Angeles, said we have been encouraged to process our emotions through consumerism for our entire lives. As schoolchildren, for example, we settled our nerves about a new school year with back-to-school shopping.

“We have been so primed and taught to do that in all these ways,” Clayman said. “It’s more natural for us to turn to a consumer field of expression and processing than it is to say, ‘Oh, I’m having a feeling — let me plop my butt on the cushion and meditate on this for the next two weeks.’”

She pointed out that Americans tended to imbue purchases with tremendous personal and cultural meaning. When others told me about their post-breakup splurges, which ranged from a needlepoint course to a $3,000 chair to first-class tickets to move two cats across the United States, I was impressed by how varied and personal they were. (Though the Dyson Airwrap, a $600 wand that both dries and styles hair, appears to be the standard scepter of those seeking to reinvent themselves; rugs, too, were described as transformative several times.)

One male friend, who invited several people to an Airbnb in Montana a few years ago, said that, in hindsight, he would characterize the vacation as a breakup splurge.

Lauren Fish, a 33-year-old consultant in Chicago, invested in boxing classes and gear that now sits unused in her closet. Jennifer Sinski, a 36-year-old publicist in Austin, bought a Peloton and a dachshund she named Honey. Julie Vadnal, a 38-year-old editor in New York, bought a $650 custom flip-sequin dress from designer Batsheva Hay.

“I was so depressed, and she measured me for it there in person, and I felt so loved and taken care of,” Vadnal recalled. “I have zero regrets, despite having only worn it once.”

Clayman suggested that rather than trying to maintain total control over our behaviors and feeling guilty when we can’t, we should give ourselves license — within reason — to follow our impulses. When I floated the idea of a breakup budget for those of us who struggle with the “within reason” addendum, Clayman was enthusiastic.

“In doing this kind of budgeting work, one of the things that I’m really insistent about is that we do allocate money — as soon as we’re above safety needs being met — and if not money, time, for nurturing the self,” she said.

It occurred to me that after a certain point in my breakup bacchanal, my spending had ceased to be therapeutic and had become merely a habit, as had other behaviors that bloomed from sadness, such as lying in bed for an hour after my alarm woke me up and listening to Billie Eilish exclusively. I suspected a budget might have served as a boundary not just for my retail therapy, but for my wallowing in general.

I was surprised, then, when Rick, who studies money in relationships, discouraged a breakup budget — at least in the way I had conceived it, which would be a fund that I would contribute to over the duration of a relationship.

“When you have a backup plan, you try less hard at the thing you’re doing,” he said.

He clarified that he was not opposed to breakups or divorces, and that he agreed that some relationships should crumble. He would support a breakup fund, he said, “if it’s something that you and your friends decide on when you’re 18 and you’re not actively in a long-term relationship, like, ‘Oh, this is something we should do in the future if we ever have breakups.’ I don’t think it’s good to do three months into a relationship.”

I agreed that it might be a sign of trouble if someone began financing their breakup haircut one fiscal quarter into a new romance. There was something perversely optimistic, however, about creating a breakup fund before I had even begun a relationship. I had gathered, from long hours spent among the sages of Reddit in recent weeks, that being open to disappointment is a key component of moving on from a relationship.

In Qapital, a personal finance app that connects to your bank account and automatically deposits money into various “goals” whenever, for instance, you shop at Sephora, I set up a recurring weekly deposit of $5 into a breakup fund. I don’t check the app often, so I hope to forget about it until a post-breakup Glossier splurge reminds me that there is a piggy bank to be smashed.

My month of excesses, particularly a bowl of ceviche I ate on a beach in Mexico next to one of my loved ones, really did make me feel better about my breakup. At least, I spent so much money preparing my mind and body to sidle back into dating that I felt committed to doing so.

But I could have done without the guilt and the months of asceticism that it will take to stabilize my finances. Next time — but hopefully there won’t be a next time — I’ll be better prepared.

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