For this Money Microstep Challenge series, we challenged Thrive staffers to test some financial Microsteps — small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life — and write about their experiences. The result? Some very honest and encouraging reflections, like this one.

Before the pandemic hit, I had a relatively good handle on my stress. I would work out, visit with friends, plan a night out with my husband. We both work full-time, but had childcare and a routine that was balanced. 

Then, as the mandated quarantine turned from days to months, my anxiety grew, too. As a working mom of a very active 20-month-old boy, now with no childcare, I had an additional challenge — my first responder husband had to go to work each day. We prepared as best we could to build a schedule so I could get my work done from home while taking care of our son, Hunter. But we were both working constantly with little to no time for ourselves, let alone each other. On top of all that, I noticed that loneliness, stress, insecurity, and sleeplessness were creeping up.

One of the unexpected ways I tried to cope? Overspending. I found myself clicking on Instagram ads as I mindlessly scrolled through my feed. And not only did I click on them, I actually made purchases! I signed up for subscription boxes on a whim. I’d get marketing emails from retailers in my inbox and think, “That’s a great deal, I definitely need that” (even though I didn’t). And don’t get me started on ordering from Seamless when we had a fridge full of food. Now, who doesn’t love to shop for a fun new item or splurge on a decadent treat once in a while? But my habit was turning into a daily activity, and it was adding up.

I didn’t realize it for a while, but one day after receiving yet another Amazon box at the house with a toy for my son, I looked in his closet and saw three other unopened boxes and knew I was overdoing it. I was turning to shopping as a form of stress relief, and this expensive (and mostly ineffective) coping mechanism needed to stop. So I decided to practice a few Microsteps before I went down the spending rabbit hole again:

This was key for me. Once I realized that I was shopping my feelings, it was a lot easier to know the difference between emotional wanting and actual need. 

While this seemed daunting at first, once I started, it felt very empowering knowing that I wouldn’t be as easily influenced every time a message popped up. And, bonus, your inbox becomes much cleaner! 

Now, when an Instagram ad pops up that tempts me to shop, I visit a friend’s feed and comment on a photo instead of clicking and buying. I also took this step even further and started a new hobby: When I am feeling stressed or lonely, I write a letter or make a surprise gift to send a friend. It’s a creative outlet that is bringing me joy, decreasing my stress, and doesn’t cost me more than a stamp. 

As I’ve been practicing these Microsteps for a few weeks, I’ve noticed that mindfulness makes all the difference. When I’m tempted by an image of shiny new sneakers or comfy sweatpants, I pause before pressing “add to cart.” Just by doing this, I am able to observe when I’m trying to use shopping to fill an emotional void. The result of my new healthier spending mindset is more money in my bank account to spend on things we actually need — and a newfound appreciation for the items I already own.