Oprah’s wrong: You don’t deserve to treat yourself


I recently mentioned to a friend that I’d bought a French Connection dress. “Good for you!” she said. “You deserve to treat yourself!”

I bristled.

Deserve? Treat? What did she know about my finances? Or how much the dress cost, or if those two forces jibed — or didn’t?

“Treating” oneself if you can’t afford it isn’t really a treat. If carrying around a new Coach purse also means you have to carry a credit card balance, don’t save enough and burden future generations by running up the national debt, well, that isn’t much of a treat at all. Or that chocolate-molten-lava-thigh bomb? Do you indulge in this “treat” because you “deserve” to be overweight, on the brink of Type 2 diabetes, and bankrupting the national health care system? I don’t care how many makeovers or Louboutins Oprah and her advertisers tell us we “deserve” to “treat” ourselves to. Those messages have nothing to do with your reality (even if you can afford them). Block them out!

Getting a divorce is full of days screaming for a pick-me-up.  At least for a while, life can be miserable. Our dreams shattered, our families’ routines and any sense of stability gone, out the window. Many women describe this time as one of their lowest self-esteem and highest stress. Who couldn’t use an $85 massage?

You certainly could use that rub-down, but unless you’ve thought through what that means financially, you don’t deserve it. Sorry.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Say you get a mani-pedi every two weeks at $40 a pop. If you save that in a good, old-fashioned savings account, you’d have $1,040 at the end of a year (add $5 if you want to include a 1 percent interest rate — measly, but that’s the best you can do right now). If you’re scraping by, week to week, month to month, having a cool grand in the bank offers a giant peace of mind. That $1,040 could go for an emergency car repair, medical bills or the rent in the event you lose your job.

Let’s look at that $40 again. If you invest it in a mutual fund that averages 8 percent annual returns, after 10 years your mani-pedi fund could be worth nearly $16,000, according to this Bankrate calculator. Keep at it for 30 years, you’re looking at $129,800. Of course, it feels fantastic to grow your wealth. It also feels fabulous to stop stressing about not saving for retirement. Because if you’re not, you know you should, and every day that you don’t get on it, you feel even worse.

I’m not suggesting that you live the life of a monk. I’m suggesting you look at the big picture. What is the real cost of that treat you’re considering? How does it fit with your goals? Your values? Wouldn’t that gorgeous Burberry coat feel even more wonderful knowing you were worth a million bucks — and not just that the trench made you look like a million bucks?

I always say that the best thing about having money is not worrying whether the rent check will clear. I like pretty things as much as the next gal. But if I dig down — waaayy, waaaaaayyyy down — living within my means and feeling secure and confident about my financial life lends way more meaning and joy to the rest of my life.

Even if my nails look like crap.

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

25 thoughts on “Oprah’s wrong: You don’t deserve to treat yourself

  1. This is great! I’ve thought along similar lines for EVER. Not just Oprah, though this “you deserve it!” mantra is what bugs me most about Oprah’s pervasive message to women in this country. But also this whole idea that our lives are so full of woe (seriously, first world anyone?!) that we need expensive trinkets to make it all feel better. That’s the same icky premise behind those horrid “push presents,” expensive jewelry or other gifts given to women by their husbands after giving birth. UGH.

    I have always swum upstream with the whole “I deserve a treat” thing. I get the woo-woo thrill when I got an amazing bargain, not when I’ve ‘treated” myself with credit card debt.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Denise. I like a good bargain, too, but my latest philosophy has been to go ahead and spend good money on things that I a) can actually afford and b) will use the hell out of — it makes sense to pay $150 for a pair of jeans if I wear them five times a week and feel fabulous each and every time I tug them over my fat butt. Of course, if I find them on sale for $35, even better, but it doesn’t make sense for me to spend hours hunting for that deal, especially because I don’t enjoy shopping (this would be a different equation for someone who loves to shop).

  2. Yes, yes, YES!

    The best part about really looking at the whole picture is that, by defining your needs and priorities, you can often find ways to pay for things you really want. For instance: After 2 solid years of financial rebuilding post- divorce, I recently bought a single-parent gym membership for my family. B/c I’d been careful with money, it was there. And b/c I value my health and time with my boys, it was a good use of my money: For the price of my membership, we can now swim and run and use the gym for a year.

  3. So true, really hate the idea that spending yourself into debt is somehow a self care skill. Oprah never had a savings account on her favorite things list…

  4. LOVE this one, Emma! Cracked me up! We Americans have such a sense of entitlement and I get disgusted when I see people whipping out their credit cards and going into debt for things that are not a necessity! (Ahem! my ex!!) I also have a co-worker who is constantly depressed and feeling sorry for herself…ONE of her many woes is never having enough money. But I RARELY ever see her w/out a big expensive Starbux foo foo drink in her hand, she always has a fresh pedicure, pays someone to clean her house, pays a landscaper to maintain her tiny back yard, speaks of getting massages all the time, has a RIDICULOUSLY expensive payment on her Prius, forgoes the FREE gym where we work in favor of an expensive gym membership, and the list goes on and on. I see SO MANY ways she could be saving money and whenever I point them out to her, she shakes her head and says, “uh-uh. I work hard and i deserve this stuff.” Meanwhile, she has a $27k home equity loan that she’s struggling to make the payments on. Tsk tsk. I would send her the link to this post on your blog if I didn’t just write about her! LMAO!!

    1. For some reason I just saw this now :( Your “friend” is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. What if she felt she DESERVED to have the peace of mind that comes with living within one’s means?

  5. This bugs me, too. Life isn’t about what you deserve or don’t deserve, it just happens. When the bad things happen, though, having no debt and money in the bank will get you further than having a nice purse.

  6. OK, yes, totally agree about the mindset of “you need a treat” to justify spending frivolously. And I consider mani-padi totally frivolous spending. But, I also bristle at the idea that in order to make it through tough times, you have to “pull in your horns” (as my grandmother used to say) and spend as little money as possible on all fronts. I just think it locks you into a position of holding your breath and preparing for the worst, which only keeps you stuck. You’ve got to part with some dough to move forward. For example, paying for some freaking childcare so you can get to work. Or, paying a web designer to make you a good-looking site instead of leaning on your web savvy sister to squeeze in your project during her ‘free’ time to mediocre result. It’s about priorities. When something is important, you absolutely deserve to spend some money on it. It’s not a treat. It’s a necessity.

    Love your blog.

  7. When I couldn’t afford those mani/pedi’s I went to he beauty supply and bought the stuff to do my own nails for less than the cost of one manicure. I bought gently used clothes and handbags at consignment shops. Bought groceries at the 99 cent store, and so on. Saving and then investing that money lead to the life I have now, which is so good that if I told you how truly good it is, you’d think I was lying, bragging, or delusional. Cut back now so that you can really enjoy it later. For other survival tips, take a look at this blog article: http://www.rhondasciortino.com/tips-to-survive-in-life/

  8. Love this post! I have several members of my family who do the ‘deserve’ and ‘need’ route for luxuries. Well, you know what I deserve? I deserve to be able to pay my electricity bill without worrying about my bank account. I deserve to know that I am on track to have a funded retirement. I deserve to feel that my mortgage payment can always be made.

    And now, when I am allowing myself a few luxuries because all my financial bases are covered, it’s not because I ‘deserve’ a Roomba or the European vacation, it’s because I’ve EARNED them and have the money to do it after the hard stuff is done.

  9. Yes, you do deserve a treat once in a while.. but that’s just it.. the definition of treat, and how often you deserve it, need to change. A treat, is not something you have weekly. A treat, is not something you would normally indulge in. A treat is not something that you get whenever you feel like it. A treat is not something that is part of a routine. Everyone deserves to feel good about themselves, but they do not deserve to put themselves or their family in financial ruin following standard doctrine on treats and deserving. This leads to entitlement and laziness.

    What a treat is, is something that you let yourself have or indulge in, that you wouldn’t normally, for whatever reason. Like.. I treat myself to a professional haircut about once a year. I treat myself to a pedi when my feet get to the point that I actually need one so that my heels aren’t cracking and bleeding. Sometimes I treat myself to a starbucks (maximum once a month). I treat myself to chocolate once a month.. well.. this is not so much a treat, as a monthly necessity to protect others around me from mood swings.

  10. >> I treat myself to chocolate once a month.. well.. this is not so much a treat, as a monthly necessity to protect others around me from mood swings.

    Hahah — but here we go, veering into “need” territory …

  11. i just had a similar conversation with a friend of mine. She feels that because we have educations and good jobs and decent income that we “deserve” certain things that she partakes in: a cleaning service, Botox, trips to an expensive salon, tons of clothes, fine dining, an expensive yoga studio, etc.

    However, she is at least 30K in debt not counting student loans and mortgage and can barely scrape by from paycheck to paycheck. I am choosing not to live that way because it is not peaceful for me at the end of the day to have debt and instability looming overhead.

    Do I deserve nice things any less than the woman who is married to a millionaire and gets these things by association? Do I deserve nice things any more than the woman who is working at a lower paying job or has recently become unemployed? In general, I don’t think people deserve a Mercedez Benz. I do think they deserve food on the table and a roof over their heads. Can you earn additional luxuries via hard work? Sure.

    I don’t think it is really a matter of “deserving”. Unless I have a Fairy Godmother whom is going to pay all my bills, the choices I make today affect my life down the road. The spa day will feel like less of a treat if it puts me in debt, or if repeated episodes of it require to work years of my life when I could have retired had I made wiser decisions.

    For the record, I did have a mani-pedi last week. I don’t very often, I usually do my own. I have a budget, I allow myself limited money for “fun” in my budget and this was how I chose to use it. I think you need to strike some balance between complete deprivation of any nonessentials vs total self-indulgence. But at the end of the day, so many people I know tilt way too far on the side of self-indulgence for their own good, IMO.

    1. >>I think you need to strike some balance between complete deprivation of any nonessentials vs total self-indulgence. But at the end of the day, so many people I know tilt way too far on the side of self-indulgence for their own good, IMO.

      Thanks for this, Angela – couldn’t agree more. Entitlement is rampant and really the root of so many financial, health and other social woes.

  12. I actually wrote a blog about assets and liabilities. Overspending is the cause of so much debt. After reading some books on personal finances, I am finding that I have been doing this wrong for years. My friends don’t seem to agree. Thanks for confirming my thoughts!!

    1. Buying everything based on assets vs liabilities is a great sobering way to see where our money is going. Good reminder.

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