As a student, Anke Vromen (25) from Amsterdam developed a so-called ‘cappuccino index’. The more stressed she was, the more often she took out a coffee for 4.50 euros – sometimes up to five times a day. She saw it as a small moment of rest. Perhaps pricey, but it gave her enough energy to continue writing her thesis at full speed afterwards. Furthermore, Vromen was wise with her money in those days: she bought clothes second-hand, she didn’t care much about things.
That changed when she started working as a freelancer in the cultural sector last year. The workload was high, she combined three jobs. In the evenings she was often too tired to cook, so she had meals delivered. She had breakfast outside. To reward herself for her hard work, she bought natural wine, expensive skin care products or new clothes from Zalando. There was also a gym subscription – which she did not use. “At that moment I thought: I need these purchases to continue. But when I look back on my spending pattern from then, I think that’s pretty crazy,” says Vromen. At the time, she was earning “three quarters of the average income” and spending $400 more a month than before she started working.
The period of excessive spending lasted six months. After that, Vromen called in sick at work – she was burned out.
Small luxuries that make life easier for urban working people: they are everywhere. Especially with the rise of the platform economy over the past ten years, it is easier than ever to order an Uber, have food delivered or book a massage online. Under the guise of self care these products promise a justifiable excess for one’s own well-being.
There is nothing inherently wrong with such a release. If you have an average income, you will not immediately be in the red. Only: it could be a symptom of exhaustion at work.
It was The Wall Street Journal which signaled the emergence of a culture of ‘burnout buying’: young urban dwellers who spend excessively to keep up their demanding jobs. Spending too much and being exhausted often go hand in hand, the US business newspaper reported last fall. Young people are especially sensitive to this: they still want to climb the career ladder and are therefore more willing to go beyond their own limits. And who is overtired, can think less clearly about what is wise in terms of spending. They also often have no children to support (yet), which means they have a larger disposable income.
The 27-year-old lawyer Marije recognizes this phenomenon. She does not want to use her last name in the newspaper, because she is afraid it will damage her career. After graduating in law, she signed up for her dream job at a law firm. But the work turned out to be more than full-time. Some weeks she worked eighty hours, often in the evenings and on weekends.
Until then, she said she had been rational with her finances. “I lived frugally, thought taking away food was a waste of money.” The changes in her spending pattern therefore started innocently: occasionally having a meal delivered after a busy day. But the more her work exhausted her, the more she spent. She got to a point where she bought breakfast and lunch out of the house every day and had her dinner delivered. “I have tried everything available on UberEats.” At night in bed she thoughtlessly ordered clothes, because she wanted to look presentable at work. “If it didn’t fit, I forgot to send it back. It was so chaotic in my head.”
In total, this period lasted a year, in which she spent hundreds of euros more every month than before. She earned 3,500 euros gross per month. One day, when things stopped going, Marije realized that she was burned out: she felt exhausted, irritable, emotional.
Looking back on that period, she thinks her changed spending habits were an indication that something wasn’t right. “The funny thing is that at the moment you don’t realize that something is going on. At the time, it felt necessary for me to outsource so much so that I could survive and continue to function.”
According to psychotherapist Carien Karsten, it is a problem of our time that working people have come to see themselves as machines. “You can try to keep that ‘object’ fit for work by having food delivered or booking a massage. But if you don’t really change your own working condition, it will stop one day.”
In her Amsterdam practice, Karsten regularly speaks to overworked city dwellers who outsource a large part of their lives. “In the short term it is nice: you have the feeling that you are doing something for yourself. But in the long run you end up in a vicious circle. Eating out is often fatter and saltier. If you take an Uber instead of the bike, you move less. And something like shopping or cooking can help against worrying, because then you spend less time in your head and are busy with something other than work.”
In addition, says Carsten, a lifestyle full of burnout purchases makes you feel like you’re losing control. Research confirms that. In 2017, the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study on the relationship between time-saving services (such as taxi rides and grocery delivery) and happiness. Converted to about 135 euros per month, this makes you happier, the research showed, performed in the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada, among others. Those who ‘buy’ time feel less pressured and therefore happier. Only: this sense of quality of life decreased in the group that spent more than 135 euros on time-saving services. Outsourcing every part of your life, the researchers wrote, leads to feelings of loss of control, because people feel they can no longer perform even the most basic tasks.
Also read: Burnout or fatigue complaints: that makes a big difference
Lawyer Marije: “I had the feeling that I had lost control of everything.” Culture employee Anke Vromen: „When you are stressed, you get a very distorted picture of what self care is. I wanted to spoil myself, but actually I avoided the responsibility to really take care of myself. All the delivery services will only make your life more rushed and you will lose even more of a sense of control over your life and your finances.”
According to money coach Lieke Nusteling, it is dangerous that many people do not recognize this behavior in themselves at first. „You are talking about well paid young professionals who feel no urgency to take a critical look at their finances. These are small expenses that creep in unnoticed – 20 euros here, 50 euros there. If you add it up at the end of the month, it comes to a considerable amount.” The risk, says Nusteling, is that as a young person you don’t build up a buffer for this kind of expenditure if things go wrong. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to the economy, you could lose your job one day. It is important that you then have a safety net in the form of savings or investments.”
In addition to budgeting and doing more yourself, it is important to tackle the underlying problem, says Nusteling. “Trying to avoid work stress through expensive indulgences won’t solve the problem.”
The 35-year-old Robin had to come to this insight. Because she is ashamed of her period of burnout purchases, she does not want to use her last name in the newspaper. During her demanding job in the advertising world, she too fell into a pattern of ordering food every day, Uber rides to get from A to B and luxury personal care products. “It was a combination of being too tired to do anything outside of work and treating myself for the hard work. The apps I used provided instant gratification.”
In the most intense period, she ordered 900 euros worth of food in a month. Her salary was about 4,500 euros, of which 1,500 euros per month went to small luxuries. “At some point I realized that my behavior was problematic. I felt like a sucker because I couldn’t control it.”
Strangely enough, says Robin, spending a lot of money to keep up with her job still felt cheaper than quitting that job altogether. “I live in the Randstad, with high fixed costs. It is then very scary to say: the way I live now doesn’t work, I’m going to change everything. Because how do you know if you can still pay your bills? It felt like I was stuck in my job and in this lifestyle.”
In total, the period of burnout purchases lasted about a year and a half – in 2020 she dropped out and came under the sickness benefit. She used the past two years to recover and to learn how to budget. “I now live much more consciously and only have food delivered a few times a month.”
According to psychotherapist Carien Karsten, people who experience work pressure tend to focus on ‘avoidance goals’: “I have to prevent myself from falling over or becoming overwrought. They book a massage so they can continue the next day. That makes you relieved that you can still get up.”
But this won’t make you happy in the long run, she says. “Instead of avoiding you should strive for positive goals. What makes you happy? That can be walking, sports, but also cooking for others. This kind of effort leads to relaxation. Burnout alienates you from your own pleasure and needs. You should try to introduce more game in your life. Activities that do not offer a certain result or a certain reward, but simply because you like it.”
More than an individual problem, burnout purchases in a broader sense are about working conditions under contemporary capitalism, wrote a columnist of The Guardian recently, as a criticism of the ad campaigns of meal delivery services. A recent UberEats ad for fast food chain Subway stated: “Long day? Order a long sandwich”. The columnist, cynically: “You know modern life is tough when even advertisements don’t try to convince you otherwise.”
Anke Vromen is now recovering. She works two days a week again and has her expenses on track. She looks back with “a hangover” to the period when she became overworked and spent a lot of money. Did she enjoy the latter? “No, zero. I was in such a hurry at the time that I thought that with all those purchases I would get more control over my life. But the opposite happened. During my recovery I realized that enjoyment is about something that lasts longer. Sit quietly in a coffee shop. Slowly drink a cappuccino. Just look around you. And then think: what am I going to do for the rest of the day?”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 5 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of March 5, 2022
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