Many of us have engaged in some sort of retail therapy or emotional spending, especially over the last year. With little else to do during the pandemic and almost any item we could want just a click away, it’s become easier than ever to indulge ourselves—especially when we feel like we deserve a reward for everything we’ve had to endure.
Buying things isn’t wrong, but while the occasional gift or splurge is a nice way to treat yourself, using retail therapy to try to make yourself happier could be masking other emotions. Getting a package delivered, trying on a new pair of shoes, or adding a fancy gadget to your kitchen collection might feel great at first, but just like any other coping mechanism or activity, overindulging might end up being more harmful than helpful.
So how do you know when your shopping habits might be a problem and how can you stop trying to shop your way to happiness?
I bought a pair of bright teal roller skates in October. I had seen some Instagram videos of girls in Los Angeles dancing in roller skates (and of course, after I watched one, they were all over my feed). I had roller skates as a kid and I used to be pretty good at it, so I figured I could pick it up again. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person getting nostalgic; the skates I wanted were on backorder for four weeks. I bought them anyway with barely a thought, picturing myself learning how to skate-dance and rolling down the Brooklyn waterfront with a skating playlist on Spotify.
When the skates finally arrived, I was so excited. They were gorgeous and fit perfectly. Except by the time I got them, it was so wet and cold in Brooklyn that I only got to use them once. Now they’re in their box, waiting for spring—hopefully. The one and only time I laced up before winter struck I was...well let’s just say I’m not as nimble in my thirties as I was at thirteen.
I would certainly characterize that purchase as an emotional spend. Did I need those skates? Absolutely not. Could I vividly picture my tanned and toned legs flexing to the beat of 70’s disco come summertime? Sure could.
Emotional spending is the act of buying things based on how you’re feeling, rather than with logic or necessity. It may feel good, but like a sugar high, the crash can be hard and costly, leading to massive debt, the inability to save money, poor credit, and more.
The skates didn’t send me into massive debt, but at over $100, they were way more expensive than a typical way I would treat myself. If purchases like that (influenced by Instagram and nostalgia, fueled by my eagerness to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic, a band-aid on the fact that I won’t be jumping on a plane to LA with my skates anytime soon) became normal for me, my credit card would certainly feel the burn.
Like an athlete visualizing the winning goal, when we emotionally spend, we’re seeing the wonderful outcome of clicking “buy.” Confetti cannons go off, our futures are bright, and everything will be right in the world. All because of that KitchenAid stand mixer or flat screen TV.
And the pandemic has definitely contributed to our spending habits. Who doesn’t need a distraction and a mini-mental vacation right now? While the economic impacts have been devastating for many people, some people are doing okay financially—but now they’re bored with more time on their hands. With nothing else to do, they turn to online shopping to escape the boredom of pandemic life, distract themselves at home, and plan for better days.
Our beliefs around money and our spending habits are heavily influenced by how we were brought up, our economic standing, the reality of our daily lives, and so many other factors. Maybe we saw our parents engage in retail therapy, so we do it too. Maybe we didn’t have much money growing up and now that we have more steady paychecks, we think we deserve the finer things. Maybe a lack of money has never been a problem, so we never learned restraint or how to save.
Online shopping, credit cards, and social media make it easier than ever to spend. We can see something for the first time on Instagram and have it in our hands in 48 hours with just one click—and actually pay for it later. Online shopping is designed for ease and ads are created to entice us to buy, meaning saying no is harder than ever. When we set out to change our spending habits, it’s important to be kind to ourselves and withhold judgement. All we’re trying to do is notice our behavior and change it if we choose. No guilt necessary! It is important, however, to take responsibility for our actions. So what can we do if we want to cut back on our spending?
Sometimes shopping makes us happy. And sometimes it really doesn’t. Feeling isolated makes us anxious, which makes us less likely to get up the energy to make and maintain connections that would make us feel less alone. To combat this, some people turn to shopping, but in trying to medicate loneliness with material items, some shoppers find that it’s challenging to form a meaningful relationship with a wristwatch or bond over a TV show with a pair of shoes.
So before you beat yourself up after a purchase you’ve already made, feel bummed out, and make the same mistake again, set the stakes for yourself so you know why exactly you want to cut back on shopping.
There are plenty of reasons to cut back on shopping and your reasons are going to be specific to your experience and what’s important to you. Once you’ve thought or taken some time to journal about why, you could even write yourself a little note to keep in your wallet or on your computer to remind yourself when your fingers itch to pull out your credit card.
You’re stressed. You’ve had a hard day at work. Maybe you meant to cook dinner, but you find yourself ordering takeout instead. Or when you log off at the end of the day, you reward yourself for your hard work by checking out all of the sale emails you got over the weekend. Turning to a food app after a hard day or having an inbox full of notifications are spending triggers that make it easier and more likely for you to click or pull out your wallet. The first step to slowing your spending is to remove or reduce triggers.
Think about what moods or events sway you to spend more money than you had planned. Being tired, stressed, or celebratory might be triggers for you. We don’t want to cut out celebrations, we just want to identify what creates the urge to shop.
To avoid temptation or giving in to triggers:
When you start to notice what triggers you, you’ll be able to create behaviors that eliminate or reduce those triggers. Triggers are different for everyone, so figure out which tempt you and make a move to get rid of them.
When you know exactly what you spend, sometimes it can put the impact of that spending into perspective. A lot of times, if we struggle with money, we also avoid knowing what we spend. Sometimes we think we can’t help it anyway, or we can’t manage our credit card debt, so we simply avoid thinking about it. Those feelings are a great place to get started.
How do you feel before you buy something? What are you thinking about when you’re shopping? Is there something going on that you might be using shopping to avoid thinking about? After you buy something, how do you feel? What emotions come up later when you see your credit card statement? How do you think your spending is going to impact your future?
When we start to think about answers to these questions, we might be more likely to buckle down and track where exactly our dollars go—and why. Check your receipts or bank statements. Is the amount of money going out each month more than the amount going in? Are there certain times of the day or week or month where you end up spending more, such as right after you get paid? If you have a bank statement, highlight every purchase you made that was nonessential. Some people calculate how many hours they had to work in order to pay for all of these nonessential items.
Some of this can sound stressful! And it might be. But again, these exercises and thoughts are not meant to make you feel guilty; they’re about creating greater awareness so we can change our behavior to be more in line with what we want.
Shopping does truly bring some people happiness—and that’s okay! But shopping bags aren’t the only good thing in life. Think about what else you enjoy besides spending money. If you find yourself pulling up your favorite shopping website, go for a walk or call a friend instead. If you love ordering food from delivery apps, try pulling together seven new recipes and making one every day of the week (bonus: you’ll get to go grocery shopping!).
Identify the real need you’re trying to fill. If you’re frustrated, you might exercise instead. If you’re tired, take a nap or watch a movie. If you need novelty, go for a walletless window shop or visit a museum (virtually or in-person).
Figure out what you like about shopping and find that feeling elsewhere. Do you like trying on new clothes? Getting packages in the mail? Do you enjoy being assisted by salespeople? Swap gently-used clothes with a friend, exchange letters or care packages with a family member to recreate that mail buzz, or have a spa night with your roommates or partner at home and pamper one another.
If it works for you, set a challenge for yourself :
While the American Psychiatric Association does not officially recognize shopping addiction, also referred to as compulsive shopping disorder or compulsive buying disorder, as a distinct disorder, if you have difficulty curbing spending or uncontrollable urges to spend, it could be related to an impulse control, personality, or dependence disorder. This does not mean that everyone who spends more than they had planned on occasion is going to get a diagnosis, but it does mean that if your spending is having a big impact on your life, talking to a therapist could help.
Here are a few questions you could ask yourself:
Some research has shown that compulsive shopping behavior is often accompanied by depression and anxiety. If you find yourself using shopping to cope with your emotions, feeling depressed after the buzz of shopping is gone, lying about or hiding purchases, feeling shame or guilt about your behavior, or avoiding credit card bills or bank statements, it could be time to seek more support.
And you don’t have to wait until it becomes a real problem to seek support. Everyone deserves mental health support and care! If you’ve been thinking about therapy and wondering if you would benefit, check out this post or take our quiz and find out. And remember that a little spending and indulging isn’t a problem. Treats can be fun! What matters is that you have safe and healthy coping mechanisms and enjoy activities that truly make you happy.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.