“I Overcame a Shopping Addiction” + the 6 Tricks I Used to Get Better

It's no secret that back in college I once had a shopping addiction so large, I ended up with $10,000 in credit card debt by age 21.  Even though I was young, how did I do it? How was I able to classify a bad behavior from a simple tendency to overspend? Below are anecdotes from my own battle with a shopping addiction and how I'm able to live my life now, some ten years later with relatively few online purchases.

The Beginnings of A Shopping Addiction

I know that for me my little “habit” started out with shopping before and after my shifts at my mall job and spending close to $200 a week on clothes. This was an average. I took some breaks, but I remember a large part of my leisure time of my youth and even into my college years being spent shopping at the mall. 

Depending on your income, you may not blink an eye at that number. But if you add the numbers up when I was nineteen years old I spent close to $800 a MONTH on clothes, or $9,600 a year. Ridiculous. I don't spend that now as a working adult; all told I spend around $1800 annually on clothes and dry cleaning, which is around 2% of my ~75k salary. (If you're interested, you can read more details on how I spend my income in a Redbook Magazine article about me here.)

But I think the shift from fun, happy-go-lucky shopping trips to the “this behavior may be a problem” thoughts occurred when I was out shopping same-as-always, but I realized I was returning a large portion of my items days or weeks later.  

When I Knew I Had a Problem

The first two years of college I worked in a retail clothing store (remember those?), so it didn't seem too out of the ordinary that I was shopping a lot. Working at the mall, I was constantly surrounded by beautiful clothes.

After I transferred schools in 2007 and started working at a Doctor's office, I spent considerably less time in the mall, but by 2007, online shopping became “the thing” and I spent countless hours of my downtime scouring websites for the next great deal.

By the end of 2007 I'd (nearly) maxed out my cards and had terrible credit. (Check yours for free, here.)  I remember one week I had $30 dollars left to last until my next payday and instead of buying groceries (Which I desperately needed) I bought the UGLIEST purse while out shopping with a friend because I felt like I absolutely had to buy something before I left the store. Said ugly purse came home with me because I convinced myself I loved it, and it never left the back of my closet after that day.

I call this burn-and-return behavior shopping bulimia. And maybe that's crass, but it's what it reminds me of. Indulging, then purging. Feeling the high then bringing it back in line. 

Those purchases weren't bringing the same joy as they used to, and I knew this..but I just couldn't stop shopping. It felt too good.

In the coming weeks, I'd look at that purse and go, “Why did I do that?” and feel, honestly, a bit of shame. That is when I knew I had a problem with both shopping too much and my finances, but I didn't necessarily know what to do about it.

 

What's so wrong with shopping then returning?

Some argue that shopping bulimia isn't really all that bad. After all, you're getting your money back, right? (That is, IF You end up returning the items and they give you cash back instead of store credit or something.)

But the fact of the matter is that even IF you return the items, the desire to purchase impulsively and overspend is still alive and well in your heart. And one day that urge will meet its favorite kissing cousin, low willpower.

You'll be out shopping after a bad day, or you'll be tired or bored (or both), or mulling over something someone said that upset you and suddenly you are taking home a bunch of stuff you don't need and USING IT, even though you never wanted it in the first place.

And even if you return the bulk of the items and keep only the ones you love… those little purchases add up over time, and suddenly you are swimming in a sea of credit card debt.

Other Signs of a Shopping Addiction

 

Consistently Spending More than you Can Afford 

If you can't pay your bills and still continue to go to the mall or make online purchases, this is probably the biggest clue that a) you have a shopping problem, b) you can't afford your lifestyle and c) aren't living your best life. 

Shopping and then returning items more than once a week 

I could give two flying squirrels if you bought it on sale or “got a really good deal.” We all love a good deal. But shopping isn't truly satisfying unless you're bringing items home, using them, and mindfully enjoying how you spend the money. Sure, maybe you bought something and then at home don't like the way it looks or realized you don't have anything in your closet to wear it with, that's okay.

It's a consistent pattern of this behavior for which we're on the lookout!

A closet full of clothes (or closet full of tech gadgets…pick your poison) still unused with the tags on.

This sign is indicative that you're not even using what you buy and that you'll end up giving away a lot of stuff you don't need. 

A tendency to “shop your feelings.”

 I'm sure we're all guilty of buying ourselves a little “pick me up” or “treat for working hard.” Everyone deserves a break or something special every now and again, (#TREATYOSELF) but my point here is that if you find yourself exclusively shopping or making significant purchases when you've had a bad day or are upset about something, it's probably worth it to pay attention to that behavior and figure out other ways to heal yourself emotionally. 

 

 

Lots of credit card debt and you don't know how you got there.

There is a difference between having a real emergency, not having an emergency fund, and having to put those expenses on a credit card. But if you wake up one morning and find yourself in thousands of dollars of debt and genuinely can't recall how you got there..it's probably time to acknowledge your shopping addiction. 

You can take a look in your closet at all your beautiful things, but I promise that once you're in a big debt hole, it will not feel like you got your money's worth.

But the good news is that you CAN curb your shopping habits with a LOT of work.

I won't lie to you, at least for me the urge never really goes away, particularly during times of change or extreme stress. Instead, I've had to learn my “triggers” and how to manage them in order to stay out of debt. I did this through work with a licensed therapist. If you suspect you really, truly have a deep-rooted problem, you should seek help with a professional. 

Related: A Beginner's Guide to Finding a Therapist [Digg], The Debtor's Anonymous Website,  5 Step Debt Payoff Plan – Money Crashers

6 Ways to Get Over Shopping Addiction

I sought out the help of a therapist and together we began to explore my range of feelings, from everything that was really bothering me to passing annoyances. One of my assignments was to keep a journal of those feelings and what I did in the moments after those feelings came over me. Armed with this knowledge, we then began to craft a certain set of spending triggers and behaviors that I live by even still and find them very useful for others with spending/shopping issues.

Don't Hang Out In Stores

Alcoholics don't hang out in bars. Those with shopping problems shouldn't hang out in stores or malls, “just to kill time,” or “pass an afternoon.” I may indulge in a little “mindless” shopping every now and again, mostly on vacation, but I rarely go to any store without having thought about what I need to buy first. I go in, I get out, and get on with my life.

Avoid Flash Sale Ads

These are my kryptonite (J.Crew anyone?) I use a great service called Unroll.me to roll up all of the emails in my inbox. They go into a digest that I do skim once a day, but without the flashy subject lines nagging me from the top of my Gmail folder, I haven't indulged in a flash sale in years. Here's a great article from Psychology Today on the “why” behind Flash Sales that may help you make sense of the urge if you find this is something you struggle with.

Actually…Just Avoid Sales in General

I realize this may be anathema to others in the personal finance community who pride themselves on getting good bargains, and for some who are in control of their spending urges this can be a great way to save a dollar or two. I'm not knocking it. But the psychology behind sales is to get customers in the door to spend more money than they would in the first place. For this purpose, I practice mindful spending, look for a deal when I'm going to buy, and ONLY buy that item. You're not fooling me with that $25.00 free shipping minimum!

Channel any Negative Feelings Into Something Besides Shopping

At my therapist's suggestion, I decided to give theater another go, and I ended up getting cast in a show that spring. Suddenly, between class, work, and rehearsal, I had very little free time to shop. Funny how that works! Now I do yoga, run this blog, and tackle DIY projects around the house in my spare time.

Feel like the urge to splurge is going to kill you? Here are five other ways to spend your time that will actually nurture your finances rather than hurt them:

  • Check your credit
  • Categorize your expenses in an online budgeting app
  • Do a purge of your closet and get rid of the things you don't need
  • Look into starting a side hustle so you can earn money to treat yourself instead of doing it on a credit card
  • Got credit card debt? Research ways to lower interest.

 

Try Not to “Shop Your Emotions”

Through my work with a therapist, I realized I spent the most when I was feeling sad or a little blue, because having something shiny and new was a great way to dispel those feelings. Nowadays, I avoid computers, stores, etc. like the plague when I'm feeling sad. When I've had a bad day, I try to stay offline as much so I avoid “shopping my emotions” in order to comfort myself.

I think when I was younger I felt I didn't have much to be proud of, which is why I started shopping– to make myself feel better. I had a lot of self-esteem issues as a young woman and shopping (for better and for worse) feels really good. This is why you have to be careful. It took a lot of (expensive) therapy and debt repayment, but I'm glad I have a handle on both my money and my shopping triggers now.

Make a list.

Every season when I am in the process of replenishing my closet, I go through and make a list of the things I am missing and truly need (tights this season, and a new pair of black pumps because I wore out my old ones, etc.) Keeping this list on hand (I use the Trello app) ensures I only go to the store when I have to (as opposed to one Saturday afternoon when I am looking to kill time) and that I only spend my money where I need it most.

It also helps ensure I don't leave the store with the fifteenth rain jacket or  19th pair of yoga pants. (YOU HAVE ENOUGH YOGA PANTS LAUREN!)

Try Minimalism.

 I keep a “one in, one out” rule for my home. I did a purge over the summer and got rid of a TON of stuff (226 items, in fact) around the house that had crept up in the corners and crevices of my home. You don't need a lot of “stuff.” I've never met anyone who tried living with less and was like, “you know what? this just isn't for me.” Focusing on minimalism a) helps you save money for important things like financial goals and retirement and b) focuses your spending on quality over quantity.

Wear out the floor.

This works better in clothing stores but on the rare occasion I am shopping, in an actual store, “for fun” (it happens once every two years, much like the Atlanta Snowpocalypse) I do several, and I do mean SEVERAL laps around a store with my items in tow before I make it up to the register. Eventually, I get tired and/or hungry and leave the store without waiting in the checkout line. Or if I do make it to the register, it means I really, really wanted it.

Sleep on it.

When it comes to online purchases, I usually put it in my cart and then walk away without buying. Then I'll sleep on it. If the item is just so perfect I can't stop thinking about it after a day or two, I know it will be a good use of my money in the long run.

If I quickly forget the item, then it wasn't worth the time or the money.

*this post was originally published in 2015. It was recently updated in March 2018. Thanks for reading!

Have a problem spending too much on shopping? Here's 6 ways to beat your shopping addiction for good!

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54 Comments

  • Reply
    Jenny
    April 5, 2018 at 9:07 am

    I have a massive spend addiction thats about to land mme in big trouble.. i range from 2500 to 3000 a month on spending,,,, how can i plssss stop

    • Reply
      Lauren Bowling
      April 5, 2018 at 9:40 am

      First step – cut up all your credit cards and throw them in the trash. Delete the numbers from your computer if they are saved anywhere on shopping websites. Have a friend do it for you if you cannot.

      Keep only your debit card.

      Then get yourself some professional help. Take care of yourself!

  • Reply
    Good Nelly
    March 22, 2018 at 5:58 am

    It is a good point that often we end up shopping for items, we don’t need, to heal ourselves emotionally. Most of us have done this at least once in our life.
    This can be avoided if we find out other things that comfort us instead of going shopping. Doing so, we can nurture our hidden talents and pursue a hobby, too. In turn, it can help us earn dollars. Who knows!
    Another thing to practice is to repay the entire credit card bill, before the due date, every month. This way, we can curb our shopping addiction as we can purchase only within our limits.

  • Reply
    S
    March 20, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Loving these tips! I used to be addicted to shopping when I first started working a few years ago. Now, I can definitely say I spend my money a little more wisely! So many people don’t even realize they have a shopping addiction.
    -S
    http://www.thesassylife.com

  • Reply
    giulia
    March 16, 2018 at 4:58 am

    love this kind of post because are real and I’m agree with all your tips:D….since I have a budget I do a list and stick it also for shopping:P

  • Reply
    Cat Alford/ Budget Blonde
    October 14, 2015 at 11:54 am

    I think the comparison to bulimia was a good comparison as it is much the same behavior. I’m glad you got help and no longer have this problem!

    • Reply
      Lauren Bee
      October 17, 2015 at 10:17 am

      Me too Cat, I’m sure you understand that as your own boss, I rarely have time to shop anymore unless I’m doing something specific like a photo shoot or an event. Love your pretty new site, btw!

  • Reply
    Summer
    October 13, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Nice tips! I do enjoy shopping but I try to balance things♥

    summerdaisy.net

    • Reply
      Lauren Bee
      October 17, 2015 at 10:17 am

      Thanks Summer! balance is key 🙂

  • Reply
    Giulia Lombardo
    October 13, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Luckily I’m debt free but since I started to have a budget I noticed that I’ve spent thousand of Euros on books now I have a little rules that is read every single is still untouched before to buy new one,but if I am seriously craving for a book I can buy it only if is into my budget (fun stuff amount)…but is true line between shopping for fun and shopping addiction is very small, I am agree with every single suggestion you gave, thanks for sharing!!!

    • Reply
      Lauren Bee
      October 17, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Books are tough. A lot of people I know spend a lot of money on entertainment when they have plenty at home already. It’s good you noticed it.

  • Reply
    Wendy
    January 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I am a total shopping bulimic. I mostly return things I buy online and I never return stuff I buy from stores. I use to sell clothes on ebay but I got lazy and just gave everything away. I am extremely OCD about my wardrobe. It’s very well organized and like you, aiming towards a minimalist lifestyle. The major contradiction is that I have a shopping problem, so I am always purging and buying stuff at the same time. My main guilt is knowing how much I’ve spent buying stuff that I end up giving away. I have a hard time controlling this process, mainly because I am good at keeping my finances in check and never spend beyond my budget. Even though I’m clear financially, doesn’t mean the whole purge and binge process isn’t a problem.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      I love the last line of this, “Even though I am clear financially, doesn’t mean the whole purge and binge process isn’t a problem”. So true! I am also a massive purger (given that my mom and grandmother were huge pack rats) so I buy things and the minute they wear out or I get tired of them they are gone. Then I look at facebook photos and say “what happened to that top….?”

  • Reply
    Mikhaila
    January 13, 2013 at 1:15 am

    Regardless of my budget situation, I ALWAYS suffer from shopping bulimia. If it’s something I’ve talked myself into because I have the money, I end up second-guessing it when I get home. When I splurge on a new item of clothing or something cute for the apartment, I suffer extreme remorse and worry (increased heart rate, tightness in my chest) until I decide that I should take it back. Thank god most stores still have pretty good return policies!

  • Reply
    Tushar @ Everything Finance
    January 9, 2013 at 4:34 am

    Lists are incredibly useful for curbing the spending habits. I think it’s a way of tricking your brain into NOT spending on anything except for what is on the list. I also love the suggestion to make it a game. Who wants to lose at their own game?

  • Reply
    Pauline
    January 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    I had shopping bulimia when furnishing my last bought flat. Three empty bedrooms and a trip to Ikea later it was all filled! They are so good at suggesting perfect matches for pieces of furniture and details that will look so cute in your living room! But I also kept a few things on my list and checked the reference on craigslist to score them used at about half price. I know the nesting feeling, you want to feel at home, and cozy, but in the end you can be happy anywhere with very little.

  • Reply
    Kim@Eyesonthedollar
    January 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I didn’t have shopping bulimia, I never returned anything so I guess that makes it shopping obesity. I avoid stores now and when I do go shopping I have to think so hard about whether it’s a good deal that I usually end up leaving.

  • Reply
    Kate
    January 8, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Shopping bulemia? I love it!

    Forcing yourself to walk around the store carrying your would-be purchases is a brilliant idea. I don’t know that I’ve ever intentionally done it, but now that I think about it, there are several times where I put things back on the rack after walking around with them in tow, searching for another item.

    Do you host clothing swap parties? I’m in the process of planning one (long overdue–I have 6 bags of too-big clothes in my closet)! They’re the absolute best and I always walk away with a TON of clothes for free!

    • Reply
      Chris
      January 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      My ex did those. They were pretty amazing. She always got rid of her clothes AND my clothes. She even brought me home a couple of sweet shirts or jeans that another girl’s boyfriend had. It was a total girls club. They even had wine and did it on Sundays. It’s the perfect “you have football I have this” thing.

      • Reply
        L Bee
        January 8, 2013 at 9:57 pm

        I will have to give this a try!

  • Reply
    Alex
    January 8, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    My problem is mainly just with purchase regret. I’m working hard to nor leave a store with something unless I’m truly happy with it. I use many of the same techniques you suggested.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 8, 2013 at 9:57 pm

      That’s funny-I’ve never met a guy with shopping bulimia!

  • Reply
    Jordann @ My Alternate Life
    January 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Hey thanks for the mention girl!

    I used to do a little of this when I lived very close to a Lululemon. I’d buy three or four items and return 75% of them the next day. Now that I live in the middle of nowhere, returning stuff is a pain in the ass, which effectively put a stop to that habit.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 8, 2013 at 9:58 pm

      Hmmm. My parents live in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t have this problem when I’m at their house!

  • Reply
    Chris
    January 7, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    What exactly is a “favorite kissing cousin”? I’m unfamiliar with this southernism.

    I don’t have shopping bulimia. I do like to binge shop now and again. I’m a sucker for shirts and ties. I really love when I end up at a Kohl’s on sale day. I’m really just saying that you can never have too many blue shirts.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 8, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Well you know you have your kissing cousins, the ones who you aren’t first cousins with so it’s ok to kiss. And then you have your favorites.

      I’m kidding-nobody kisses their cousins here. At least, I odn’t.

  • Reply
    Girl Meets Debt
    January 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    I use to be a shopaholic so I definately understand the whole shopping bulimia as the awkward “in-between” stage before recovery. Thanks for the tips!

    p.s. it’s cute that Bethenny Frankel is your idol hehe

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 8, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Aww. Thank you!

  • Reply
    krantcents
    January 7, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    I hate to shop! I try to avoid it as much as possible. When I do shop, I have specific things in mind and only go after those things. It is a mental form of a list.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 8, 2013 at 9:55 pm

      I wish I hated to shop-that would make my life easier. And then I could hire a personal shopper 😉

  • Reply
    L Bee
    January 7, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Forcing yourself to go clothes shopping? Why I never!

  • Reply
    AverageJoe
    January 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    I do get “spend-itis” but never the bulimia part. When I buy something, I’m not taking it back. I’ll defend that leg lamp until the day I die.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      Haha. I wonder how your wife feels about this.

  • Reply
    Jacob @ iheartbudgets
    January 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    I’ve only done this once. Mostly, I was dating my now wife and wanted to impress her with my cash flow, so I dropped like $180 on a shirt and pants at some dumb teenage store (Abercrombie Eagle, or something), and promptly returned it the next day so I could pay rent. LoL. Man, I was pretty lame back then. Little did I know budgets are way sexier than pretending to have money…

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      Did you also cover yourself in Axe body spray? Ha!

  • Reply
    Debt Roundup
    January 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Interesting name, but I will go with it. I used to have this addiction, but have since “purged” myself of it and am happy to say that I am clean. It is a good feeling to not have to deal with this, but I understand where you are coming from.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      I’m getting better and better each day. Thanks for commenting!

  • Reply
    The Happy Homeowner
    January 7, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I don’t now, but I certainly used to binge shop (and unfortunately not return any of it). Now, I do a lot of the things you’ve mentioned here–figure out if I really need the item vs. wanting it, decide how it fits in my budget, figure out if it really fits in the closet without overcrowding, etc.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      I also am the ultimate purger-anytime I bring something home, I get rid of something else. And then two years later I’m like “what happened to the top I’m wearing in this picture” ha! My closets always look a bit too empty, bad for the shopping habit.

  • Reply
    Kyle @ Rather-Be-Shopping.com
    January 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    I get an energy/rush from buying stuff. I rarely return any of it though. What works for me is to wait 10 minutes and get your brain turned in another direction and the feeling of “I really need this” typically wears off.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      I usually bribe myself with something else-like dinner out or a drink. One vice for another-eek!

  • Reply
    Elle @ ForHerByHer
    January 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I used to suffer from shopping bulimia (love the name). But it got worst, at one point I just started getting too lazy to return things… mostly clothes. I have drawers full of things that I never wore with the price tag still on.

    I don’t shop as much anymore, but when I do it’s always at discount stores first.

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      If you ever want to unload some of those things you never wear *cough* *cough* send them to me 😉

  • Reply
    TB at BlueCollarworkman
    January 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    My wife and I stick to a list, and boy do we stick to it. It’s hard sometimes, especially when I’m in a hardware store, but we stick to that list. And like you, if there’s some new tool that I really want, I walk around the store with it in my hand for awhile, deciding whether it’s really worth it. So far, my wife and I make some good decisions with this method!

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      I can’t imagine lugging power tools around the store. Haha.

  • Reply
    Budget & the Beach
    January 7, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I just avoid stores now, which is really step one in my opinion. But over Christmas I was with the guy I was dating and he saw something he thought I’d look good in. I bought it, even though it really wasn’t my style. One thing I used to do was lose the stupid receipt, but now I keep it closely guarded. When I got the feeling our dating was over, I returned it. 🙂

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      Why would you ever let a guy talk you into buying something? Most guys have HORRENDOUS taste. 😉

  • Reply
    Holly@ClubThrifty
    January 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    I used to have this problem. I would buy things and feel guilty then feel I need to return them.

    I don’t shop much anymore so I don’t return things either =)

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      Hopefully I will get to that point to, but I do enjoy shopping. That’s the hard part.

  • Reply
    Savvy Scot
    January 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Oddly enough (for a guy) I get this sometimes! I think the making it a game tip is what I do!! Sometimes I just need to force myself to do something else.,.. because I spend when I am bored!! Happy New Year Lauren

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 8:58 pm

      Happy New Year to you Scot! Thanks for being man enough to own up to your shopping bulimia 😉

  • Reply
    Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies
    January 7, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Ha, the lady at Macy’s might think I have shopping bulimia. Mr. PoP is so awful to take shopping that when shirts are on sale, I’ve been known to go buy 4 or 5, make Mr. PoP try them on at home and inevitably return most of them anyhow. =/

    • Reply
      L Bee
      January 7, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      My mom does that-no trying on anything at the store! Crazy to me-it’s just more work! A lot of guys do that though.

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