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?
It was a one-two punch of working with a therapist to discover the root of my issue and identifying my spending triggers. Once my work with her was complete, then I had the tough task of actually sticking to my training and what I learned. 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.
How my shopping addiction began
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 the leisure time of my youth 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 spent my then-income in a Redbook Magazine article about me here.)
When I knew I had a problem
During 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.
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.
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 think, “Why did I do that?” and feel, a bit of shame. This is when I knew I had a problem with compulsive shopping.
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 the 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 make 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.
I'm no expert, but for me, shopping addiction = buying 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 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.
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.
Figure out what kind of shopper you are
Gretchen Rubin covers this theory in her book, The Happiness Project. In the chapter on money, she writes that people usually fall into one of two camps: the under buyers and the over buyers. They either buy so much so they never run out, or they don't buy enough.
For example: I’ll splurge in cash on a last-minute vacation somewhere, but I barely have enough socks. And my bras…well, let’s just say they’re past the expiration date.
- Me: No bras and socks (Under-buyer)
- My husband, Rich: Always with five backup tubes of toothpaste (Textbook Over-buyer)
While over buyers can run the risk of overspending on unnecessary items, underbuying items that you technically “need” is actually pretty unhealthy too. No matter how much it saves you.
In the book, Rubin posits that if I have all of my basic needs met (read: bras and socks) I’ll feel less likely to splurge on something impulsive.
And let's face it: only owning five pair of socks can make you feel poor no matter how much money you make. Especially if they all have holes.
But 15 brand new pair of socks (purchased for a scant $7.99 for the pack at Walmart, thank-you-very-much) is a way to feel incredibly wealthy because you’re providing for yourself. Self-care! It feels good!
I've had great success in flipping my shopping addiction on its head using this theory.
Instead of buying what I want, I go in search of making sure I have all my needs met first. So, before I buy an exquisite new summer dress, I make sure I have replacement yoga pants first.
And you know what, I feel like a freaking adult when I do this, so hopefully, it can work for you too.
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 thinking 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. 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 Your Shopping Addiction
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 (I like Trim)
- 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 remember when I was younger feeling that 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!)
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.”
Wear out the floor.
This works better in clothing stores, you know, back when people went to stores. But when I am “in store” 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 the item.
Sleep on it.
When it comes to online purchases, I usually put them 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.
But the good news is that you CAN curb your shopping addiction. It just takes some dedicated effort.
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 from a professional.
This post was written in 2015, and over the years (I'm updating this right now in 2021) I have received hundreds of emails from others struggling with an addiction to shopping. Read about the rest of my journey here and how for 2021, I'm doing a “no buy” year.
Also, the tips above can help, but nothing beats talking with a professional to diagnose your shopping addiction. But is the cost keeping you away? BetterHelp offers a variety of membership plans to meet your needs between $40-$70 each week. One month of unlimited is typically less than one traditional therapy visit and you can do it online and on your schedule. This could be especially great for those who are paying off debt and extra concerned with saving money. Don't go it alone! Get matched with a therapist online with BetterHelp.