Your best friend finally got that promotion. You immediately gift her a monogrammed business card case (it’s symbolic!). Your sister broke up with her boyfriend. You see some stackable rings she’d love and add to cart (hey, if he won’t put a ring on it…). Your kid has been working so hard on his homework; he deserves that scooter. Your kid refuses to do her homework. Will she just try, please, for a new LOL doll? You miss your mom, who lives in a different city. That meeting could have gone better. You’re bored with a case of the Sunday scaries. You shop, you shop, you shop.
If any of this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. For an estimated 5 percent of the population (though anecdotally, we’d peg it as higher), shopping has become a dangerously reliable way to boost mood, alleviate stress and regulate emotion. For many of us, it’s also how we celebrate wins, recover from losses and show affection. And yet, when we use shopping as a coping mechanism or an emotional outlet, we rarely even use the items we buy. That’s because, per experts, it’s about the buying, not the using. It’s all just one big dopamine flash sale that never ends. As one media executive grappling with shopping addiction put it, “the internet is open 24/7.” Yes, technology has created a perfect storm of temptation, anonymity and same-day delivery.
OK, I love to shop. But I don’t have a disorder…do I?
So how do you distinguish between good old-fashioned “retail therapy” and compulsive buying disorder, an increasingly recognized mental health condition that can do real damage—to the environment, to our financial health and to our emotional well-being?
For starters, as is the case with many addiction- and impulse-related behaviors, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find emotional trauma or a history of mental illness at the root. In a New York Post article titled “Inside the Destructive Life of a Shopping Addict,” one Texas mother traces her issues back to an unhappy childhood in which love was expressed through material things: “Gifts were the love language.” According to a report in the journal World Psychiatry, “Compulsive shopping tends to run in families, and these families are filled with mood and substance use disorders.”
But wait, there’s more. Compulsive buying disorder appears to affect women more than men. It is associated with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. In fact, anxious extroverts and younger women are most at risk for shopping addiction, according to research out of Yale and Stanford. And it’s not talked about often or openly enough, as it is also associated with privilege (it’s a “rich person’s problem”)—compounding sufferers’ instincts toward secrecy and shame.
What can I do to break the cycle?
Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe. Remove yourself from all retail-related email lists, stop following fashion influencers and brands with shoppable links on Instagram, and even cancel the catalogs you receive in the mail.
Never save your credit card details in shopping apps. In the time it takes to walk downstairs, take your wallet out of your purse and your card out of your wallet, you might second-guess your purchase.
Join a support group. Accountability and pro-social behavior are the oft-cited antidotes to shopping addiction.
Identify your triggers. Do you often shop late at night after a glass of wine? Now would be the time to put your phone to bed in another room a la Arianna Huffington.
Replace the high. “When we shop, we visualize our future selves,” writes consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. Shopping fuels our fantasies. It is “an exercise in preparation…As we consider different items, we imagine how others will respond to us, how we’ll feel wearing it and so forth.” So do something else to visualize that future self: A healthier you through yoga. A calmer you through meditation. A happier you through gratitude journaling. A more connected you through texting a friend. An in-control you by writing a to-do list. A more adventurous you who will put the money she would have spent on unnecessary shoes toward her next vacation instead.
Ask yourself why you’re shopping. “People often buy stuff not because they truly need the stuff but to fill a variety of other psychological needs, including the craving for human contact, relief from boredom, the opportunity to feel totally competent and in control, and the mental stimulation of something unique or beautiful,” writes Yarrow. “To buy less, don’t confuse the real reasons you’re shopping.”
Shop with your brain, not your heart. “Many people spend more money on an outfit they wear once for a special occasion than they spend the entire year on clothing they use every week, such as workout wear, jeans or sneakers,” writes Yarrow. “The smarter approach is to put your money where you’ll see it in action and enjoy it the most, thereby reducing purchasing cravings.”
Hit pause. Some experts advocate waiting 24 hours before you buy something you’re coveting. Others recommend you wait 72 hours. According to neuropsychiatrists, simply delaying your response to stimuli is an almost failsafe way to prevent overspending. Here’s hoping that advice clicks before you do.