‘Help! I Have a Shopping Problem’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Image

This is embarrassing, but I need to do something about my shopping problem. I know I sound materialistic and shortsighted and wasteful and compulsive and many other bad things, but buying new stuff truly makes me happy. The problem is that I do it way too much.

I have tried many “tricks” to keep this in check. I don’t own a credit card, so luckily I’m not in any debt from this. I tried getting rid of Instagram because it was too tempting. Yet nothing has actually solved the problem, and at this point it’s a huge source of stress. I go through these cycles of trying to get things under control and then I get the urge to treat myself. And when I finally cave and buy something, I really love it and it feels worth it! Until I look at my bank account and realize another month has gone by and I have nothing left. I just did my taxes and I spent over $30,000 on clothes, home stuff, beauty products, and other crap last year — ugh.

In addition to wasting money, it costs so much time and energy shopping for stuff I want and returning it when I’ve come to my senses and realize I shouldn’t have bought it. I feel like these habits control me, not the other way around.

I have a good job and pay my bills every month. But I’m not saving any money besides the few dollars that go into my 401(k), and things get really down to the wire sometimes. I know I should set money aside for a rainy day and other financial goals, but that seems unthinkable when my spending habits are so out of control. How can I get a handle on myself? I truly wish there were a pill I could take to make myself stop shopping.

Look, I’m with you: Shopping is great. It satisfies some hardwired instinct in our hunter-gatherer brains — even birds seek out shiny things to bring home to their nests. But just like most pleasurable habits, shopping can veer into compulsive territory, and it’s important to recognize when it takes up too much real estate in your life.

I also want to address the shame you feel around this. You’ve labeled yourself “materialistic” and “wasteful,” a weak-willed person who can’t control her petty urges. I don’t think this punitive spiral serves you or anyone. We live in a world that celebrates beauty and excess but abhors overindulgence. There’s a blurry line between what’s good and bad, and it’s normal to feel as if you’re constantly on the wrong side of it. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It’s simply a sign that you’re doing something that isn’t working for you. You should pay attention to that feeling instead of berating yourself with regret and self-loathing.

Obviously, you can’t quit shopping altogether. Instead, your goal is to wrestle your habit into its rightful place — a source of occasional pleasure and, of course, day-to-day necessities. That will take a two-pronged approach. One is structural: You can implement some basic trip wires that force you to slow down and think a little harder before you buy something (or ultimately not buy it, if you choose). The second is psychological: You’ll want to step back to examine your relationship to shopping and which deeper needs you’re trying to fill with new stuff.

“Buying things can be a proxy for seeking safety and alleviating feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and fear,” says Dr. Brad Klontz, a psychologist and certified financial planner who researches the psychology of spending. “When you buy something to cheer yourself up, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel better. Then you crash and feel guilty later, which sets you up to do it again and creates an addictive cycle.”

I should add that this is relatively normal; no one is a perfectly rational shopper. Studies have shown that we’re more likely to buy things when we’re sad, when we’re drunk, when we’re hungry, and even when we smell certain scents, such as vanilla or cinnamon. Being swayed by these factors doesn’t mean you lack self-control — it means you’re human. Understanding these triggers can help you avoid them or at least realize when you’re under their influence.

Take note of the times you tend to shop mindlessly. It’s smart that you deleted Instagram; you could also try website blockers so you can’t easily click into tempting retail sites. While you’re at it, delete the autofill function that plugs in your payment information, so you have to enter it manually whenever you buy something. The more time and effort it takes to complete a transaction, the more chances you’ll have to think better of it.

“The point is to create some space between the impulse and the action,” says Klontz. “When we get emotionally flooded, our prefrontal cortex basically shuts off and we react irrationally to meet our immediate needs.” That state is often attained when people engage in compulsive behavior they regret later — drinking, overeating, texting an ex, shopping, etc. It’s tough to regulate yourself when you’re in that mental space, but there are ways to bring your rational mind back online, Klontz adds. He recommends creating a checklist that you have to consult before you buy things, with questions like Can I afford this? Where am I going to put it? Do I need this? How am I going to feel about this purchase tomorrow?

You could also enlist a friend or partner to consult before shopping, sort of like a checks-and-balances system. “My wife and I have a rule that if either of us wants to buy something over a certain dollar amount, we have to talk to the other person first,” says Klontz. (He notes that this is not a great strategy if the relationship has power or control issues, so make sure to pick someone you trust.) “If I know that I have to make an argument to my wife about why I want this, it forces me to engage my reasoning and it helps me stay accountable.”

Once you’ve put up some scaffolding to keep your shopping within bounds, you’ll want to take a deeper look at why these habits exist in the first place. I know I get an urge to shop when I’m feeling underappreciated — it’s my way of rewarding and validating myself when others haven’t been, as embarrassing as that sounds. Sometimes that’s fine (shopping really is fun), but sometimes it’s better to meet your need where it really is — usually in a desire for connection or recognition or safety.

“For some people, shopping is a way to deal with an underlying trauma. Or it can just be a form of rebellious self-expression, like, ‘No one can tell me what to spend my money on. I work hard, and I want this,’” says Klontz. In those moments, he suggests trying a “replacement behavior,” such as going for a walk or calling a friend, to see if you can satisfy your needs in a way that won’t blow your paycheck and/or give you a regret hangover.

If you want more hands-on support, I recommend Stopping Overshopping, an organization that provides mental-health services for people with compulsive-shopping disorders. It offers a list of therapists who specialize in this realm as well as group coaching, workbooks, and even an app that helps you assess your urges when they strike.

Finally, it’s not all about reining yourself in — you’re still allowed to shop, especially since you enjoy it. The point is to do so in a way that fits into your larger financial picture and allows you to save money for your future, too. Creating a realistic spending plan will help you see how much you can allot to treating yourself every month or so after you’ve paid for necessities and set aside money for longer-term goals and emergencies. You’ll get a lot more pleasure out of buying stuff that doesn’t leave you scrambling afterward.