Talking about shopping addiction

bagConfession time? I’ve got a shopping problem. And I happen to think they’re not that uncommon.

While I wouldn’t say my shopping is an all-out addiction, it’s definitely an activity I have to monitor. I’ve never gone buck wild and wracked up a ton of debt, mostly because I wasn’t able to get a credit card until I was well-aware of my problem. But for someone with access to real cashflow, I can see how easy it would be to have a serious shopping problem.

I think shopping addiction (or “reinforced shopping”, so-called because the purchase is reinforced by a swell of endorphins and dopamine) is something we don’t talk about much because it seems like a silly rich girl problem… which, while being totally reductive to the problems of women who happen to be rich, is in my experience totally untrue. In fact, I often find that shopping is more momentarily rewarding for people who are broke.

Second, I think reinforced shopping is something just about every person has done at some point in their lives. We all know the story, right? “Retail therapy”. “Treat yo self”. Buying something indulgent, just to feel fance. Buying something you really don’t need, just to get to shop, just to get to have something special. Feeling great immediately afterwards… but then coming back to reality later and realizing, hey, I kinda wish I had that money back. Maybe you’ve returned the thing or, more commonly, found the thing in the back of your closet two years later, unused and unneeded.

We all shop to a little bit of excess. But some of us know that feeling all too well, all too often.

Several years ago, my life was in a bit of a slump. I finally had disposable income, but I was in a very weird place, emotionally. I had a job that other people would eagerly call a career, but I was making a third of what my partner at the time was pulling in. The fact that my income was not only (by comparison to a “real adult”) small and limp, it was completely unnecessary. I wasn’t needed for bills or savings. My contribution was disposable.

And so I disposed of it.

I told myself I was building a business wardrobe, but really I was buying a ton of very inexpensive, poor quality clothes, accessories and shoes. Part of me knew I needed to put it toward savings, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt so delicious to put my money towards a Le Creuset cooker, desk accessories, gifts… it was so much more rewarding emotionally than the thought of saving my money for… for what? For a home? I already had one. For a car? I’d just lease one when the time came. For my future? What future?

My future wasn’t tangible. Saved money wasn’t tangible. Overpriced shit? That was something I could touch, get compliments on, show off, share with friends. Overpriced shit gave me some illusion of status, some feeling of being interesting or worthy of some attention. It gave me a sense of actually doing something–at the time, we never went out or did anything with our time. Shopping was me time, time to be alone and I could feel however I wanted–irrationally exuberant or lost in thought or angry waffle and nobody would comment or ask me about it or NEED ME. I was just shopping.

When I torpedoed my relationship, I was suddenly on the hook for moving expenses, deposits on rent, gas, electricity. I was suddenly on my own. I suddenly needed those savings I didn’t have. But shopping “helped” me then, too. New home? I need a new mop! Towels! Hell, let’s get some cats!

When I overdrew my account to buy a present for a friend, everything skidded to a halt.

I’d set my card up to not LET me overdraw my account, and I’d set it up to pull anything that overdrew from my miniscule savings account. But the bank didn’t do that. I caught it before there were any overdraft fees, but I realized this was my crisis point. I barely had enough in savings to cover rent and utilities. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, I realized. AND POORLY. I was setting myself up for a very frustrating financial life.

All because I was letting shopping be my single source of enjoyment.

I’d like to say I cut myself off, but that would be a lie. Instead, I let my reinforced shopping take a different shape. Instead of blowing my money on stuff, I blew it on food. But this was more measured and limited (after all, there’s only so much I can eat!) So it worked for me for a while. When my boyfriend came along, he started to cook more for me, so my savings grew and grew. When we moved, I realized I had WAY too much crap. When my car turned out to be an expensive headache, I realized I needed to buckle down and really adult-up. When I had an organ removed, I knew I had to pay my bills, so my purse strings tightened further.

I still have trouble with shopping. Y’all know that I drop some dollars for mystery boxes. And shopping gives me that little thrill. But I contain it. I measure it out. If I allow myself a splurge here, I cut myself off over there. But it’s hard. I have a habit of lying about how much I spent, even though I know I should be proud of how I’m keeping it in check. And I still find myself window shopping the internet when I’m bored or sad or lonely. And I still look at the things other people have and feel frustrated and deprived, like I just don’t measure up. But I’m working on it.

I’ve seen a lot of friends post lately about reinforced shopping. My encouragement for everyone is to always measure shopping. Be honest with yourself–and others–about how much you spend. If you feel the urge to shop coming on, “shop” through the things you already own; I bet you’ve already got something you’re not using that will feel brand new. Try small, contained DIY projects to freshen up things you already have that are a bit neglected. Rather than shopping, meet friends at your home or theirs and cook dinner together, pamper yourselves or watch a movie… but be sure to talk about them feels that have got you wanting to shop. And most importantly? You matter. Without all the stuff, without any window dressing. You’re awesome! Keep your head up and take comfort knowing you’re not alone.

9 responses to “Talking about shopping addiction”

  1. So relatable. I parsel out my grocery shopping into small trips just so I can have a reason to buy stuff more often without buying more than I would have otherwise. It’s so so hard to find reward mechanisms that don’t use money or food. Right there with ya.

    1. Many small trips work against me. With every trip a little something extra works its way into the cart ( and into my mouth…) 😦

    2. GROCERIES OMG YES. Ask me about my once-a-month-or-less $25 excursions to Trader Joe’s.

  2. Many thoughts on this…
    First of all thank you for being so honest. The Internet does offer some anonymity but it’s still hard to put yourself out there like this.
    I really couldn’t say if I have a problem or not. I know my real problem/addiction is food so any type of, um, shopping mishap pales by comparison. Also I don’t have a much regret. Or rather, my regret is weirdly placed. Remember all those subscriptions I did last year? I regret the pile up of all those little pieces of junk. The money I don’t care about. It just wasn’t that much. ( It’s a little hard to admit that because then I feel guilty for having that kind of money. Impostor syndrome?) I spent a lot more money on electronica and travel and, um, eating out. Eating out too much is something I regret for much much more than money. Travel is impossible to regret except I do feel guilty about paying extra for convenience or comfort. And electronica? Well, I rarely regret those purchases, even though I know I have more devices than I need.
    And I agree with Catherine: very hard to find non-money, non-food reward mechanisms, especially when those are so entrenched.

    1. Oh I almost forgot to mention : there is one weird quirk that works in my favor in the battle of the budget. I don’t like shopping. Even the online variety has limited appeal for me. I hit “decision fatigue” very quickly and the annoyance and stress that go with that completely stamp out any endorphin rush.

      1. If I actually need something or I’m with someone, I hate shopping. Just like you, I get decision fatigue and feel overwhelmed and stressed out and anxious.
        If I don’t need anything and I’m just browsing for fun… watch out, wallet!

    2. It’s sad to know I would be scared of talking about it openly if I had a bunch of debt, because I’m sure lots of people are in that boat. And I honestly might be if credit companies had been a little looser with their regulations.
      JUNK definitely gives me tons of regret. It just mocks me from its pile/box/bag.

      1. Have you seen this video:

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