“When I’ve had a tough day, I head for the mall.” “Shopping is therapy for me.” “There’s no situation so difficult that a new pair of shoes won’t make it better.”
All these statements are expressions of one form of dysfunctional financial behavior—using spending to medicate or soothe painful feelings. When stressed or in difficult circumstances, some people drink, some people eat, and some people shop.
I have worked with several clients with extreme forms of this behavior, who described their spending clearly as an addiction. It gave them a physical “high” similar to that experienced by an alcoholic or drug addict. Like other addictions, it had destructive consequences, such as creating overwhelming debt, draining life savings, destroying relationships, and even stealing from family members or employers.
Using spending as a medicator does not always show up in such dramatic ways, however. Even people who seem to live moderately and manage money responsibly can be “therapy shoppers” who spend in order to make themselves feel better.
At a workshop, I met Claire, a single woman in her 40s who had a well-paying job and a substantial net worth. She was investing part of her income, was current on all her financial obligations, and had only a modest amount of debt. She was certainly not spending beyond her means or jeopardizing her future security. She didn’t appear to be in any financial difficulty.
Yet, when we discussed people who medicate their difficult emotions with spending, Claire had an “aha” moment. “That’s what I’ve been doing for years,” she said.
Claire’s problem wasn’t the amount she spent. It was the reasons behind her spending. If she had a stressful day at work, she would go to the mall, in much the same way another person might stop at a bar for a couple of drinks on the way home. She would buy clothes, jewelry, knickknacks, kitchen gadgets, or whatever caught her eye. Most of her purchases would be on sale, and she didn’t spend huge amounts.
She never stopped to ask herself whether she needed, had a use for, or even wanted the things she bought. Shopping, finding bargains, and buying herself a “treat” were unthinking actions she used to soothe herself when she was upset. She didn’t spend more than she could afford, but she was spending time as well as money unproductively. She was also cluttering her house and her life with clothes she didn’t wear, knickknacks she didn’t care about, and gadgets she didn’t use.
Once she realized why she was shopping, Claire was able to find some more constructive ways to deal with stress. She learned that a conversation with a friend, writing in her journal, some quiet time spent in introspection, or taking a walk could serve the same purpose as a trip to the mall and were healthier responses to difficult days.
Claire also learned, when she did go shopping, to pause before buying anything and ask herself a simple question: “Why am I buying this?”
“Because it’s on sale,” or “Because I feel like it,” were no longer sufficient answers. By stopping to consider her reasons for what she bought, she was able to distinguish between the times she was shopping unthinkingly and the times she was shopping for something she genuinely needed or wanted. She began to make purchases more consciously.
If, like Claire, you have a pattern of heading for the stores whenever you’re upset, you might try pausing and asking yourself “why” before you make non-essential purchases. It can be an effective way to deal with spending as medication before the behavior causes serious consequences in your life.