Has shopping become America's favorite pastime? Sometimes it seems that way, with advertising popping up everywhere from billboard trucks to flat-screen TVs to city buses. Advertisers spend billions of dollars annually convincing us that products can make us feel successful, prevent us from being bored, help us attract the opposite sex, and a myriad of other things. When ads are carefully designed to manipulate our spending habits, it's no wonder so many people have become emotional spenders.
Emotional spending occurs when you buy something you don't need and, in some cases, don't even really want, as a result of feeling stressed out, bored, under-appreciated, incompetent, unhappy, or any number of other emotions. In fact, we even spend emotionally when we're happy - what did you buy yourself the last time you got a raise? There's nothing wrong with buying yourself nice things from time to time as long as you can afford them and your finances are in order, but if you're spending more than you'd like to on non-necessities or are struggling to find the cash to pay the bills or pay down your credit card debt, learning to recognize and curb your emotional spending can be an important tool. While avoiding emotional spending completely is probably not a realistic goal for most people, there are some steps you can take to decrease the damage it does to your wallet.
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One way to cut down on emotional spending is to avoid making impulse purchases - and that doesn't just mean you should avoid buying gum in the checkout line at the grocery store. Whenever you're at a store - whether brick-and-mortar or online - and you find yourself wanting to buy something you didn't already want before you got there, don't buy it. Make yourself wait at least 24 hours, if not longer, before making a decision about whether to buy the item. You'll often forget about the item as soon as you leave the store. If, after 24 hours, you still really want it but a nagging voice in your head is telling you that you don't need it or can't afford it, try to postpone the purchase for a week or a month so you can think more clearly about the decision. If it helps, keep a wish list of the items you've refrained from buying so that you can ask for them when your birthday comes around or pick them up when you know you can afford them.
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Keep the Ad Man at Bay
Take steps to intentionally limit your exposure to advertising. The less you are aware of what's available for you to buy, the less likely you are to develop a sudden "need" for that item. Unsubscribe to the product catalogs that arrive in your mailbox and the promotional emails your favorite stores are always sending you. To further avoid internet advertising, download a program that blocks ads and prevents them from appearing on your screen.
Prevent yourself from receiving unsolicited offers for credit and insurance by providing your name, address, date of birth and social security number to Opt-Out Prescreen. If you have a device that records television shows, skipping commercials is easy. To avoid hearing ads on the radio, switch to public radio, streaming internet radio, a CD player, or an MP3 player. If your spending problem is bad enough, consider unsubscribing from magazines, which are usually full of ads.
The next step is to limit your exposure to the situations that tempt you to spend. If it's the mall, plan to visit only a couple times a year, or try shopping online instead. If online shopping is the problem, find other, non-shopping websites to occupy your time, or replace some of your internet time with another activity. If you always find yourself spending more when a particular friend or relative is around, try to schedule free or inexpensive activities with that person, like getting coffee, cooking dinner, or going for a walk.
Make Yourself Accountable
Another helpful strategy is to find ways to hold yourself accountable for your spending. The people you live with or spend the most time with can be your best defense. Tell them that you're trying to spend less, and that you want them to give you a hard time when they see you making an unnecessary purchase. Also, make a list of your financial priorities and put it in a place where you'll see it often, like the refrigerator door or the bathroom mirror, and make a second copy for your wallet, where you'll see it each time you reach for your cash. If you want to take it a step further, put small sticky notes on your credit cards to remind yourself of what you're saving up for.
Find Alternative Activities
If you frequently use shopping as a form of entertainment or as a distraction, try to identify what you're feeling when you want to buy something and choose a more constructive behavior that will help you deal with that emotion. For example, if you've had a bad day at work and want to treat yourself to something nice, call a friend or two. If you're feeling stressed out, get some exercise. If you really just have to buy something, make it something simple and inexpensive, like a book or a small bouquet of flowers - but don't do this every time, because those small purchases really do add up!
The simple steps we've discussed may not be enough to address the most extreme cases of emotional spending. For some people, shopping is much more than a pastime - it's actually an addiction called oniomania. While it may not seem like a dangerous addiction, many of the psychological characteristics of compulsive shopping are identical to those of chemical dependency.
Compulsive shoppers tend to spend more than they can afford. They get a rush of endorphins from making purchases, but that rush is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety and guilt over not being able to control the urge to shop or not knowing how the bills will get paid when the latest binge is over. The shame that results from these binges can result in a person hiding his or her purchases and straining relationships when the person feels compelled to lie about the time or money being funneled into the addiction. People with this problem may take a second job to try to accommodate their out-of-control spending habits, but until they address their impulse control problem and the underlying emotional issues that lead them to their destructive shopping sprees, no amount of money will stop the cycle. Due to the sheer number of purchases made and the shame surrounding the habit, many compulsive shoppers have loads of items that have never been used and still have their price tags attached.
The Bottom Line
The goal here isn't to stop buying anything fun - if we didn't occasionally buy enjoyable things with our money, it would be difficult to get up and go to work every day. However, by becoming more conscious of your shopping habits, you'll develop greater control over your finances and you'll be able to really enjoy the purchases you make without the dread and guilt of having spent too much.
If you think you or someone you know may have a shopping addiction, 4Therapy.com's compulsive shopping quiz might provide some answers. As with any other addiction, identifying the problem is the first step toward overcoming it.