“Add to cart” became an all-too-familiar phrase in 2020.
The world turned upside down this year, leaving many feeling powerless. As people lost identity and meaning, not to mention social interaction, human connection, and activities which used to fill their lives, it’s been natural to turn to coping mechanisms.
Shopping — particularly online shopping — became a go-to activity for many people during the pandemic. Overshopping is an easy way to escape, self-soothe, take control, or reward ourselves for getting through another week. The numbers bear this out.
Despite the lack of spending on travel, hotels, flights, and much entertainment, spending levels are predicted to match January and February 2020 levels, according to 1010Data and Visual Capitalist. The National Retail Foundation is predicting $767 billion in sales this Christmas — the highest holiday sales period ever.
As a financial therapist, one of my specialties is compulsive shopping. I’ve seen people purchase so much clothing they need to rent storage units as additional closets, collect hundreds of colognes and books, and accumulate debt they hide from a partner out of shame and embarrassment. The key is to help them build awareness of their emotional needs and shift their behavior toward healthier spending patterns.
During the early phases of the pandemic, our shopping behaviors went through four basic cycles:
- Survival (stocking up on paper goods, cleaning supplies, PPE, and groceries)
- Coping (buying entertainment and education products for escape and childcare)
- Adapting (maximizing our homes for work, learning, privacy, and outdoor space)
- Relief (provided in part by stimulus checks and easing some fear of the unknown)
These shopping behaviors made sense in the moment. But months into the pandemic and with a light finally emerging at the end of the tunnel, what are we shopping for now?
Signs You Might Be an Overshopper
If you sought solace from shopping this year, have compassion for yourself — it was an incredibly difficult period. But it might also be time to recognize your current habits for what they are. You might be an overshopper if some of these behaviors or feelings are familiar to you:
- You shop when disappointed, angry, scared, or bored
- Your spending is creating money anxiety
- Your shopping creates conflicts between you and someone close to you
- You buy items with your credit cards that you wouldn’t buy if you paid cash
- You feel a rush of euphoria while shopping that quickly transforms into guilt/sadness
- You feel you’re performing a dangerous, reckless or forbidden act
- Many of your purchases are seldom worn or used
- You lie to your family or friends about what you buy and how much you spend
- You spend a lot of time juggling accounts and bills to accommodate your shopping debts
- Boxes arrive and you don’t recall what’s in them, or don’t open them
How to Fight the Shopping Impulse
Overshopping can become a subconscious behavior you don’t even realize you’re doing. It might start with checking your inbox, clicking on a retail sale email, and then going down a rabbit hole. It might be entertainment while you’re waiting for someone, or gift shopping that results in so much research and browsing that you buy not only one gift, but five other things as well.
To break this habit, it’s important to build self-awareness, and then replace the behavior. Here’s how to begin the process.
1. Record Every Time You Feel Like Shopping
Keep a journal on hand, or a note on your phone. This is a judgment-free zone. Don’t get mad or criticize. If you’ve built this habit over a while, it will take a while to unwind. When you first feel the urge to shop, write it down. What emotions are you feeling? What time of day is it? Where are you? You will see patterns, and these patterns will help you zero in on how to substitute more positive behaviors for shopping.
2. Try to Identify Your Triggers
There are different types of behavioral triggers, including emotional, interpersonal, and situational ones. An emotional trigger might be when you feel guilty because you’ve been working all day and feel like you neglected your kids. You may have the urge to buy something for them. If you just had a fight with your partner and feel like seeking revenge, this would be an interpersonal trigger. And a situational trigger could be having an urge to shop after you finished a work meeting on Zoom and felt embarrassed by something you said. You will notice some emotions surface again and again, and this will help you focus on how to cope with the emotion rather than shop.
3. Start Daily and Weekly ‘Weigh-Ins’
Some compulsive shoppers have been known to stop entirely once they confront the number of years it will take to pay off their debt. To build awareness around how much you spend, conduct daily and weekly “weigh-ins.” Simply list each purchase you made that day (or week), and the total cost. It’s also useful to note the category, like clothing, self-care, or technology. Compare this amount to your spending plan, if you have one. If you don’t, before you shop each time, write down what you want to buy and how much you choose to spend. Compare the results to what you wrote in advance.
4. Before You Buy, Ask Yourself These Questions
These six questions can help clarify your purchases — or stop you from making them:
• When you’re at a store, ask yourself, “Why am I here?”
• Then ask, “How do I feel?”
• Regarding your purchases, ask: “Do I need this?” “What happens if I wait?” “How will I pay for it?” and finally, “Where will I put it?”
The Danger in Filling an Emotional Void with Shopping
Overshopping has been classified as the “smiled upon” addiction. On one hand, shopping is encouraged to help the economy, and it’s considered a less harmful addiction than drugs, alcohol, and gambling. And yet, overshopping — and the resulting debt — can threaten quality of life by harming our savings, future dreams, and relationships.
When you shop in stores, you pull out your credit card, phone, or cash, and carry the packages. But when shopping online, there is almost no connection between the purchase, receiving packages days later, and opening a credit card statement weeks after that. Too many people ignore their credit card statements, or assume making a payment above the minimum required each month can keep the household fiscally afloat. This perpetuates money vagueness and debt accumulation. Becoming aware of your behavior is the first step toward changing it.
Holiday shopping doesn’t have to set you (or your bank account) back. With healthy spending patterns and a healthier way of coping with our emotions, we can get through this season and prepare for the new year.