Ask Stacy: How Can I Curb Emotional Shopping?

We all sometimes engage in destructive behavior to address emotional issues. Some use alcohol, others use credit cards. If you’re buying more but enjoying it less, here’s what to do.

From eating too much to drug addiction, sometimes we engage in self-destructive behavior. Why would we deliberately do things we know to be against our self-interest? Often we’re doing it because of an unaddressed emotional issue.

Here’s this week’s question:

How can I curb emotional shopping? When I’m in a bad mood, one of my go-to things to feel better is to buy something online. It’s always small stuff, but crap I don’t need really hurts the wallet. Any tips? — Whitney

I sat down with a psychiatrist a few years ago to discuss this issue.

The upshot? It’s one thing to surrender to the occasional impulse buy — that watch gleaming from behind the display case, or a pair of black shoes that will add the perfect dash of sophistication to your favorite business suit. But when your purchases shift from impulsive to compulsive, you might be a shopping addict.

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Researchers estimate that up to 6 percent of Americans are so-called shopaholics. In our society, the phrase “shop till you drop” translates as frivolous and fun, but when spending becomes a problem, the glamour fades.

Psychologists call it compulsive buying disorder, which is characterized as an impulse-control issue, just like gambling or binge eating, and has the potential to create emotional and financial distress.

Here are seven signs of a potential problem. For a more complete analysis, check out the Compulsive Buying Scale, developed by psychologist Gilles Valence and his associates.

  • You have many unopened or tagged items in your closet. This isn’t the sweater your aunt gave you last Christmas; it’s about items you bought. Maybe you forgot about some of this stuff — boxes of shoes lining the bottom of your closet or jackets that have never seen the light of day.
  • You often purchase things you don’t need or didn’t plan to buy. You’re easily tempted by items you can do without. A fifth candle for your bedroom dresser, a new iPod case, even though yours is fine … you get the idea.
  • An argument or frustration sparks an urge to shop. Compulsive shopping is an attempt to fill an emotional void. Do you find yourself shopping to deal with a feeling of anxiety?
  • You experience a rush of excitement when you buy. Shopaholics experience a “high” or a rush, not from owning something, but from the act of purchasing it. Experts say dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure, is often released in waves as shoppers see a desirable item and consider buying it. This burst of excitement can become addictive.
  • Purchases are followed by feelings of remorse. This guilt doesn’t have to be limited to big purchases. Compulsive shoppers are just as often attracted to deals and bargain hunting.
  • You try to conceal your shopping habits. If you’re hiding shopping bags in your daughter’s closet or constantly looking over your shoulder for passing co-workers as you shop online, this is a possible sign you’re spending money at the expense of your loved ones or even your job.
  • You feel anxious on the days you don’t shop. Shopaholics have reported feeling out of sorts if they haven’t had their shopping fix, and have even admitted to shopping online if they can’t physically pull away from their day’s responsibilities.

If the characteristics above sound a lot like you or someone you know, here are some ways to help kick a shopping habit:

Find a new activity

Jogging, exercising, listening to music, watching TV – any activity could potentially substitute for shopping and would be a much lighter burden on your wallet.

Identify triggers

Take note of what’s likely to send you off to the nearest department store, whether it’s an argument with your significant other or frustration after a business meeting. When these feelings overcome you, resist shopping at all costs and find a healthier way to work it out.

Remove temptation

It’s no secret that you shouldn’t walk through your favorite boutique if you’re trying to curb your spending. Try to limit your shopping trips and go only when absolutely necessary. If online shopping is your weakness, resist the urge to surf your favorite stores’ sites and even consider keeping your laptop out of reach, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable.

Leave home without it

Leave your debit and credit cards at home. Create a shopping list with estimated costs, and stick to it when you’re at the store.

Get help

If you’re still struggling with compulsive spending, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can start with self-help books or by asking a friend or family member to help keep you in check, but it might also be wise to enlist professional help. Consider therapy, resources like Stopping Overshopping or support groups such as Debtors Anonymous.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences below or on our Facebook page.

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A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It’s the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It’s also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you’re not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing here.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

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  • whattarush

    Did anyone else notice that the psychologist’s name was Cash? (If he was a psychiatrist, he would have an MD or DO behind his name, not PhD.)

    • Stacy Johnson

      We searched high and low to find the perfect professional for this story!

      Not really – it was a coincidence. :-)

  • Ralph Ware

    I’m O.K. and You’re O.K. if the check’s O.K.

  • Y2KJillian

    We’ve beaten the “small-item” compulsions…lately it’s huge things that we can’t seem to leave alone. The article makes some very helpful points and we hope to do a (hugely) lot better from now on. First, though, we have to get past the feelings of self-loathing! (And…maybe that was the point after all, how sick.)

  • Maria

    I was just thinking about this the other day. And I think I do it to make myself feel better. I’m more of a binge buyer. I buy one thing and it triggers me to buy more then when I feel guilty I stop for while. Then I’m mad because its money I could be putting on a CC I’m trying to pay off. Then I get myself back on track and a few months later I’m doing it again…EERF!!

  • Trisha

    How ironic, just below the comments there’s an article on “Check Out Our Hottest Deals!”, go figure.

  • KaraLynn

    It seems that every renewal, the credit card companies send a sleeker, shinier card that screams “USE ME!!”. I put a sticker on each card to 1) take away the “shiny” factor, and 2) to indicate what that card is to be specifically used for (gas, groceries, certain bills, etc…) to take full advantage of the rewards. Since I am very prone to shopaholic tendencies, my husband, at my request, keeps the cards so I have to ask him for which one I’m going to need for shopping that day. I also don’t shop alone, even if it means hauling the kids with me :) Both of these things have an accountability factor that keeps me from even thinking about unnecessary spending.

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