Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

You Can Beat Your Shopping Habit

Believe that you are already good enough.

Consumer spending is on its way back up. Among American households with credit card debt, the current average balance is now a hefty $16,140. Some of that money went to cover necessary expenses during tough times--but credit card debt is one big indicator of too much shopping.

When is "shopping therapy" shopaholism? Research suggests that about 6 percent of Americans are compulsive buyers, many of them women fighting depression and attention problems. Often the problem hits in your twenties and plagues you for years.

“Shopping therapy” is a ritual among some girlfriends. To judge if you are a problem shopper, ask yourself if you often crave a shopping trip when you’re feeling anxious, and become relaxed and a little high after your purchases. That’s okay, now and again, especially if your pleasure came from your friendships more than the objects. But maybe next time, you could all go for a walk instead.

Problem shoppers can fall into a pattern similar to building up tolerance to a drug. Over time, they need to buy more often or more lavishly to experience the relief and pleasure they crave. Simply put, they become harder to satisfy and increasingly unhappy in between buying sprees. True shopaholics may hold off for a while when the credit card balance soars, then fall back into the pattern. A bad habit becomes dangerous when they slip into irresponsible ways, skipping out of work, hiding debt from their families, writing bad checks or embezzling at the office.

Some of the same treatments for alcoholism and other substance addictions, including 12-step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the medication Naltrexone, have helped problem buyers, studies show.

If you’re teetering on the edge, you might take a free online test offered by psychologist April Lane Benson, author of "To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop."

Spending less can be freeing in profound ways. If we bought less, “we’d have less debt, less clutter, less to take care of. We’d need smaller houses, less storage,” notes Leo Babauta, blogger and author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Business and in Life.

How to get there? The old advice to use cash, rather than credit cards, still applies. When you get paid, put aside money immediately for bills, taxes if you are self-employed, and savings and investments. Get the rest in cash and limit your ATM trips.

Track your spending on a phone app, computer-based spreadsheet or simple paper list. For extras—beyond ordinary bills—rank each purchase by how necessary it was, Benson suggests. When you’re at a store and see something you want to buy, ask a store clerk to hold it for twenty minutes and then go off to the bathroom or another distraction. Twenty minutes later, you’ll have a better idea of whether the purchase is necessary or wise.

Set limits on your possessions; for example, buy only clothes that you can fit into one closet. The goal isn’t to feel restricted, but to help you pause before accumulating more and give away things you don’t use, Babauta says.

Before you get to a store (or go online), you can help yourself by simple reflection. Examine your priorities and goals. Are you running away from problems by shopping? Which problems? What can you do, now, to address one of those problems, even if it’s a baby step? To beat procrastination you might try doing a task that isn’t at the top of your list but still important.

Employ the meditation technique of labeling your emotions. When you have an impulse to buy--a desire to match other people, or solve problems or create a feeling of pleasure or progress through purchases—Babauta suggests you stop and look at it, saying “’Ah, I have an urge to buy!’” “Recognize that the impulse isn’t a command, just a feeling that arises like any other, just temporary, like a passing cloud. Watch it, feel it, stay with it, but know that it will pass,” he writes.

If dissatisfaction and restlessness build up, breathe. Concentrate on where you are, and what’s good about your present moment. Maybe it’s a Saturday morning. You could go to the mall. Or you could tell yourself, “I’m already good enough. There doesn’t need to be more.” You might spend some time cooking and eating breakfast slowly. Invite your husband or kids to slow down and talk. Show your willingness to listen deeply by asking questions and truly focusing on what they say, rather than running away to do errands and then rewarding yourself with a new bag.

Make free time, and remember the simple pleasures. You may need to pick up new pleasures or reinvigorate old ones. Consider using your kids’ old crayons and markers and coloring yourself. Knit. Ride a bike. Do yoga or push-ups at home, maybe with an online video. Read books from the library. Write an actual letter or journal or poem. Walk in the park.

Resisting desires as they come up is an ongoing practice. As Babauta puts it, “You let go of one, turn to the present moment, appreciate it, find satisfaction in what there already is … and then a little while later, another desire arises. It comes from advertising, websites, magazines, seeing what other people are doing on social media, watching the news, talking to people, walking past a cool store, seeing a new bag that your friend just bought.” Notice that the material in the shirt you are wearing is soft and comfortable. Eat an apple. Move on.

A version of this piece appears on YourCare Everywhere.