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How to Rein In Your Shopping Problem

Spending less can be freeing in profound ways.

Key points

  • People may overspend from boredom, grief, or low self-esteem.
  • To avoid overspending, try resisting desires as they arise as an ongoing practice.
  • The goal is to help you pause before accumulating more and giving away things you don’t use. 
Clay Banks/Unsplash
Source: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Especially now that costs have gone up, are you struggling with your debt?

Most Americans say they carry credit card balances some of the time. Among those households with unpaid balances, the current average is about $7,300.1 In Connecticut, people were juggling about an extra $2,000.

Although people racked up some of those dollars to cover necessary expenses during tough times, credit card debt is one big sign of overspending, also known as shopaholism. Reports vary, suggesting that between 5 and 9 percent of Americans have a shopping problem.

The reasons vary. You might overspend if you’re stuck in a boring job and need a little jolt of excitement. Some people buy things to improve their self-image: Owning expensive things makes them feel more important. Shopping selectively may give you a sense of accomplishment. You might buy yourself luxuries to ward off the void of a loss. Generally, if you shop when you’re disappointed, angry, or scared, you will probably buy something you don’t need. In Bought Out and Spent: Recovery from Compulsive Shopping and Spending, lawyer and social worker Terrence Daryl Shulman provides a guide to the various reasons we overspend and provides exercises to help you gain insight and self-control.

“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 a tolerance to a drug. Over time, they need to buy more often or lavishly to experience the relief and pleasure they crave. Simply put, they become harder to satisfy and increasingly unhappy between buying sprees. True problem shoppers 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 disorders, including 12-step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the medication naltrexone, have helped problem buyers. If you’re teetering on the edge of overspending, you might benefit from reading late April Lane Benson's To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.

You likely have an issue if you have many purchases you rarely or never use, lie to others about your spending, and feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or confused after shopping. Does that sound obvious? As with most issues, this tends to creep up on you over time. We often don't see the obvious.

There's hope ahead. 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,” noted 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. Cut up your cards.

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. You may spend less if you take large denomination bills.

Have a retirement savings plan, so you know how much you need to save, and use any options for automatic deposits. Use a savings account with no early withdrawals (or a retirement account with stiff penalties for withdrawing early).

Track your spending on a phone app, computer-based spreadsheet, or simple paper list. Benson suggests that for extras–beyond ordinary bills–rank each purchase by how necessary it was. When you’re at a store and see something you want to buy, ask a store clerk to hold it for 20 minutes, 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. Or set a rule that you’ll only buy an optional item if you still want it a month later.

Avoid websites and stores where you tend to overspend.

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

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 is still important.

Employ the meditation technique of labeling your emotions. When you have an impulse to buy–a desire to match other people, 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.

If dissatisfaction and restlessness build up, remember to 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 deeply2 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.

For big purchases like a vacation, start planning early. You may get the most pleasure from anticipation, so maximize that time. Early planning will also help you get the best deals and understand which experiences you’ll most enjoy.

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.




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