Back in 2007, with the economic recession looming, President George W. Bush offered questionable advice to his fellow Americans: “Go shopping more.”
There are plenty of behaviors we all should engage in more often—exercising, volunteering, showing kindness—but clicking “Buy now” is not among them.
And yet many of us follow that “go shopping more” advice all too readily. We shop recreationally, habitually, impulsively, and, in many cases, uncontrollably. In fact, 6 to 7 percent of Americans qualify as “compulsive buyers,” according to a 20-year review of studies published in the American Journal on Addictions.
“We may feel a temporary high when we make impulsive purchases, but there are serious long-term consequences,” says Koorosh Ostowari, author of The Money Anxiety Cure.
The financial perils of impulsive spending are obvious: major debt, an empty college fund, a plundered retirement account, perhaps the loss of your home, possessions, or dream vacation. As demonstrated by lottery-winners and celebrities alike, how much money you make doesn’t guarantee financial freedom—it all comes down to what you spend.
But impulse buying endangers more than your bank account. Even if you’re well off, mindless spending clutters your home and your mind while costing you energy and time.
Spending on impulse may feel good temporarily, but it often triggers residual stress and anxiety, which can even lead to more spending. “Impulsive shoppers sometimes fall into a vicious cycle of buying, feeling bad about it, and then buying more to feel better,” says Koorosh.
Are you ready to stop making hasty, mindless purchases? The first step is to figure out why you’re doing it.
Have you ever purchased a $200 black sweater in spite of a) not having $200 to spend, b) already owning three blacker sweaters or c) having no room for it in your closet?
Koorosh points to four possible reasons you said, “I’ll take it!”
- To fill an emotional void. “Some people use shopping to counteract a sense of emptiness, fear, guilt, stress, or boredom,” says Koorosh.
- Because you’re in the habit. Maybe you have an affinity for black sweaters and buy them on autopilot. “Sometimes we’re just not present during a purchase and don’t give it any thought.”
- To boost your self-image or social status. A fashion-forward purchase here and there is fine, but unconsciously purchasing each season’s new styles for the sake of social status can feel like an unforgiving obligation.
- To score a “deal”—and prove how business-savvy you are. Of course, where’s the “value” if you don’t need or can’t afford the sweater?
Whether you shop at Costco or at Tiffany, the strategies for putting a halt to impulsive spending are the same:
1. Browse Your Favorite Store—Without Buying
Notice what thoughts and emotions bubble up as you scan the shelves. Do you have that “wanting, craving, grasping” feeling? Then notice how you feel after you exit the store empty-handed.
“Saying no is an empowering feeling,” says Koorosh. “You think, ‘Oh my gosh, I caught myself,’ and you remember that feeling next time you go shopping.”
2. Scrutinize the Stuff in Your House
Take a hard look inside your drawers, cabinets, and closets. Are they crowded with items you never use? What prompted you to buy those items, and how did you feel when you brought them home? Did the purchases satisfy your needs?
How will it feel to own even more gadgets, earrings, or vintage salt-and-pepper shakers?
3. Don’t Shop Unless You Feel Centered and Relaxed
Hitting the stores when you’re sad, mad, or stressed is like walking into a bakery when you’re famished: a ticket to overindulgence and remorse.
Look for other ways to nurture your emotional needs. When you feel blue, call a friend. When you feel bored, start a new book. When you feel angry, go for a power walk.
4. Pause Before Each Purchase and Check-In With Yourself
Ask: Do I really need this or do I just want it? Can I afford it? How many hours will I have to work to cover this purchase? How will I feel if I bring it home? Does my home have space for this?
We are constantly under pressure—from social media, from advertisers, and even our friends—to buy without thinking, so it’s critical to step back and reflect. “Unless we practice building that muscle of inquiry,” says Koorosh, “it stays weak. Just taking that little pause can make a huge difference.”
For major purchases, make it a bigger pause before you commit—for a few weeks at least. Then see if buying that kayak, TV, or mini-van still seems like a good idea.
5. Shop With a List, and Don’t Buy Anything That’s Not On It
If you truly need new athletic shoes, fine, head to the store and buy a pair. But don’t walk into a store or go online without an agenda that passes your muster (see #4).
6. For Two Weeks, Buy Nothing but Groceries and Essentials
“It’s like doing a cleanse, like seeing what it feels like to eliminate donuts from your diet,” says Koorosh. “Just explore and see what happens.”
This practice is more of a commitment but will prove to you that you can live without that afternoon Frappuccino or a new cosmetic. Afterward, this can help you feel more satisfied with future purchases.
7. Make Gratitude a Daily Practice
Each day, list three things you dearly appreciate, whether it’s your daughter’s piano playing, your daily yoga practice, or the hummingbird outside your window. “When you remember what you are grateful for, you need less stuff to feel happy and satisfied,” says Koorosh. “Practicing gratitude opens up neurological pathways, taking us out of fight-or-flight survival mode into feelings of love and satisfaction.”
8. Track Your Spending
Taking a few minutes each day to monitor and think about where your money is going is a powerful, enlightening habit. In a recent survey conducted by Tiller Money, 79% of people said that tracking their spending with a simple spreadsheet has led to less impulsive spending.
If you find any of these strategies too difficult to implement and you think you may have a serious shopping addiction, consider seeking help from an experienced therapist or joining Debtors Anonymous.
Featured photo credit: Clark Street Mercantile via Unsplash.com