Is It Retail Therapy — Or A Real Problem?

If the big brown truck is making daily visits, it might be time for a gut check.

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When a certain all-consuming global event swallowed our lives two years ago, we were afraid. Like, get-the-mail-with-gloves-on afraid. And when people are afraid, their behavior changes. They have frighteningly lucid dreams. They treat jars of yeasty goo like pets. And they turn to accessible sources of comfort, like drinking, food, making coffee that's a solid for some reason—and buying what their targeted Instagram ads tell them to. For many, shopping became a way to feel normal and safe. (Data shows that online shopping jumped by 32% in 2020.) Maybe you spent the pandemic cruising Target collabs, ordering sixteen wireless bras in search of the perfect WFH support, or prettifying your house-prison with cute bric-a-brac. The hours needed filling, and while wine at 11 a.m. felt icky, buying stuff felt fine, even good. And somewhere along the way, some of us became problem shoppers, who buy things not because they need or want them, but simply to feel better.

But now life has returned to (sort of, maybe) normal, and it’s become a lot harder to justify those many purchases–or sustain them. The roughly 5.2% of the U.S. population who compulsively shop will likely tell you that post-purchase hangovers can be as brutal as those brought on by rosé. And parents, whose kids need new stuff all the time, are especially prone to overshopping. It’s perilously easy to hit up the Boden website for spring T-shirts in 5T… then wander over to the grown-up section. A hop, skip, and a promo code later, and you’ve done it again. Also insidious is the parental impulse to be prepared — a philosophy easily repurposed to pass off impulsive buying as pragmatic. Cold snap coming? Better buy four new sweatshirts for your kid. And those cute gloves. And yet another hat.

There are several kinds of problematic shoppers. Those who buy to soothe stress are typically called “compulsive.” But that’s not the only way that problematic shopping manifests. Maybe you feel an uncontrollable need to own an item in every color (that’d make you a Collector). Maybe you buy things solely because they’re on sale (hello, Bargain Seeker). Maybe you spend like crazy, then return it all in a fit of regret (aka, a Bulimic Shopper). If any of this is sounding uncomfortably familiar, check out these other signs that your shopping may be out of hand.

1. You’re spending more than you can afford.

If frivolous shopping is tanking your finances, it’s safe to say that the situation has spiraled. Of course, this doesn’t apply to necessities—stuff that keeps your household running and your family fed. We’ve all been through lean times when even the basics were tough to swing. This is different. When you’re spending mortgage money on a pair of new boots or a stack of new books, it’s time to look closer at what’s really driving your buying.

It’s worth noting that those with deep pockets aren’t exempt from shopping issues. You can be a billionaire, but if you feel compelled against your will and better judgment to buy stuff you don’t need or especially want, you’ve still got an issue worth tending to. It’s not about the amount of money spent. It’s about the guilt and loss of self-control you feel after spending it.

2. You’re hiding your habit.

This might look like shoving a box into the closet to be opened while your partner is in the shower, having your packages sent to your sister’s, secretly applying for a credit card, or draining an account your partner doesn’t monitor. If you’re furtively shifting money around to support your spending, paying with PayPal or Afterpay to disguise purchases and their full cost (yes, we know that trick), or otherwise funneling funds to cover your tracks, you’ve entered a realm that requires attention.

3. You experience the four stages of compulsive buying.

The first is “anticipation,” or the pull to shop, which drives you to scope what’s new on go-to sites or down favorite store aisles. The second stage, “preparation,” sees problem shoppers figuring out which credit card they’ll use, the order of the stores they’ll hit, or how they might conceal the purchase. Third is the main event, “shopping,” which can elicit euphoria or even a state like that experienced during sex. Last comes the “spending” stage, in which the true cost of the purchase sinks in, filling shoppers with frustration, guilt, or self-loathing. It’s one thing to feel a twinge of buyer’s remorse after a big-ticket purchase. It’s quite another to go up and down this roller coaster on a regular basis.

4. Your spending is a source of tension between you and your partner.

Maybe it’s just a smirk and some side eye, or nervous laughter each time the FedEx guy arrives—or maybe you’re fighting about this every time a bank statement drops. But even if no arguments have yet been had, odds are still good that your partner has noticed your routinely box-laden porch (or frequently skimpy checking account). You’ve got a powerful question to ask yourself: Is what you’re buying worth a fissure in your relationship?

5. You buy things you don’t or can’t use.

So much of problematic shopping is anxiety-fueled: If I don’t get this amazing thing, I’ll regret it! It won’t be on sale forever! What if it sells out!? When the impulse to buy springs from these kinds of statements rather than purpose-oriented ones like, “I need this dress to go to my cousin’s wedding,” or “I need this pair of shoes because my current ones are worn out,” it’s an indication that the item is one that doesn’t have a place in your life and will likely go unused. If you see a lot of stuff in your closet that still has tags attached, that’s a sign. If your house is so stuffed with new decor that it ceases to be functional (after all, one couch can’t hold twelve throw pillows), that’s another.

Here’s another reason people buy things they never use: They’re buying stuff for some other version of themselves, one who might exist someday or in some other context, or who they’re sure they’ll become after this purchase helps everything click into place. But somehow that other you never seems to materialize, no matter how many chic heels or impractical maxi skirts you buy. If this sounds familiar, it’s not a new wardrobe or living room color scheme you need—it’s a firmer sense of self, one that hinges on your personality, not your possessions.

6. You feel guilt or shame about your shopping.

By definition, this is a problem, and reason enough to address the issue. Maybe you don’t experience many negative consequences—you move money out of savings, lay off the buying for a month or two after a binge, make peace with carrying a balance on your credit card. You’re not starving. You pay your bills. But if a nagging feeling eats at you because you know there are more useful things you could be doing with that money, or because you’re buying stuff for a life you don’t have, or because it feels awful to be out of control of your actions, that’s reason enough to seek help.

And help can mean different things—like talk therapy to discuss the feelings at the root of your spending, or medication to help you manage those feelings. (Research shows that around two-thirds of compulsive shoppers suffer from depression or anxiety.) You can also try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to learn how to weather the shopping impulse when it arises. Support groups and inpatient treatment centers exist for shopping addiction; each can help you identify your triggers for overspending and find a community to lean on.

Whatever lies ahead, the first step to curbing problem shopping is reflecting on your purchases—because almost invariably, they fail to satisfy. Maybe they’re not as cute as they looked online, or the sense of urgency they inspired is long gone by the time they arrive, or the guilt of it all outweighs the pleasure of ownership. The next time your finger is hovering over the Checkout button, call up the letdown you experience when a box full of disappointment arrives. If you can do that, you’re off to a good start.

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