If you suspect your shopping habits are getting a little bit out of control, you may be descending into a downward spiral without realizing it. (Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti)
When you think of someone with shopping addiction, you probably picture $5,000 shopping sprees and maxed-out credit cards.
Definitely not something you struggle with, right?
But the signs of a shopping problem aren’t always so obvious. “There are the big binge shoppers, and then there are the shoppers who are spending money where it’s a death by 1,000 cuts — in other words, no individual purchase is bad, but it adds up,” Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Smart Change: Five Tools To Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others, tells Yahoo Health.
These lower-price-tag purchases may not seem like a big deal in the heat of the moment — so much that you might not even realize you’ve got a problem on your hands. But they can quickly end up having big consequences for your budget. If you’ve ever wondered whether you might be entering dangerous shopping-addiction territory, take a look at these signs that your spending habits are starting to get out of hand.
A week doesn’t go by without picking up something for yourself.
We’re not talking about grabbing a sandwich at the corner deli — these are small, seemingly innocent purchases you feel compelled to make several times each week, such as buying yourself a new lip gloss even though you have others in the same shade or new stationery even though you have plenty at home. These items don’t seem like a big deal on their own, but if you’re making multiple unnecessary purchases like these every week, it can signal a lack of impulse control.
Buying something gives you a “high.”
You’re having a crummy day at work and decide to cruise a few of your favorite online shopping sites. Before you know it, you’ve ordered a blouse you didn’t realize you “needed” and are almost giddy with excitement over your new purchase. In other words, you’re letting shopping serve as your emotional pick-me-up.
… But your “high” doesn’t last.
After the “rush” of making a new purchase, anticipating its arrival, and wearing or using it for the first time, you’re left feeling neutral or even guilty about what you bought. Then you move on to the next shiny object that catches your eye. That cycle is called the “hedonic treadmill.” “It’s thinking that, ‘If I make this purchase and buy this thing, it’s going to make me feel better,’” explains Markman. And for a couple of minutes, it truly does — but then you quickly adapt to life with the new object, and “now you aspire to something else. So you buy that — and the cycle continues.“
You’re not paying off your credit card bill in full each month.
Consider it a bright red flag if you have a credit card balance that carries over each month due to your shopping. "The warning sign that there’s a problem with your spending is the moment you start carrying a balance on your credit card,” says Markman. “You’ve crossed the line at being able to maintain some amount of fiscal responsibility.” If it happens once or twice in a blue moon, it’s not the end of the world, according to Markman, but if it happens with greater frequency than that, you might want to be concerned. “Credit card debt is a really hard thing to pay off,” he says. “This slow, steady accumulation of credit card debt is lethal.”
You convince yourself that if it’s on sale you’re actually saving money.
Stores have understood — and profited from — that aspect of psychology forever. “So you save 40 percent, but you’re still spending money,” points out Markman. “The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is an anchor — you don’t focus on, 'I’m about to part with this amount of money,’ but rather, 'Look at how much I saved by making this purchase.'” As Markman puts it, “a lot of us are looking for a reason to make a purchase” — and a big sale provides the perfect excuse.
You justify your purchases.
If you’re picking up a new pair of running shoes because the single set you own is falling apart, you clearly don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Buying a replacement pair is filling an actual need. But if you’re going for your fifth pair of black high heels, chances are, you’ll either be trying to convince yourself or your partner why they’re so different than the other four pairs in your closet to make the purchase seem valid — instead of a waste of money.
"We can talk ourselves into almost anything, but most of us know deep down when we’re doing something we probably shouldn’t,” says Markman. “You have to be willing to listen to that little voice that you’re not doing the right thing and be honest that you’re buying too much stuff.”
If you suspect you have a shopping addiction, which is an impulse control disorder, does that mean you do? More than likely, yes. “If you feel like what you’re doing is a problem, you should listen to that,” says Markman. He offers these tips to get out of the downward spiral before it gets truly bad:
Come clean with someone you’re close to, such as your partner, best friend, or parent. Share with them the amount of money you’re spending each week or each month so you can see how quickly it all adds up and compare that to the amount of money you’re making and putting away in your savings account. “Be honest about your purchase habits and take a really good look at them,” he says.
If you discover that your little purchases are adding up to a lot of money, think about what emotions are triggering these mini shopping sprees, as well as when and where you are when you make them. That can help you figure out ways to avoid those situations and come up with healthier distractions.
One quick way to nip a frequent shopping habit in the bud? Only pay with cash or your debit card. The immediacy of seeing your money disappear is often enough to make people pause before they purchase.
Ditch the auto-fill with your credit card information and shipping address when online shopping. It makes it all too easy to buy something without giving it much thought.
Spend money — on experiences. If it’s happiness you’re searching for, buying items like shoes and clothes only offer a temporary boost. For a more lasting positive effect, save your money with the goal of spending it on an experience instead, such as a vacation with your partner or a dinner out with your closest friends. “That will create positive memories,” he says. Just as effective is doing some good by donating money to a charity that’s meaningful to you. “Connecting to charity and community tends to boost your self-esteem,” he says.
If you’re struggling to get your minor or major shopping habits under control, speaking with a therapist can help.
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