How many times have you bought things you didn’t expect? Stuff you probably don’t need and, on second thought, you really shouldn’t have bought. I’ll admit, it’s happened to me more times than I can remember—different versions of a similar scenario.
There’s the determined buy. That’s when you shop intentionally, are crazy excited to buy that thing you’ve been eyeing for a while now, only to find that it’s sold out. Crushed, you’re determined to find a suitable alternative and force a purchase you later realize isn’t all that suitable.
Then there’s the impulse buy. That’s when you buy something you really hadn’t planned on because you were temporarily blinded by how eye-catching and on-trend it is. But once the excitement wears off, you can’t quite shake the thought that it’s probably a little too on trend and not interesting enough to withstand the season.
How about the I-want-what-she-has buy? That’s when you buy something mainly because it looked great when you saw someone else with it. And although you talked yourself into thinking it would work for you (especially since the girl in the store said it did), it really doesn’t.
And then there’s the pity buy. That’s when you buy something as a pick-me-up to mend a sore mood because frankly, you deserve it. But the excitement for the item doesn’t outlast your poor mood and stays in your closet unopened.
Or the reverse, the celebration buy—buying something when you’re in a great mood and want to celebrate because well, frankly, you deserve it. But it’s more about the hype of the moment than your purchase, and you probably should have used that money for something more meaningful—ugh!
We all fall somewhere along the continuum between shopping strictly out of need to shopping for purely emotional reasons
These scenarios are by no means exhaustive, but offer a glimpse into the many ways there are to regret a purchase. We’ve all been there and bought things we regret for the reasons listed above (and more). With experience and a refined sense of what works for you, many learn how to avoid the pitfalls of regretful buying. But there are those who have a more difficult time with it.
That is, they regret their purchases quite often because their motivation for shopping is often rooted in complex emotional issues that have turned shopping into a form of coping. Some have coined the term shopping addiction to describe a destructive cycle of compulsive buying characterized by short-lived euphoria that quickly turns into regret and guilt, and causes long-term consequences to your bank account, relationships, and self-esteem. It’s an extreme condition, and studies show that it mirrors the cycle of drug addiction.
We all fall somewhere along the continuum between shopping strictly out of need to shopping for purely emotional reasons and, like with anything, it’s good to strike a balance. But if you find your shopping habits lean more towards emotional shopping and you’re headed towards or pretty much at addiction status, here are some things you might do, either alone, with the help of a professional, or both.
1. Figure out why you over shop.
If these statements sound like you: “I have to buy something every time I go in a store”, “I shop online all the time”, or flat out “I have a shopping problem,” you’re probably looking to gain some insight into your shopping behaviors. (Not to mention meanwhile you’re growing deeper in debt and risking not only your peace of mind, but the peace of those close to you.)
If you’re stuck and can’t figure it out, don’t be discouraged. There are a slew of self-help books on the topic and trained professionals who specialize in helping you sort through your unique web of emotions and thoughts so that you can get to the root of your shopping problem. Compulsive shopping is usually perceived as an attempt to fill an emotional void and there are tons of reasons why people do it. Some over shop to compensate for insecurities and use it as a way to control others’ perception of them. Others do it as a way to express anger or deal with feelings of powerlessness. Still others use shopping as an escape, a way to get a thrill and avoid problems, stress, loss, or trauma. Once you figure out the reasons you over shop, then you can begin to focus your energies on doing something about it.
2. Rethink your relationship with shopping.
Much of our shopping habits are intimately linked with early messages we received about shopping, our unique personality traits, and coping style. If faulty ideas about shopping evolved within a context of unhealthy relationships, and problematic personality traits and coping styles, we are at risk for over shopping. One of the reasons people minimize or overlook their shopping addiction is that shopping (unlike substance addiction) is a necessity, widely encouraged, and often regarded as a status symbol. So it’s easy to fall under the radar if you have a problem.
What are you really getting from shopping?
But if you find that you are using shopping to mask emotional distress, consider what you are getting from shopping (e.g., validation, security, revenge), and begin to think more deeply about the consequences of associating shopping with those parts of yourself that need attention. For instance, if you over shop as a means to validate your self-worth and gain the admiration of those close to you, consider that buying those symbols of status are inadequate and will never fully define the complexities of you. Or, if you over shop for the thrill of a bargain, consider that a short-lived thrill won’t really give you the long-term peace of mind and satisfaction you may be looking for.
Nowadays, companies don’t just sell products, they sell a lifestyle. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it’s a beautiful and inspiring one. But it’s also important to be aware of your emotional reaction to what’s being sold to you so that you don’t overspend in an attempt to “buy” those intangibles you’re searching for.
3. Find other ways to fill the void.
Shopping can be fun and there are tons of products out there to make it easier for you to live the lifestyle you choose. But you can’t overspend your way into a healthy emotional life, you can only cover up a poor one—and consequently feel more miserable with each regrettable purchase. It may take some work on your part, but you can find ways to feel better—I mean really better, without succumbing to the urge to over shop.
One way to do it is to replace your over shopping with healthier, more meaningful habits. It’s easier said than done, but it’s been done before and can be done again with you. Let’s say you over shop as a way to deal with a less than adequate self-esteem. Try to find other ways to build it, like being creative. If you have a tendency to over spend on clothes and enjoy putting together outfits, perhaps you can put together virtual outfits you don’t have to pay for and share them online. Or, if you over spend for the thrill of it, maybe you can try to do an exhilarating physical activity, or lead a workshop. And if you shop as a way to deal with conflict in relationships, perhaps you can learn different, better ways to manage conflict (e.g., be more assertive) that improves rather than strains your relationships. Regardless of what you use shopping for, once you find a healthy alternative, challenge yourself to keep it going.
4. Change what you expect.
So you figured out why you over shop, and even managed to come up with some healthy alternatives. But you still can’t quite beat the urge to over shop, particularly when you have to shop anyway. So what’s to do? A study on pathological buying conducted out of the University of Duisbur-Essen in Germany showed that the excitement we get from shopping online may not translate into buying online unless we expect online shopping to meet certain needs and goals (e.g., immediate gratification).
So what if we reframe our expectancies about shopping? While there may be a thrill to it, over shopping also comes with heartache, guilt, and hiding behaviors. What if you focused on that every time you had the urge to over shop? It kind of takes the high out of it, doesn’t it? In fact, the act of over shopping is preceded by a number of triggers that offer many opportunities to reframe and combat our expectations about it.
So say you have the urge to go into your favorite store while running errands. You feel conflicted about it, but contemplate the idea of going in just to browse and not buy anything. You do well at first, but then you see a 50% off sale and somehow talked your way into buying something even though you said you wouldn’t. Or you go online to buy a wedding gift for your friend, and promised you wouldn’t browse the web or buy anything for yourself, but somehow end up buying five things, two of which you reason are for friends. Each of these scenarios can be broken down into mini scenarios, all of which can be challenged along the way. And by reimagining the consequences of your actions at each step (e.g., going into the store, participating in the sale, or browsing online), and altering your expectations, you may possibly avoid a lot of heartache.
5. Be experiential.
There’s no denying that the urge to shop is certainly a distraction, and in order for you to reframe your expectancies you have to fight off those butterflies, nausea, distress, or whatever it is you feel when you get the urge to over shop. One surefire way to quell those jittery feelings is just to feel them. That is, allow yourself to sit with the discomfort of not over shopping and simply do nothing about it. It’s not comfortable, but the more you are able to do it, the more you realize you can feel it , still be okay, and like icing on a cake, reap the longer-term benefits such as a guilt-free, peaceful day.