The Life of an Emotional Shopper

Let’s be honest. Spending money is emotional. Finding a “bargain” is very emotionally satisfying, and buying things for loved ones feels good - even when it makes more financial sense not to spend. While it is important to train your rational brain to manage your money, you also need to acknowledge the emotional motivations that drive your spending habits. Understanding why you spend helps guide you to the most effective method for you to change that spending habit.

Personally, I have always enjoyed shopping. I love poking around in different stores, finding deals, gifts for friends and family, and little splurge items like candles and nail polish for myself. It was never that I needed those things. Often, I would go the store to buy one or two specific items, and in the process of shopping for them I’d pick up 2-3 non-essential items. Shopping is easy - I can find what I want, decide to buy it, and I come home feeling satisfied. Essentially, I used shopping as a coping mechanism to deal with my anxiety, because it made me feel like I had some sort of control over my life.

Realizing that this was an issue for me was, in all honesty, a slow process. I had a few wake-up calls, mainly some credit-card debt and the semi-impulse buy of a pick-up (which has been a constant source of bills). I didn’t understand the full extent of my emotional shopping until I was temporarily unemployed and had the very rational example of money management in my boyfriend for contrast.

This September, I began student teaching, and decided to take a leave of absence in October for my mental health. Because student teaching is unpaid, I was already living on my savings when I decided to leave. I was stressed and anxious about everything – lack of job, dwindling savings, my recent move, my car – and the more I anxious I felt the more I wanted to shop. I knew I needed to cut back, and I would still find myself in Target or Wal-Mart putting things I didn’t need in my cart.

When I finally found a job, I decided to focus on changing my spending habits. Conveniently, this decision was followed by a diet change which eliminated my fast-food spending. My boyfriend, who is very rational and goal-oriented to saving money, helped me. We discussed my spending habits, and worked together to develop money saving goals. Having those healthy spending targets and his support was huge for me. I found I derived the same sense of satisfaction from meeting them and growing my savings as I had from shopping.

Not that I don’t still feel the urge to shop, because I do. Now that I understand where those urges come from and know what my trigger is - stress & feeling out of control - I am usually able to control them better. When I want to buy a non-essential item, I ask myself why. Will it improve my life? Will I actually use it? Did I come into the store for this? Yes, I do still splurge occasionally - usually on toys for my dog because they improve his life and I’m a sucker for puppy eyes. To this day, I avoid Bath and Body Works because if I go in, I know I’ll buy something I don’t need.

Because money and financial decisions are so emotional, to change how you spend you need to know why you spend. Your reason(s) might be similar to mine, but I doubt they are identical. My life pushed me to consider my spending habits. If it hadn’t, it is likely I would be continuing the same spending habits. If you struggle with emotional impulse buying, or another bad spending habit, it may help to keep a small journal to uncover your shopping triggers.

Whenever you feel the urge to shop, write down how you’re feeling and anything that happened during the day. Your notes only need to be detailed enough for you to know what happened. Focus on just collecting data for the first month or so. Then, go back and look for patterns. What event(s) seem to trigger your desire to shop? Once you know what your triggers are, you can watch for them in the future. Knowing why you feel the impulse to buy makes it easier to rationalize that feeling and redirect your emotional energy.

Figuring out the most effective way to redirect your desire to spend is the next step.

Experiment with different strategies, because there is no one-size fits all approach to changing your behavior. If you notice that sales are your trigger, avoid the stores you like when you know sales are going on and unsubscribe from mailing lists. If you feel triggered by stress, try taking a few deep breaths, drinking chamomile tea, or finding another way to redirect that energy. 

If you want additional motivation to help you stay on track, try planning one splurge purchase. Choose one item, like a new pair of shoes or an outfit, for your splurge. If you stick to your budget, or another similar goal, for the month, then you can buy that splurge item. Chances are you will enjoy the splurge more this way, because you had to work for it. Similarly, you could make a budget category for splurge spending.

If you struggle severely with emotional compulsive shopping, consider visiting a therapist. I know there is a stigma surrounding therapy, but having an unbiased person to talk through your emotions and problem-solve with can be incredibly helpful. You won’t have to go forever, but even just a few weeks can give you greater self-awareness and practical strategies tailed to you. There is no shame in seeking help; it takes special courage to admit you need it and to seek it out. (I’ve seen a therapist for separate issues and it’s the single best thing I have ever done for myself. If you feel you need it, try it.)

However you choose to work on your spending, remember to be kind to yourself. Start with small attainable goals, and build off that momentum. Changing spending habits that are emotionally charged takes time, but it is a rewarding and worthwhile goal. If you slip up, don’t berate yourself. You’re human and missteps happen. But tomorrow is a new day and a new chance to work toward your goals. Remember this is a journey, and sometimes the road will get bumpy. Keep going. You can do this.

Written by Mckenzie Candalot, Staff Writer – Mckenzie Candalot graduated from the College of Idaho with a B.A. in English Literature. She has a passion for written language and helping other women take control of their finances. When not blogging or reading, she enjoys cooking and spending time with loved ones.