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Can You Actually Buy Happiness? Reflections on Emotional Spending

By Lisa Weitzman | 11/13/2019

An older adult pulling a 5 dollar bill from a change purse. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Have you ever felt down and out – and then headed to the mall? Have you ever felt overwhelmed, angry, or isolated – and then cheered up with a purchase on eBay? Do you use shopping as a way to celebrate an accomplishment or recover from a disappointment? Have you ever subscribed to the idea that shopping is a stress-relieving therapy and even cheaper than a visit with a psychiatrist? If so, did shopping in those moments actually make you feel better in the long run?

According to Investopedia, emotional shopping happens when you “buy something you don’t need and, in some cases, don’t even really want, as a result of feeling stressed out, bored, under-appreciated, incompetent, sad or even happy and celebratory.” In essence, emotional shoppers believe that buying fills an emotional void with something – anything – that will make them happier. Shopping can meet other needs, too. After all, who doesn’t love a bargain? Finding a sale makes us feel like a savvy consumer as we focus on what we have saved rather than spent. For others, it is the thrill of the hunt or the desire to “win at shopping” – whether or not we actually need what we have purchased.

Data collected by Harris Interactive shows that 31 percent of women say that they shop to elevate their mood, and 53 percent of people surveyed shop as a way to celebrate. Men, moreover, tend to shop as a means to cope with feelings of inadequacy or success, most likely related to their career. Impulsive shopping may also be “fueled by a desire to do something that proves a person can make their own decisions and do what they want.” And, even though spontaneous spending may ultimately leave feelings of guilt, studies show that, in the moment, consumers shop as a way to feel in control of their lives.

Now let’s think about “retail therapy” within the context of caregiving. The emotions and demands of this role are often taxing. We may feel that no one is taking care of us, and shopping becomes our version of self-care. After all, with long days devoted to giving to someone else, it is understandable that we may feel tempted to over-splurge on ourselves as compensation. 

At the end of the day, though, the emotional “high” and instant gratification from spending can fade quickly, often leaving remorse, debt and even more painful feelings in their wake. Negative emotions can spur the desire to shop, convincing us that we deserve a little retail therapy, and yet these emotions are concurrently tied to a decrease in self-control and greater impulsivity. Willpower, moreover, is like a muscle that gets tired after use: when we have too many decisions to make, our willpower is depleted, leaving us more susceptible to urges, cravings, and purchases we may regret.

If we find ourselves emotionally spending, thankfully, there are plenty of steps we can take to manage it, such as:

  • Making a list of things we enjoy other than shopping and engaging in them rather than heading to the store. We can talk to a friend, take a walk or write in a journal as a means to work through underlying, difficult emotions.
  • Checking in with ourselves and keeping track of what emotions are triggering our urge to shop. Understanding these emotions will prompt ways to cope with these feelings in ways that shopping never will.
  • Holding ourselves accountable for our spending and sticking to a budget. Using cash rather than credit cards makes this process easier.
  • Avoiding impulse buys: we should consider over-examining what we are considering and waiting at least 24 hours until we actually purchase an item we think we want. Postponing enables us to think about what we are doing within the context of other priorities and emotions.
  • Limiting temptation: we should consider staying away from the mall and blocking ads on our devices.
  • Seeking professional help: we can look into professionally supported groups like Shopaholic No More, or call the American Addiction Centers helpline at 1-866-845-6443. If our compulsive shopping is severely impacting our life, we may also consider discussing the problem with a licensed therapist or counselor as well.

The issue of emotional spending can also become even more complicated when the spender is the older adult for whom we are caring. It can sometimes be hard to change the spending behaviors of an older adult, especially when the spending is an attempt to reduce depression, loneliness and/or boredom, or when decision-making is complicated by cognitive changes such as dementia. And with the ability to make purchases online or via the phone, it is even more challenging to control another person’s tendency to shop.

There are also things we can do to minimize the potential for a loved one to spend their into a financial crisis:

  • Talk about it. We should try to have open conversations about spending habits and the emotions behind them. We can then brainstorm solutions for these emotions that do not require spending money.
  • Consider talking with a loved one about appointing a financial power of attorney to add a layer of oversight and protection.
  • Check a loved one’s mail and read it regularly, with their permission. We should watch out for and report scams, be vigilant for unopened mail and monitor excessive purchases and late notices.
  • Seek the help of a financial counselor. Many financial counseling services are free to use, such as Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People, a subsidiary of Benjamin Rose Institute on Again. Use this locator to find free financial counseling that may be available near you.

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