Help: I can’t stop online shopping! Ask The Kit
“I can’t stop online shopping! It started during lockdown and it has gotten out of hand. I keep thinking the next blazer/matching lounge set/bold lipstick/cosy sweater is going to make me feel better. The thrill is hitting the order button; by the time the package arrives I often don’t even bother opening it for days! And worse, I’ve stopped returning misfires. How do I get back under my clothing budget?” — Going Broke in Burlington
Impulse shopping is behaviour that occurs along a spectrum. Most of us, myself very much included, had a bad pandemic moment wherein a flurry packages were arriving at the door and we had forgotten what weird stuff we’d ordered in the hope of bringing momentary solace during a scary time. My girlfriends and I even had a “bring your most embarrassing pandemic purchase” exchange party. (The winner was “World’s Ugliest Pair of PantsTM”.) That end of the spectrum is benign, fleeting and can be funny.
But for some, hitting the shiny, red checkout button can start having dire consequences. (Merchants make checkout buttons red for a reason: the psychological effect of the colour red has been much researched by marketers; it taps into a primitive sense of urgency.)
I once knew someone with a serious, diagnosed shopping addiction. It was serious because of the size of their bank account: as in, buying three grand pianos in a day or grabbing a $50,000 Gucci leather jacket while on a dog walk. Sure, it sounds fun, like a “Pretty Woman” montage complete with armfuls of designer bags, but the stone-cold truth is it was very frightening to be around. It was also, I know, extremely frightening for this person. Their unusual chosen path to self-destruction was paved with flashing red flags. So I can attest personally to the fact that shopping addiction can be more serious than the clichés.
“It is a growing issue and it looks like it has been worsened by the pandemic,” says Victoria Pacitti, a registered social worker and registered psychotherapist (qualifying) with a particular interest in shopping addiction, and co-owner of Mindset First Mental Health and Performance. “A lot of people were buying online, out of boredom from not being allowed out, to fill a void of excitement and adrenalin.” She points out that this is an exceptionally accessible vice: “It’s so easy to click and purchase almost anything these days.”
Shopping addiction can be a factor for in-person shopping, online or a combination of both. “The reader question shows what does really happen,” Pacitti says. “A hallmark is that by the time (an online order) arrives, the person doesn’t open it for five days and is no longer excited about the purchase. The rush of adrenalin is from buying something.”
That is because our old faithful companion guilt comes into play. A sign that shopping might be becoming a problem is if guilt and shame kick in, preventing you from looking at or enjoying those items. “Especially if you are buying things you don’t need or want.” There are similarities to other kinds of addictions, such as chemical addiction, gambling or playing video games, in the way the brain engages with the behaviour. “When people engage with that behaviour, the brain releases endorphins and dopamine: neurotransmitters associated with the feeling of pleasure,” she says.
Most people reach out for help when they experience financial difficulty because of their increase in spending. So how can therapists like Pacitti help turn things around?
“It requires a mix of a few different things,” she says, beginning with identifying what has caused this to be an issue in the first place. “Is it rooted in self-esteem issues, trauma, addictive personality traits?” She points out that all addiction cases are unique to the individual and many have co-morbidities: “Shopping addictions may be exacerbated by, for example, depression, anxiety or agoraphobia.”
In terms of treatment, cognitive behavioural theory (CBT) may be useful. “With CBT, we are addressing any unhelpful or negative behaviours and figuring out what triggers the urge,” Pacitti says. “Then we gain other perspectives as to how to view these situations and respond in more effective ways.”
Curing shopping addiction is not as simple as deleting your shopping apps (or your credit card), though Pacitti says that can certainly help. “We have to manage the difficult emotions that come up,” she says. “It is important to identify what time of day and under what emotional circumstances you typically start shopping. If you can’t sleep at night and your phone is too close to you, keep it outside the bedroom so you are not tempted.” You could also block off sites on your computer and phone at certain times of the day.
These kinds of interventions are called behavioural barriers, designed to make it difficult for you to engage in an unwanted behaviour. Then you can replace the contentious habit with something positive: “Choose hobbies that are creative instead, like knitting or painting,” Pacitti suggests.
And it’s helpful to find an “accountability partner,” someone who can hold your Visa for you or with whom you review your accounts at the end of the month.
Diligent tracking is helpful to curb bad habits, because it forces you to face the cold, hard numbers. Pacitti suggests our reader make a new budget going forward, to see if their spending is truly out of the ordinary. “Once we have insight into our behaviours and data to track them, it’s a good idea to consult a financial coach, to point out what good you could be doing with all the wasted money,” she says.
The trouble with addictions, Pacitti explains, is that when unwanted behaviours get ingrained, it is harder to stop them. Like our reader, a lot of people will find themselves feeling that they want to change but, at the same time, they don’t want to. “This is where people get stuck,” Pacitti says. “We talk a lot about ambivalence for change. We look at change cycles and try to identify where that person sits in the cycle of change. A big part of many addictions is that it is confusing for people to feel two opposing things at the same time.” Getting better, she says, is about learning to sit with that ambivalence.
Even though I’m generally a careful shopper, after speaking with Pacitti I’m going to take her advice myself, and use tracking and accountability to stick to my budget as Black Friday sales pop up on my phone and holiday shopping season swings into high gear. Take the leap with me, Going Broke.
Resources for help with shopping addiction
If your shopping issues have gotten out of control, creditcanada.com is a non-profit that will help you make a plan to get out of debt.