A few years ago, I was living paycheck to paycheck and was seriously trying to get my finances under control. I read all the tips and tricks to curb spending, yet I was failing month after month. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I never entered the grocery store without a list; I never bought expensive, brand name shoes or purses; I never obsessed with changing my wardrobe based on the season. On the surface, I never had any problems — but, at the end of the month, I always ended up broke. Finally, after a lot of agonizing over various revisions of my budget, it hit me: I didn’t have a budgeting problem; I had a shopping problem.
I shopped when I was feeling angry or stressed out. I shopped to get along with my roommates. I shopped to make me happy. I shopped to take advantage of sales. I shopped because I felt the need to own stuff. I shopped to relax.
We like to think we make rational decisions and buy only things that we need, but we don’t. We shop for a lot of reasons.
- Shopping to belong
Keeping up with the Joneses or trying to impress others stems from a deep desire to belong to a community, to be seen as part of the group, or to establish and maintain a connection with our friends. Sometimes shopping becomes the only way of socializing; other times, we feel the closeness we crave simply by buying the same brand or following the same shopping principles.
- Shopping as a mental vacation
Often, we shop to relax or decompress. I know plenty of people, including me, who categorize shopping as a stress reliever or find it soothing. For some, it is a mindless activity that is also pleasurable. Strolling through the mall in search of the latest fashion and buying something nice for ourselves is a great way to relax.
- Shopping as a challenge
Some people take it as a challenge to find the ultimate bargain. “Beating the system” becomes a game of knowing when things go on sale and matching up the coupons. Hunting the clearance rack gives them a sense of accomplishment. They don’t really think about whether the items they buy are necessary.
- Shopping for dreams
Some of us shop to give us hope that one day we might be able to afford things we’ve always dreamt of owning. We buy things to inspire. I have five cute tops that I want to wear when I lose weight. We also buy things to make us feel that we have done something to achieve our dreams. I will say, in a very embarrassed voice, that even now when I try to change my habit, say to start exercising, the first thing I think about is to buy new running shoes or go grocery shopping for healthier food.
- Shopping as an emotional need
This is closely related to the mental vacation shoppers, but the subtle difference comes from the fact that we don’t just shop merely to relax, but to feel empowered, more confident and more secure. Shopping can be an outlet for a plethora of emotional needs – confidence, adventure, security, self-esteem, anger, pleasure, freedom.
- Shopping for stuff
These shoppers simply feel the need to own stuff. They buy to fill an undefined sense of emptiness. Buying new things gives them short-term happiness to fill the void.
- Shopping for experience
This is a recent trend: experience vs stuff. Out-of-control spending on experiences is as much a problem as spending too much on stuff. Shoppers of experiences often go into debt to travel or to live a more adventurous life.
- Shopping based on influence
Some as-seen-on TV products feel like a slice of heaven. When you see a demo, it makes you wonder how you managed all these years without it. Add in a sense of urgency to “call within the next 10 minutes” to get an extra trinket is a perfect shopper’s trap.
- Shopping for things we deserve
Some shoppers feel they deserve to have certain things in life because they work hard.
- Shopping as a self-definition
I defined myself based on what I wore or how I dressed during my teen years. Even now I feel the need to dress in a certain way based on the impression I want to give out to other people. Logically, I understand that what I wear does not define who I am as a person, but we do like to have our signature style or a signature perfume.
There are plenty of tips online to mitigate the urge to splurge, but the most comfortable and sustainable solution for me to get my shopping under control was to understand the underlying issues that led to each of my purchases. We no longer live paycheck to paycheck, but I still need to evaluate my purchases periodically to make sure I don’t fall off the wagon.
Have you ever thought about your shopping habits? Why do you shop? How do you keep your shopping habits in check?