Let's be honest: the holiday season is super stressful. There is so much extra work, deadlines, expenses, the pressure to be social. All of it feels like a problem to be solved—the kind of problem you throw money at.
Stress spending or impulsively shopping when you feel anxious is a real condition and it is prevalent in not only the millennial generation but Gen Xers and Baby Boomers as well (but millennials were the most at 68%.) In the U.S. impulsive shopping generates around $4 billion in sales annually.
Credit Karma surveyed 1,000 adults in the U.S. and found that many consumers have impulsively shopped to relieve feelings of stress or anxiety, regardless of their financial standing.
Over half (52%) admitted to stress spending at least once in their life.
Though working out is one of my ways to blow off stress, I will readily admit that I am also drawn into the dark vortex that is retail when I am feeling anxious. There is something about shopping that gives me a sense of calmness and powerfulness. I may have felt unsuccessful about my work day, but that expensive sweater from Anthropologie I bought says otherwise. "Prior to receiving any negative feedback, consumers select products that are specifically associated with bolstering or guarding the part of the self that might come under threat," said research authors Soo Kim and Derek D. Rucker of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Their 2012 study on retail therapy compared it to the same mechanisms of emotional eating. They also found that people will shop ahead of an anticipated stressful situation in an effort to fend it off. Perhaps a pair of boots that make you feel ultra capable for that meeting with your boss.
There is also the immediate catharsis that shopping gives you instead of something like therapy. Plus walking away with something pretty and shiny can feel a lot better than walking away from therapy some days.
There is also a confirmation of coolness that shopping brings with it for individuals. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, told The Guardian that items from brands we admire become symbolic trophies "consumers use to consolidate their self-concept and communicate it to others." So basically you are not only getting emotional relief but a sense of self as well.
However, this doesn't mean that a powerful sense of regret will follow these purchases even though the numbers don't tend to be astronomically high. More than 60% of survey respondents who said they had made a stress purchase in the past typically spend less than $100 on impulsive, stress-induced purchases but 4% said they will spend $500 or more.
Over 80% of stress spenders said they at least occasionally regret their stress purchases.
The items where people tend to put their stress-tainted cash tend to be alcohol (48% for men vs. 31% for women), food (40% for men and 59% for women) then jewelry (22% for men vs. 42% for women), clothes (52% for men vs. 82% for women) and personal electronics (44% for men vs. 30 percent.)
So what should you do the next time you feel the cycle of stress spending come on because you realized you have to write 40 emails, buy 20 presents and you are already sick of holiday music?
Try stepping away and taking a moment. Even if you are already at the store and have decided you should buy this item because it will make everything in your life better, leave the store for a bit and walk around. Assess why you are making this purchase. Ask yourself are you only buying it because something is upsetting you? Will this really make it better? If the answer is yes, then you really need to consider if this is just going to be a very short-lived, expensive band-aid.