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Shop ‘Til You Drop: Women and the Spending Problem

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“A man will never love you or treat you as well as a store. If a man doesn’t fit, you can’t exchange him seven days later for a gorgeous cashmere sweater. And a store always smells good. A store can awaken a lust for things you never even knew you needed. And when your fingers first grasp those shiny, new bags…” ―Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic

I have a problem. It’s not a terrible problem, but it is definitely worth mentioning. When I have had a particularly bad day, I sometimes take myself to a store to buy myself a treat. I don’t always buy something, but often I do. I also do this when I have a great day. I justify to myself that because I did a good job, I deserve a present. I say to myself, “I need to get my fifth Lululemon Swiftly Tech long sleeve tee (plus, I do yoga now so I can totally justify it), or that purse that kind of looks like that other purse I own, or that pair of heels that I can’t actually walk in but man, will I look good standing in them (while leaning on a chair for support). I deserve all these things.”

Now, I know this is probably not a healthy habit. Like with everything I do that gives me concern, I blame my mother. As a child on Fridays after a long hard week at school, I would go to my piano lesson and then we would go to the candy store and I would get a treat. If I did something good, I got a treat. But this was before bills and salaries and 401Ks were in my lexicon. This was when my biggest problem was deciding whether I wanted to eat Lucky Charms or Frosted Flakes for breakfast (those were the days).

But now I am a real live grownup and I am expected to be smart when it comes to personal finance. I do consider myself to be a pretty responsible person, but I feel like I have a nasty shopping habit that has less to do with me actually wanting to buy something than feeling like I need to buy something. Apparently, though, I am not alone in this bad spending habit pattern.

Dr. John Schinnerer, expert consultant to Pixar, positive psychology coach and author of Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought, says:

“Spending money is intimately intertwined with the emotional mind. For both men and women, spending money is often a way to turn down the volume on negative emotions, such as annoyance, sadness, and nervousness. Spending money is a pleasant, immediate distraction from negative emotions (until you get the Visa bill!).

“Interestingly, positive emotions, such as excitement, anticipation, and pride, can spark spending also. Spending money may be done as a reward after an accomplishment. Spending is a way to strengthen and extend positive emotions—creating an upward spiral.

“It’s quite similar to drug use. Without emotional awareness, many are at the mercy of money. For they spend beyond their means and know not why.”

Well, if you start to think of shopping being as bad as having a drug addiction maybe you will do it less!

The real problem, according to Carrie Rocha, personal finance blogger and the author of a book about money called Pocket Your Dollars: 5 Attitude Changes That Help You Pay Down Debt, Avoid Financial Stress and Keep More of What You Make, is that we justify these impulse purchases to decimate our guilt.

“Whether we have had a good day or bad day, we often tell ourselves things like, ‘I deserve this treat.’ That phrase is dangerous to our spending because it is used only to justify an impulse purchase. If we’ve planned and saved, then we don’t need to find a reason to pull the trigger.

“But, the reason we tell ourselves that in the first place and buy things is because they really do provide a temporary pick-me-up. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical and it is released in the brain when we 1) buy something (big or small), 2) surround ourselves with new things (think shopping and being in the midst of all the racks), or 3) even anticipate buying something. Dopamine, like any chemically induced high (albeit this one is natural), wears off and we need to repeat the behavior to get a new fix and, often we need to increase the amount to get the same reaction.”

Wow. Shopping at Bloomingdales just became a scene from Trainspotting. But don’t feel too bad. In some ways we are all victims of the advertising and fashion industry. According to Psychology Today, stores trick our sense of sight to make shopping as addictive an experience as possible. Again, it all goes back to that dopamine reward system. When we go into a store, we are surrounded by many new things and it sends a surge in dopamine and WE WANT IT, even though we actually feel a letdown when we buy the new object and take it home.

But stores don’t only trick us visually; they also employ a number of other strategies to get us to buy our 60th striped t-shirt (at this point I could be employed as a full-time gondalier). Some examples are stores making clothes bigger so we feel better about ourselves and therefore must buy the size two pants we fit into (except they are actually a four). Then there’s everything from the way the store is laid out to mirror manipulation in the dressing rooms and playing really great music. I literally dance as I shop whenever I go to J.Crew. Cashmere and Adele are a lethal combination.

Dr. Marty Martin of Chicago-based Aequus Wealth Management said young professional women are especially prone to spending triggers, mostly because advertisements are in our face in a way that past generations have never had to deal with in this capacity. When our mothers were young, they really just had television, radio, magazines, and actually walking by a store (on their 10-mile walks in the snow, of course). But we’ve got our computers, mobile advertising on phones, music videos, movies, e-commerce sites, entire magazines devoted to shopping, and the Kardashians, who are literally walking advertisements for shopping too much.

Plus, as we are inundated with technology we are also totally obsessed with also sharing our every outfit and shopping choice. Dr. Ramani, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, author, and was co-host of Oxygen’s My Shopping Addiction, told Levo that young women today came of age in an era where image-consciousness has taken on a life of its own: “People have always enjoyed new dresses, clothes, etc.—but now this generation documents every moment of their lives via Facebook, Instagram, etc.—and that can lead to a drive to look a certain way and get items to maintain that image.”

Okay, so we can play the victim card, but we also have to realize that we are looking at shopping as a literal source of comfort. It is retail therapy, except most therapists don’t give you a cute Kate Spade purse to take home.

But retail therapy doesn’t only provide comfort; it also gives us distraction from our crazy lives, and those distractions are in the form of cute Madewell boots.

“It provides many women with a sense of relief—a focused shopper can flip through the racks of any store, forget her worries, and try on various items as a way to feel better about herself,” said Katherine Crowley, author of Mean Girls at Work.

It’s true. Sometimes on days when I am really exhausted, I will just find myself in a store. I don’t even remember how I even got there. I just wanted to look at cigarette jeans. Because work can be crazy, relationships can suck, your friends can come and go, but jeans—cropped, bootleg, skinny, and capri—will always be there for you.

Crowley said, “Professional women in their 20s and 30s are trying to figure out a lot of things. On the one hand, they may want to build a career; on the other hand, they want to attract and secure a romantic partner. This makes the emphasis on shopping that much greater. They have an added pressure to look professional but also own and wear the most trendy items—and trends always change.”

So really, it is not totally your fault if you have a spending problem. But now you know what is working against you, so keep that in mind the next time you whip out your credit card. As the great Tori Spelling once said, “Bad shopping habits die hard.”

What’s your take on poor shopping habits? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Claire Chambers, Founder and CEO of Journelle, a question about the retail industry!


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Join the conversation:

As I sat here reading this, I was saying "Yes!" at the end of almost every paragraph. This rings so true in my life. I've been thinking along these lines every time I open a new tab in my browser to scour my favorite shops online after a successful meeting or exam grade. Now my shopping doubts have been confirmed and I can no longer ignore them. Thank you!

Rachel Ny
Rachel Ny

Meredith, interesting information on the strategy of how stores get us to buy and the impact of technology. I agree that it's especially severe for young professionals--my biggest 'shopping problem' occurred right after I graduated and started my new job. The combination of a new source of income plus all the stress of working added to many trips to the store. Since then I've taken a step back. Great article!

Lindsey Woodhull
Lindsey Woodhull

I totally laughed at your "60th striped t-shirt" comment because....this is me. I fell victim again last night. Did I need the pink striped tshirt from Jcrew? No. Did buying it make me (briefly) feel better? Yes, until I got home and hung it in my closet next to the other 20 striped shirts I own but don't ever really wear. Sigh.

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