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6 Signs That Your Emotional Spending Is Becoming a Problem

The mood-boosting benefits of retail therapy can dissolve when emotional spending becomes a problem.

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From the seemingly endless time spent in quarantine as the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic to civil unrest as protestors fight against police brutality and discrimination, we have plenty to be stressed about these days. According to the American Psychological Association, roughly seven in 10 Americans say this is the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember, while a recent survey from Healthline and YouGov found that nearly half of Americans are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

With everything going on, it can be tempting to distract yourself with retail therapy and mindless purchases. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by data analytics company Clicktale, 40% of respondents admitted to using shopping as a way to calm down

The impact of emotional spending

Emotional spending is when we buy things to make ourselves feel better. But when left unchecked, it also has the potential to drain your finances — an especially big risk right now, considering that at least 1 in 4 Americans have less than $1,000 saved up

Emotional spending can also take a toll on your mental health. You might have feelings of guilt or shame if shopping keeps you from paying your bills. Those feelings might also cause you to hide your purchases from your significant other, potentially hurting your relationship.  

6 signs you’re an emotional spender

1. You’re always maxing out your credit cards

Emotional spending can turn into a vicious cycle if you regularly spend beyond your means. The excitement you felt when you first made the purchases dissolves into dread when you get a sky-high bill — which could, in turn, compel you to reach for your credit card again in an attempt to feel better. 

2. You shop when you’re in a bad mood

If you find yourself heading to your favorite online store when you’re mad or sad, you might be using shopping as a technique to cope with negative emotions. And you’re not alone — it’s been found that 74% of people say they have stress-shopped at some point. Think about your mood next time you make an unplanned purchase to see if this is the case for you. 

3. You’re hiding the things you buy

Are you showing off your brand-new shoes, or hiding them in hopes that your loved ones don’t notice that you’ve bought yet another pair? Feeling ashamed or guilty about your purchases might be a sign that you’re an emotional spender. 

4. You regret your purchases and make frequent returns

While emotional spending can feel invigorating in the moment, things can change once you leave the store. You might feel remorse and regret after you realize how much you spent. Frequently returning your purchases (or wishing you had) is another red flag. 

5. You feel a sense of fulfillment or control after shopping

Sadness can make you feel like you’re a victim of circumstances and have little agency in your own life. If you’re using retail therapy as a tool to restore a sense of control, you might be an emotional spender. Even feelings of fulfillment after a purchase might indicate you have an unhealthy relationship with shopping. 

6. You shop when you’re lonely 

Emotional spending can be tempting when you’re feeling unloved or undesirable. Loneliness can give you the urge to buy something you think may help you make friends or be seen as more attractive. 

How to overcome your spending habit

Habits that are tied to your emotions can be a challenge to break, but ending the cycle of using shopping to self-soothe can put you on firmer financial footing, and ultimately give you greater peace of mind. Here are some ways you can tackle your emotional spending habit. 

1. Figure out the non-monetary value of a purchase

Buying an $80 sweater might seem like no big deal at the time, but what does that item really cost? Think about how long you need to work to cover that purchase. If you earn $20 an hour, you need to work for a half-day to pay off the sweater — a length of time that might not feel worth it after all. Before you make a purchase, make sure you understand the cost of an item beyond what it says on the price tag. 

2. Wait before making an impulse buy

One way to cut back on emotional spending is simply adding some buffer time between browsing stores and finalizing a purchase. If you find something you like, add it to your online shopping cart (or write it down if you’re in a brick-and-mortar store), then wait at least 48 hours before making a decision. A little time away from the store can help you decide if you truly want the item and have room in your budget to pay for it. 

3. Make it harder to spend

From saving your credit card information to offering one-click checkout, online stores are designed for seamless spending. Adding a few barriers can help you ward off emotional spending. Delete your credit card details from your online store profiles and remove coupon apps from your phone. Leave your credit card at home when you visit brick-and-mortar stores. If store newsletters tend to trigger your emotional spending, it might be time to click “unsubscribe.” 

4. Set a goal-focused budget

Budgeting can help reduce overspending and help you achieve financial milestones, like having a robust savings account or buying a home. Write down your short- and long-term goals and the steps it would take to get you there. For example, if you want to save up $5,000 over the next five years, you’ll need to stash away about $83.33 per month. 

Then, create a budget that will help you hit your goals and enjoy some retail therapy. Check your progress frequently (such as when you successfully avoid making an unnecessary purchase) to keep yourself motivated and stay on track. Regular reminders of your true priorities can make it easier to sacrifice treats (like that $80 sweater) you might crave right now.  

5. Find other coping mechanisms

Besides spending money, what are some other ways you can pick yourself up when you’re feeling down? Exercise, for instance, can enhance your mood and beat stress. If you tend to shop when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might find that other relaxing activities, like meditating, listening to your favorite music or sipping a warm drink, can calm you down. Or, consider calling a friend or loved one if you’re feeling lonely. Understanding the many (often free) ways you can fight negative emotions can help you break your emotional spending habit. 

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