Every day we make several logical and reasonable purchases. Maybe we pick up a new toothbrush on our lunch hour, grab a few groceries on the way home or pay a household bill after dinner. We make most of these spending decisions without much thought and certainly without regret or fear of being judged.
But what about the purchases we make that aren’t rooted in logic? That new flat screen TV that’s just a bit bigger than our neighbors, the expensive pair of designer gloves that look nearly identical to the bargain brand or the three course meal at that new restaurant we really can’t afford.
These purchases sure aren’t logical, so they must be emotional. But what exactly is emotional spending? Why do we do it? And more importantly, how can we make sure it doesn’t negatively affect our lives?
Q. How would you define emotional spending?
I’d say spending becomes emotional when it’s being used as a way to soothe, to cope with, or to process difficult emotions or experiences. In the most serious cases this behavior can lead to debt and financial ruin.
But emotional spending is very specific to each individual. Often it’s rooted in their early attachments and development or maybe even an earlier trauma that they’ve not been able to process consciously.
So when it comes to emotional spending, understanding will come from really understanding one’s self. Just as someone who is trying to lose weight could start a new diet, an emotional shopper could always just go on a budget. But it’s unlikely to work until they really understand what their emotional shopping is providing for them.
Q. Are there different levels or degrees of emotional spending?
Absolutely, there’s a spectrum. Some people will shop excessively every day, whereas others will only do it once in a while. Generally people will engage in the behavior to the point where their needs are satisfied.
This is what makes emotional spending very specific to each person. It could involve buying expensive luxury items or maybe just picking up a few cheap but unnecessary items on the way home from work.
Q. What’s happening psychologically when people are spending emotionally?
There’s a word in psychoanalysis called “dissociation” and it refers to when your mind is essentially split off from the event you’re experiencing. Sometimes I think people who are emotionally spending become dissociated.
I wouldn’t say that is the case every time, but I think from a financial perspective if you were to ask a compulsive shopper they may not even know how much money they make or how much they’re spending.
Dissociation can also feed compulsive shopping because in many cases you’re making the purchases online or with your credit card. This means you won’t experience any immediate negative consequences for your behavior.
I once had a patient who had a basement full of unopened online purchases. She was embarrassed every time the delivery person came to her house, so she would just store the packages down in the basement and pretend they didn’t exist.
Q. But is there also a sense of satisfaction or joy being experienced by emotional shoppers on a conscious level?
Oh absolutely! Emotional shoppers are often trying to make themselves look good and feel good by rewarding themselves. They may also just be trying to feel like they’re part of something. There’s a certain camaraderie that is developed by visiting the same stores and seeing the same shoppers and employees regularly.
Of course they may also view items like new clothes as status symbols. These are purchases that give you the feeling of knowing that you have something of value that’s coveted – which I actually think is a really important feeling.
Q. I think we all buy status symbol items to boost our self-esteem. So how would you know when your emotional shopping has developed into a real problem?
People usually decide to come to see me when their shopping has begun to interfere with their ability to function or to accomplish the objectives they know on an intellectual level they want to achieve.
This type of shopping is not an intellectual problem, it’s an emotional problem. So I think it’s often when people realize they are emotionally out of control that they decide to address it.
They come to the realization that their shopping is connected to something psychological and it’s no longer just a frivolous or fun activity. The good news is once they start to explore what they don’t quite understand emotionally they find a way to get a grip on the problem.
Q. What steps should you take once you’ve determined you have a problem with emotional spending?
Well I think therapy is always helpful. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a therapist (laughing). I just really believe in therapy and I really believe that if you can understand your emotions and your psychological reasons for compulsive shopping then you’ll also come to understand so much more about yourself.
Emotional shopping is often an attempt to fill a void or what I call a psychological “hunger”. This idea of hunger really resonates with the people that come to see me because they’ve realized that there’s something deeper in them that they’re trying to satisfy.
Many people are often afraid to address their emotional shopping because they think they’ll have to deprive themselves, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s all about figuring out how to have what you want without being out of control. I try to help my patients find that balance.