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  • Writer's pictureAveril

Understanding and Managing Compulsive Spending: Breaking the Loop

Spending compulsively – characterised by an uncontrollable urge to make purchases – can be anything from a behaviour that limits a person’s financial progress all the way to a habit that is as destructive as an addiction. Compulsive spending has been made even easier in the digital age as we shop online from any location and at any hour of the day or night. In this article, we will explore the underlying causes of compulsive shopping, its detrimental effects, and effective strategies for managing and overcoming this habit.

Understanding Compulsive Spending

Compulsive spending can feel like an itch you must scratch. Once the idea of making a purchase has entered your mind, if can feel like the only way to stop thinking about it is follow it through.

You might feel torn, knowing on the one hand that you can’t afford it, or it isn’t the best use of your money, but eventually construct a justification whether it’s a “need”, a sale too good to miss, or just YOLO.

This type of shopping can be driven by a range of factors. Reasons might include emotional triggers, societal pressures, or underlying psychological issues. For many people, making a purchase becomes an escape from stress, anxiety, boredom, or depression. The act of purchasing items provides a temporary sense of relief from these feelings, reinforcing the behaviour and creating a cycle. In this sense, compulsive spending operates in the same way as many substance use problems – just like alcohol and other drugs, making a purchase is a quick and effective (though short-lived) relief from discomfort.

Shopping may also provide positive and more pleasant feelings, not just placate difficult ones. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that functions both as a driver and a reward. It creates our motivation and energy to pursue something – in the case of compulsive spending, the anticipation of finding a good deal or a desired purchase can trigger a dopamine release that creates the urge to shop. When the 50% off sale is found or the right item found, more dopamine is released, providing a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. This reward ensures that the behaviour is reinforced, meaning it is more likely to happen again in future.

In the case of online shopping, the pleasurable anticipation of waiting for the item to arrive can also be part of what makes purchasing this way so addictive. Large marketing budgets are poured into strategies to encourage us to continually consume. Emails alerting us of every discount and sale creates a sense of urgency, a sense of satisfaction that we are getting something at a bargain, and fear of missing out. With online shops open 24 hours a day the barriers of having to go to stores and walk around to find the item you want is removed. Many online retailers also offer free returns, making purchases feel even lower risk.

The Effects of Spending Compulsively

While occasional indulgence in “retail therapy” is harmless, frequent shopping out of a sense of compulsion can have severe consequences. Compulsive spenders may tell themselves that a bargain is too good to miss and they will rein in their spending next week, but the resulting financial strain far outweighs the discount. Individuals may accumulate significant debt, struggle to save or drain their existing savings, or experience difficulty meeting basic needs due to overspending.

Compulsive shoppers often experience feelings of guilt, shame, and regret after their buying binges, leading to emotional distress and a negative impact on their overall well-being or self-image. This shame may lead them to attempt to hide the problem from others, particularly in the case of couples with shared finances.

Moreover, compulsive shopping can strain relationships, as partners, family members, and friends may become concerned about the individual's financial stability and well-being. The secrecy and deception often associated with compulsive buying can erode trust and create a cycle of isolation.

Breaking the Loop of Compulsive Spending

Step One: Acknowledge the issues

Recognising and acknowledging compulsive spending as a problem is the first step towards managing it effectively. If you are unconcerned about the impact of your shopping, you will not be motivated to make any changes to it. To build appropriate concern, you might undertake these thought exercises:

  • Spend some time reflecting on the effects of your spending on your financial wellbeing now and in the future, your emotional wellbeing, and your relationships.

  • Imagine the scenario in 5 years time that you will create if nothing changes in your current spending habits.

  • Imagine the scenario in 5 years time that you will create if you are able to stop spending compulsively.

  • Consult your “future self” – what do you anticipate your 10-year older self would advise you about your current spending?

  • Acknowledge that every item you bring into your life will eventually make its way through to the rubbish dump, if concern for the environment is motivating.

  • Consider how many of the purchases you have made have brought you long-lasting satisfaction – there may be clues here as to what truly is worth it to you to spend on.

Step Two: Understand the triggers

Once you have gained a clear understanding of the ways compulsive shopping is impacting your present and future, it is time to compassionately self-reflect on the causes.

Consider what is happening before you tend to start shopping or browsing – are there particular emotions, environments, or times of day that make it more likely to occur? Look for patterns – perhaps you open a shopping browser tab when you feel bored or stuck in your work, it’s become a habit to scroll while watching TV in the evening, or upcoming social events create an anxiety and finding the perfect outfit feels like it would alleviate it.

More deeply, what feelings are you looking for, or to get rid of? What are you believing that making this purchase will say about you - that this outfit will mean you look and feel "put together", this brand will show you are successful, this gift will demonstrate that you are a thoughtful and generous friend. None of these motivations are worthy of negative judgement, they are understandable, natural desires and concerns.

Step Three: Match the function of emotional triggers and learn to manage urges

We never just break a habit, we replace it. With the information you have about your triggers, you have clues as to the function compulsive spending has been serving in your life. Whether it’s boredom or anxiety relief, or pockets of excitement or satisfaction, or seeking a sense of self-worth in your appearance or being the person who always gives the perfect gift, this need must now be met in new ways. Without an appropriate replacement behaviour, the spending will return.

As mentioned earlier, it must be acknowledged that like alcohol and other drugs, shopping is a very quick and effective fix, and the replacement you choose might feel much less immediately satisfying. Urges to spend might feel very difficult and uncomfortable to resist, and you might find your mind working overtime to produce a justification to just make this particular purchase. We often believe our future selves (even if it’s just “I’ll start on Monday”) will be more disciplined than our present self, failing to acknowledge that the struggle will feel exactly the same next week or next month.

Learning to soothe your anxiety with emotional regulation and thought management techniques is likely not nearly as fun as browsing the stores. Engaging in a hobby or learning something new to relieve boredom takes far more effort than scrolling online. When this is hard, revisit your learnings from Step One. Where shopping provides immediate pleasure and future difficulty, understand that you are now learning to tolerate short-term discomfort for long-term gain. We do hard things when it’s worth it.

Step Four: Break habit loops and change external cues

Within your triggers you may have found spending behaviours that appear to be habits set off by external cues. Perhaps there is a store or café you always pass on your lunch-break walk, or you’ve gotten into a habit of scrolling an online retailer before bed.

Changing this takes a deliberate effort to make spending more difficult and inserting a new behaviour in the same place. To make it less easy to spend – delete your saved payment information from online retailers, get a replacement debit or credit card if you’ve memorised the number, delete apps, unsubscribe from sales emails. If you can’t change your route, leave your wallet behind (and your phone or smartwatch, if you use it to pay) when you go for a walk. Create new habits in the same place, such as calling a friend or family on your break and reading before bed.

Step Five: Seek support

We tend to hide behaviours we are embarrassed about. In this case of compulsive spending, we might feel that it is a frivolous or privileged problem to have, and double-down on our shame. Instead, give yourself compassion that many people find it difficult to notice and resist the constant marketing forces that convince us to spend.

Telling someone you can trust that spending has been a problem for you can be highly motivating – just the act of saying it aloud and feeling accountable to update them on your progress with this issue can affirm your commitment to making the change.

Finances are also an area that many people do not receive helpful education about as they enter adulthood. Our behaviours with money are strongly influenced by our money beliefs, which often go unexamined. Learning to save, budget, understand and prepare for the range of sources unexpected expenses can arise from is vital for feeling financially secure. Taking the time to acquire this information and skill can support your changing relationship with money.

Left unchecked, compulsive spending can have devastating effects on a person’s financial stability, emotional wellbeing, sense of self, and relationships. However, with self-awareness, new skills and habits, and a support system in place, it is possible to overcome the urges to spend and improve your financial position. Seek first to understand yourself, acquire the necessary knowledge and internal resources, and then commit to making the changes that will build you a better future.


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