September 17, 2021

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Why some of us have turned to compulsive shopping (and how to stop)

7 min read

We’re more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept most Americans homebound over the past dozen or so months – and often in our sweatpants (or athleisure in my case).

And after that long a stretch spent in oversized vacation tees and Nike leggings so I can transition from work to working out, I’m actually not sure what my style is anymore. But that hasn’t stopped me from continuing to order new clothes that could be worn out to the bar or to a party despite my lack of plans – and in a small studio apartment with closet space filled to the brim, I certainly don’t need more options.

But the problem goes beyond buying. I’m shopping incessantly – mostly online –aimlessly filling my online carts with items at Nordstrom, Tory Burch and Free People that I know I’m not likely to buy unless I decide to splurge.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t a lover of shopping or “window shopping” before, but during the pandemic I reached a new level.

So why do I keep it up? Is it because adding sale items to my Urban Outfitters’ online cart once a week could really help me find a great deal? Or that I’m dreaming of post-pandemic activities for which I can dress up? Or is it because a trip to Marshall’s now feels like an adventure?

I asked an expert to help me sort it out.

Have your shopping habits changed during the pandemic? We’d love to hear from you.

Items USA TODAY writer Morgan Hines has purchased but not yet worn during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Items USA TODAY writer Morgan Hines has purchased but not yet worn during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s the psychology behind why I keep buying more?

Carrie Rattle, founder and CEO of Behavioral Cents LLC and Stopping Overshopping, explained that there are many reasons for overshopping.

“I am seeing more people overshopping during COVID,” she said, noting this could be happening due to a number of emotional reasons.

One is simply boredom – which certainly could have prompted my desire for, you know, a certain turquoise jelly handbag.

But some of the emotional reasons to shop compulsively run deeper.

“Impulsive shopping is what most of us would do,” Rattle said, nodding to that random, split-second-decision purchase that people make that they may not be able to afford. “Compulsive shopping – that is an emotion that some people just can’t bear.”

People become compulsive shoppers when they use shopping as a coping mechanism to distract themselves.

“Usually at some point in their life, shopping was a positive thing,” Rattle said, adding that that kind of memory makes it a pleasant coping mechanism.

Over time, if people continue to shop to cope, it becomes a habit. So, if people are shopping more to help deal with pandemic-related emotions, they won’t necessarily stop when the pandemic ends.

“If you think about COVID and everything people are experiencing – for some it might be sheer fear and continuing need for survival – they may be short on finances, and yet they’re still shopping,” Rattle said. “Sometimes that’s an emotion where they are just trying to take control of something, anything.”

Stocking up on a certain product can give someone a sense of control, for instance.

Fear isn’t the only inspiration for shopping coping. Stress can prompt it, too. Instead of shopping to gain control, people might shop to escape their daily lives.

“It’s like checking out of real (life) into a fantasy world,” Rattle said.

A loss or lack of self-worth is another reason people tend to start shopping more.

So, people will shop to try to build their self-esteem back up. They may be fantasizing about how a certain suit or dress or pair of shoes would look at work someday.

And anxiety and depression, too, can be a trigger for more shopping. Shopping can provide a kind of a high from a dopamine rush that someone dealing with those kinds of struggles could seek out.

“There are a lot of different reasons people will seek shopping to help with an emotion they’re just absolutely uncomfortable with,” Rattle said.

Rattle also noted not all compulsive shoppers actually buy items they’re looking at; instead, they may incessantly browse.

Why can it be dangerous to overshop?

Compulsive shopping can be damaging in a few ways, according to Rattle.

“As overshopping becomes more of a coping mechanism, finances begin a downward spiral,” she said. “Only minimums are paid on credit cards, more credit cards are opened, then a home is refinanced to pay off the cards, only to charge purchases on them again.”

Even people who have enough wealth to afford their spending can erode future opportunities by compulsively shopping.

But it goes beyond finances, according to Rattle.

“As that same overshopper seeks solace in shopping, they slowly lose touch with friends, sever or damage relationships and may lose both self-respect as well as the respect of others,” she said. “Their life shrinks as healthy alternatives are cast aside.”

I’m not the only one who’s upped my shopping

According to research from J.P. Morgan, I’m not the only one who has increased my online shopping. During the second quarter of 2020, e-commerce increased by 31.8% quarter over quarter, J.P. Morgan said, citing the U.S. Census Bureau.

That said, that rise could also be related to people choosing to shop online to avoid entering shopping facilities during a global pandemic. COVID-related “panic buying” also resulted in a rise in purchases of certain items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, among other personal care items, according to J.P. Morgan.

“In the data … you could see flat growth followed by a huge spike – double digit growth. That is very rare for this industry and was totally prompted by the lockdown and the fact that people couldn’t get out,” Celine Pannuti, head of European staples and beverages research at J.P. Morgan, said in the November report.

‘A lifeline’: As sales vanished amid the pandemic, here’s how small businesses shifted to Amazon, Etsy to survive

Pannuti added that panic buying has been normalized given the uncertainty.

Rattle said she’s seen an increase in compulsive shopping on the whole as more patients trickle into her practice. Typically, 50% of her clientele are compulsive shoppers. But Rattle is seeing shoppers reach out for assistance more than ever before.

How do we stop?

If you feel like you’re overshopping online (ahem, motions to self), there are methods Rattle recommends to slow down during your race to the checkout.

“First of all, to start, do what I refer to as the ‘PC pushback’ – it’s like pushing back from the table; you don’t have seconds,” Rattle said. “When you start seeing yourself going to that (store) tab, … the more you put the pause between your need and your action, the more you’re going to break the cycle of this habit.”

Rattle gives her clients a series of questions to pose to to themselves when they might shop compulsively.

  • Why am I here?

  • How do I feel?

  • Do I need this?

  • What if I wait?

  • How will I pay for it ?

  • Where will I put it?

A lot of addressing overshopping habits is introspective, Rattle said. “What is your emotional need, and what are your alternatives?”

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I can unload my cart now

USA TODAY reporter Morgan Hines' Free People online cart is a wish list of sorts.

USA TODAY reporter Morgan Hines’ Free People online cart is a wish list of sorts.

If I step back and really think about my own needs, no, I don’t want to buy that dress on sale at Zara for party plans I don’t have, especially while I have a closet full of clothes that have been patiently waiting to be worn for the last year. And perhaps, when I experience boredom or an emotion that might prompt me to shop, I can go for a walk instead.

But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up my love of clothes and accessories; I’m just shifting my focus to it when it’s actually a need.

Thinking about what Rattle explained, I realized that most of my shopping is aimless. I really do open the websites for my favorite stores to check for sales when I am bored or watching television. And it doesn’t stop there – even when I’m scrolling Instagram, I’m saving posts with outfits I like or other material goods, such as furniture.

But, since my conversation with Rattle, I have asked myself the questions she posed, and often the answer is “no, I don’t need this,” and sometimes it’s “no, I don’t have the money or space for this.” The questions have forced me to reconsider and, in many cases, to exit the browser or put my computer away entirely to enjoy whatever is going on in the moment.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Buy online, but be careful lest shopping becomes a COVID compulsion

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