How To Definitively Know If You Have A Shopping Problem

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I used to have a spending and shopping problem. A big one. So large that I ended up with $10,000 in credit card debt by age 21 and had to see a therapist to curb my shopping addiction. Because I’ve written so openly about my shopping problem in the past, from time to time I’ll get questions on the subject. Someone recently wrote and asked me, “Where’s the line between having fun (if you enjoy shopping) and doing it too much? How do you know if you actually have a shopping problem?”

I know that, for me, my little habit started out with me shopping before and after my shifts at my mall job, and spending close to $200/week on clothes. This was an average, but that’s close to $800/month on clothes, or $9,600/year. I took some breaks, but I remember a large part of my leisure time in college being spent shopping at the mall. And seeing as I was making $9.00 an hour at a teen clothing store, you can see how I wound up in so much debt. I don’t spend close to that much now, as a working adult with my own business.

For context, I spend around $1,800 annually on clothes and dry cleaning, which is around 2% of my salary of approximately $75K. But I think I first became fully aware of my shopping as a problem in my college days, when I realized I was returning a large portion of my items days or weeks later. And it was clear I’d gone from the occasional shopping trip, to getting my cardio in at the mall, binge-shopping. Those purchases weren’t bringing me the same joy as they used to, and I knew this, but for the life of me I just couldn’t stop shopping. It felt too good. Some argue that if you’re giving it back, it’s not as bad, but giving it back is a big “IF.” You may not return them, or you might return them, but end up with store credit, instead of cash.

If you suspect that you might have a shopping problem, here are a few telltale signs from someone who has been through all of them:

Spending more than you can afford. If you can’t pay your bills, realize you can’t pay your bills, and still continue to go to the mall or make online purchases, this is probably the biggest clue that a) you have a shopping problem and b) you can’t afford your lifestyle.

Shopping and then returning items often. Even if you bought it on sale or “got a really good deal.” We all love a good deal. But shopping isn’t truly satisfying unless you’re saving for purchases, shopping sparingly, and using what you buy.

You have a closet full of clothes (or closet full of tech gadgets  — pick your poison). And they are unused and/or still have the tags on. This shows you’re not even using what you buy.

You “shop your feelings.” I’m sure we’re all guilty of buying ourselves a little “pick me up” or “treat for working hard.” Everyone deserves a break or something special every now and again, but my point here is that if you find yourself exclusively shopping or making significant purchases when you’ve had a bad day or are upset about something, it’s probably worth it to pay attention to that behavior.

You are in a lot of credit card debt and don’t know how you got there. There is a difference between getting into a car or medical emergency and having to dip into your emergency fund, and waking up one morning in thousands of dollars of debt, scratching your head, and wondering how you got here. You can take a look in your closet at all your beautiful things, but I promise you that once you’re in a big debt hole, it will not feel like you got your money’s worth.

Despite all of this, if you feel like a lot of these signs are resonating with you, there are ways to curb your shopping habits. It takes a lot of effort, but here are some tips that I’ve used to break my own shopping addiction: 

Seek professional help (if you feel like you need it, and are able to budget for it accordingly). A therapist who specializes in addiction therapy can help you plan behaviors for coping with your problem, as well as help treat the problem that led you to try shopping as a soother in the first place.

Make a list. Every season when I am in the process of replenishing my closet, I go through and make a list of the things I am missing and truly need (tights this season, and a new pair of black pumps because I wore out my old ones). Keeping this list on hand and in mind ensures I only go to the store when I have to (as opposed to one Saturday afternoon when I am looking to kill time), and that I only spend my money when I actually need to buy something. 

Try minimalism. I keep a “one in, one out” rule for my home. I did a purge over the summer and got rid of a ton of stuff (226 items, in fact) around the house that had crept up in the corners and crevices of my home. You don’t need all that. Focusing on minimalism helps you save money for important things like your bigger financial goals and focuses your spending on quality over quantity.

Sleep on it. I usually try on something (or if I’m shopping online, put an item in my cart) and walk away without buying. Then I’ll sleep on it. If the item was just so perfect that I can’t stop thinking about it after a day or two, I know it will be a good use of my money in the long run. If I quickly forget the item, then it wasn’t worth the time or the money and I just prevented myself from having to make a return down the road or buy something that wasn’t worth the money.

Declutter your inbox. If you can’t resist the siren call of a flash sale email in your inbox, do yourself a favor and unsubscribe, or use a service (I like Unroll.me) to “roll up” all your newsletters, communications from stores and brands, and sale notifications into a once daily digest that you don’t even have to read.

If your shopping and spending behavior has caused you enough concern that you begin to ask yourself, “Do I have a problem?,” those patterns are, at the very least, worth exploring further. And If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are intrigued by the prospect of working on your spending, odds are very high that you’re already willing to make a change and that you’ll soon be able to beat this bad habit, pay down debt (if you have it), and start saving for the things that are really important to you.

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