The Shameful Habit That Jeopardizes My Otherwise-Healthy Financial Life

I’m on a spending diet this month. It’s not the first time I’ve limited my spending, and it won’t be the last. The basic premise is to use what I have, and mindfully consider every purchase for the month. I have a $6 per day limit, which is very strict, and leaves almost no wiggle room. My preference is to not use it if I don’t have to. If you’re having trouble imagining what my day looks like, it goes something like this: get ready for work and bring a packed lunch, ride my bike to work and home, get home and scour the pantry to come up with a meal like pasta puttanesca, which utilizes tuna fish, canned tomatoes, and olives, or dal, an Indian dish which requires red lentils, ginger, and curry spices over rice. I spend my evenings reading e-books I bought when I was more flush, or watching streaming TV (a non-negotiable expenditure!). Weekends are more difficult because of the expanse of free time, but I’ve found that focusing on cleaning projects, going sledding in the park behind our apartment building, or inviting friends over for dinner can make the time feel like a celebration instead of a punishment.

Not shopping has been a great way to refocus myself on the whole, with one minor exception: I’m obsessed with abandoning online shopping carts. Like a dieter sniffing at the wafting plumes emanating from a nearby bakery, I find I can’t resist being in the vicinity of the stuff that got me here in the first place. The day will usually begin with enough resolve to get me through to lunch, but in that witching hour before heading home from work — say 3:30 to 5 PM — I find myself scrolling through sales and dropping items into my virtual shopping cart. I’ve spent an hour on Boden, the U.K.’s answer to J Crew, debating between flower prints for a maxi-wrap dress as though I were actually going to buy it. Slowly, the momentum builds, and I begin to drop everything my eye takes a shine to into the cart — a pair of metallic espadrilles, a striped sweater with a slightly retro feel, a velvet blazer, a fair isle sweater, three different bikini bottoms and no tops. By the time I’m satiated (or fear getting caught), my cart is usually filled with around $1,200 in items, and I feel feverish, like I’ve been cheating, or sneaking in a quickie.

I work on a notorious shopping street, and yesterday, I found myself meekly entering stores, checking out merchandise just long enough for a sales person to utter, “Can I help you?” and then scurrying out before they had a chance to say anything else.

Why does this behavior seem so soothing and so shameful at the same time? I feel like one of those lecherous old married dudes that hits on a girl, and when she notices his ring, says, “Hey babe, just because I’m on a diet, doesn’t mean I can’t look at the menu!” I am certain that all the blogs I read would tell me to light a candle, take a bath and meditate for a few minutes to clear my mind. But none of that sounds as appealing as scrolling through eight pages of Asos dresses and imagining what I’d wear on a Portuguese weekend getaway.

What’s unclear to me is this: when is something a healthy substitute, and when is it feeding a bad impulse? Unlike drug or alcohol addiction, there’s no form of modern human existence that doesn’t involve eating or shopping. Eating disorders have finally started getting coverage and support in mainstream outlets for a bit, but shopping disorders are only now becoming something we talk about.

I polled friends on this subject to try to shed some light on my own behavior. All were familiar with and guilty of virtual shopping cart abandonment. One friend mentioned the great relief she felt when she didn’t go through with the purchases. “I realized I didn’t need any of it. It was just an impulse to distract myself from something I didn’t want to deal with.” Another mentioned how riskier behavior, like entering credit card information before abandoning the purchase, led to really embarrassing emails from the company she was shopping with:

I’d get these emails reminding me that I had a full cart and the items were limited and might be gone soon. It felt like getting text messages from a guy I met while I was drunk and had no intention of actually dating. I just wanted to be like, dude, I know I messed up, now leave me alone.

Talking with friends revealed how prevalent this behavior was, and how conflicted we all felt about it. Some of the conflict I feel has to do with imagining the situation in real life. I would never go into a store and ask a salesperson to grab that many clothes for me, knowing that I would simply try them on with the intent to leave without buying anything. Online, this behavior felt victimless, but it still gave me reservations about my hunger and greed. The online cart was like the junk drawer that never gets organized, the stash of Halloween candy you keep in the back of the pantry and can’t seem to let go of; it represented something about me that was messy and secretive.

I strive to be a considerate person who takes principled actions when it comes to buying things, but I often feel trapped in a society that commodifies every impulse — even an impulse toward minimalism. I have a closet full of clothes, a warm bed, and enough money to feed myself every day. So why do I think I want more? What does the act of longing give me, and why is it so hard to give up?

I don’t have an easy answer to this question. I think it’s got something to do with the amount of fodder there is, and how easy it is to stay distracted. I also feel like women get the shorter end of this stick because we are the obsession of advertisers, and eventually they’ll hit upon the perfect formula of age, race, and education, churning out an image that’s irresistible to our consumer instincts. On the other hand, I hate to feel like a hunted animal. I truly get pleasure out of a lovely bed spread or a well made pair of shoes, or a perfect red lipstick. I don’t want to swear off those lovely things. I just don’t want to be a slave to wanting them.

Sabrina Small is a freelance writer living in Berlin with her family. Her work can also be found on Billfold.com.

Image via Unsplash

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