Compulsive Spending 101: Steps to Stop

Crystal Jackson

If the delivery truck keeps rolling up to your house, this is for you
Is your spending out of control?Photo by Vanessa Murrieta on Unsplash

At a certain point, the delivery truck pulling up brings shame, not excitement. I’m not sure when the shift happened. A pile of precariously stacked boxes on my doorstep used to bring a feeling of near euphoria. I would open them eagerly, each one an individual pleasure.

At the start of the pandemic, shopping this way was the responsible thing to do. I was staying out of stores. I was sourcing what I needed without endangering myself or anyone else. So what if some of my purchases were wants rather than needs? The world was shut down, and it seemed a small thing to find pleasure in simple purchases. It was self-care.

Until it wasn’t.

I don’t regret the towel warmer. I’ll never regret that. It was a cozy hug I couldn’t source from people outside my household. But did I need the hot water bottles? In Georgia?? Did I need a salad spinner? A year-long subscription to dog treats?

I went from being a careful saver to a big spender. I would whisper “self-care” as I lugged package after package over my threshold. I used the words “pandemic” and “global crisis” like mantras to justify my reckless spending.

COVID-19 and Compulsive Spending

I know I’m not alone. A study published in The Journal of Behavioral Addiction found that compulsive buying increased during the first 6 months of the pandemic. While higher-income households showed increased spending during the pandemic, lower-income households had the greatest increase in compulsive online shopping. The determining factor in how much you shopped online? Distress.

Ongoing emotional distress can lead to shopping addiction. For many of us, the effects of quarantine, job and financial uncertainty, and the ever-present threat of contagion and illness created the perfect storm.

I wanted to stop spending, but I had actual needs — and far too many wants. I watched my savings dip low and my anxiety spike high. This had to stop.

I needed to treat this like I treat my physical health and nutrition. I know an overly restrictive diet doesn’t have good long-term results. I know that excessive exercise can be just as unhealthy as a sedentary lifestyle. I needed balance and moderation. I didn’t need the comfort of shopping anymore. I needed the comfort of a healthy emergency savings account.

How to Know if You Have a Spending Problem

Your stress is probably the first clue that you have a spending problem. But there are other signs that your shopping habits have crossed the line from harmless spending to compulsive and addictive behavior.

  • You run out of money before the month is over.
  • You have a balance carrying over on your credit cards each month.
  • Your debt exceeds your assets.
  • You cannot pay all your bills each month.
  • Your debt grows, but your savings doesn’t.
  • You feel stressed about finances.
  • You keep saying you need to stop spending — and keep spending anyway.

How to Get Your Finances Under Control

Like any addictive behavior, quitting isn’t easy. The urge to spend and the emotional experience of making a purchase combine to create a dangerous spending pattern. An article in Forbes magazine offers a few suggestions for how to get back on track.

  • Review your budget and cut back on recurring subscription costs.
  • Shop around for cheaper insurance rates.
  • Cancel cable television and opt for a less expensive streaming option.
  • Use the library to check out digital, audio, and print books. A library is also a great option for borrowing movies if you decide to opt-out of all cable and streaming services.
  • Stop eating out.
  • Drink more water rather than purchasing sodas or other beverages.
  • Don’t grocery shop while hungry.
To truly change your saving and spending habits, you’ll need to exercise self-control when it comes to finances. Keep in mind that behavioral addiction is still an addiction. You’ll need to manage it accordingly. Don’t assume you can quit cold turkey and do it alone. You’ll need to create new patterns for spending and saving and new lifestyle habits that help support your goals.

As a former addiction counselor, I know that it takes more than words to create change. Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step. If you’re like me, you’ve been acknowledging the problem for a while without actually taking steps to fix it. That has to change.

Healthy Habits to Reduce Spending and Increase Saving

Researchers found that the following financial habits can help reduce spending and increase saving.

  1. Use a shopping list for all purchases.
  2. Set specific savings goals.
  3. Shop sales for necessary items to find the best deals, but don’t shop sales simply to find bargains on items that aren’t on your list.
  4. DIY — make your own lunch and coffee and take care of your own repairs when possible.
  5. Set up automatic deductions for bill pay and savings.
  6. Track your spending for better accountability.
  7. Make your money harder to access by not carrying credit cards, making purchases with cash, or having a savings account that’s not accessible from the ATM.
  8. Decide if it’s a need or want.
  9. Pause before purchasing — allow yourself time to consider the decision and avoid impulse buys.
  10. Designate an accountability buddy who will encourage you to stick to your financial goals.
  11. Think about how much the purchase costs in terms of time needed to earn back that money.
  12. Save before spending.
  13. Use rewards to motivate your habits (treating yourself to an item only after you’ve saved a certain amount).
  14. Pay now rather than opting to pay later.
  15. Use a retirement savings projection plan for future financial planning.

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

I’ve personally noticed that it’s important for me to limit the time I spend on shopping sites. Window shopping isn’t harmless when it usually leads to impulse purchases. Instead of spending my free time online looking at things I want, I try to make better use of my time by completing a household task, reading a book or article, or distracting myself from the need to browse Amazon or Etsy.

Just like with diet and exercise, an all-or-nothing plan isn’t the best idea for long-term results. You don’t need to stop fiscal binging and switch to fiscal fasting. Instead, it’s important to begin to take small steps to change your financial habits.

Spending less, saving more, and trying to change shopping behaviors no matter how many times you mess up are all important parts of recovering from behavioral addiction.

Your Financial Health — A Summary

You only live once. This is sometimes our justification for digging an even deeper hole for ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be.

You only live once so don’t let that one lifetime be spent drowning in stress and debt.
You only live once so you deserve a savings account to cover life’s emergencies.
You only live once so you deserve to breathe a little easier each month even if the riches you accumulate in life have everything to do with love and gratitude and nothing at all to do with money.

You only live once. So, do what takes the stress off yourself today. Make the coffee at home and mentally add that $5 macchiato to your vacation savings. Skip the impulse order and mentally order the margarita you’ll be able to later afford with it. Mind your emotional and mental health since distress is linked directly to increased spending.

Shopping addiction can feel overwhelming, but recovery is possible. Build the life you want with every single intentional move toward a healthier, happier financial future.

Originally published on Medium

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails:

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