All it took was a pandemic to put me right back where I was fifteen years ago. I was twenty-six years and drowning in debt. I wondered why I was always broke. I made enough money to pay my bills. I wasn’t living above my means, and yet I lived paycheck to paycheck. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong, and I felt like a failure.
I did what all the money gurus said to do. I paid myself first. I put a portion of my salary into a savings account each month, and then I paid all of my bills on time. Whenever I got a tax refund or a bonus, I paid down my student loans and credit card debt. But somehow I never managed to keep my head above water. I came to the conclusion that that’s how everyone must live instead of getting to the root of the problem that was staring me in the face from my doorstep.
I was a compulsive shopper.
You’ve probably seen the meme that circulates every year around the holidays. It makes a joke about all the packages that arrive from Amazon. But that was my everyday life. I was on a first-name basis with my UPS driver. I knew all about his family, and he knew mine by name because he came to my house so much. I didn’t see it as a problem until a conversation with my husband.
I had just received an email about a sale from a store I frequently shopped. I immediately went to the website to find something to buy. They were having a clearance sale and surely I “needed” something. When my spouse asked me what I was doing, he responded with, “You could save 100% of your money if you don’t buy anything.”
It had honestly never occurred to me to just delete the email and move on. I followed his advice, but in the days following, it bothered me that I didn’t buy anything, and eventually, I became depressed. It was then that I knew I had a problem.
I am a compulsive shopper and I always will be because it’s an addiction.
Compulsive shopping is a habit. It’s an unhealthy obsession with shopping. Most of the time, I buy things that I don’t want or need only to throw them away later. I didn’t know how bad of a problem it was until I realized that I would shop and hide the things that I bought from my spouse so he wouldn’t see that I spent money again. When you’re at the point that you’re hiding what you purchase and it isn’t because it’s a surprise gift for the person, you know you have a problem.
My spending was so out of control that I was buying things more than once because I had so much stuff that I didn’t know that I had it already. When I had kids, it only got worse because then I could use the excuse of it’s for the kids. Kids always need something, but eventually, they wound up with more clothes than they could wear and more toys than they could play with.
We had zero in savings because we were consistently using it to pay our bills. If I didn’t get my spending habits under control, we were never going to get out of debt and be able to stop renting.
I felt guilty and ashamed. I hated myself. Those feelings led to more spending to make myself feel better. It was that high that came from buying something that I wanted and then the anticipation in waiting for it to arrive. Once I got it, the thrill was gone, and I would put it away with all the other stuff I bought and never used. Or stick it on the bookshelf amongst all the other books I’ve never read. I didn’t think I would ever get out from under it.
And then we were broke.
Instead of searching for things to buy on Amazon, I looked for ways to stop my spending and save money. I stumbled across an article in Psychology Today that discussed emotional spending and how to stop it.
I didn’t want to believe that I was a compulsive shopper, but I was and still am. Like any addiction, it is always with you. There’s always that void that makes me feel like I need to buy stuff. Whenever I’m sad, or angry, or even depressed, I know I’m at risk of binge shopping.
But I got it under control and lived debt free for a decade. I stopped using credit cards and only bought what I needed. In those ten years, we built a house and went on amazing vacations because we now had the extra money to do so.
It wasn’t a big surprise to me that I fell down that rabbit hole again when the pandemic started. At first, it was just shopping for things that I needed, items they were out of at the store. Buying ten containers of Mucinex was okay because we were in quarantine and who knew what was going to happen. But no one needs ten cartons of Mucinex or four boxes of Theraflu.
The slide back into emotional spending happened so fast that before I knew it, I was three months into living paycheck to paycheck again and all that same shame and guilt came flooding back.
I had to revisit the person I was fifteen years ago and start all over again to change the habit.
I started with my email. I unsubscribed from all my store emails. I love a good sale and can not resist the pull of it. If it’s out of sight, it’s most definitely out of my mind. On any given day, it’s easy for me to get over a hundred promotional emails. Once that was completed, I moved on to step two, which is to stop spending.
I stick to the rule of if it’s not gas for my car or food, I don’t buy it. This ultimately leads to me eating out a lot because food is my second vice. But I shut that down by making the rule that I can only eat out on the weekend, and only once.
Once I got into the routine of not spending the money from my checking account, and I’ve purged all my emails. I feel strong enough to tackle the biggest and hardest hurdle, credit cards.
I don’t know why I carry the belief that if I buy it on credit, it’s somehow better than spending cash. It is the same thing only worse because now you’re paying interest on it. I used to have a store credit card for every store that would give me one. But one by one, I paid them off and then cut them up or closed the account. I began the herculean task of paying down my amassed credit card debt. Some of the items I was still paying for, I didn’t even have.
Once I started down the road to coming back from the havoc I caused to my finances, I could begin to deal with the issues that put me there in the first place. Anxiety and anger are the biggest culprits.
I can’t do anything about the current state of affairs in this country, but I can change the way I’m dealing with it.
I started exercising when I’m angry. Lifting weights keeps me from going on an Amazon shopping spree. When I’m anxious, I go for a walk, or I watch TV. Gardening is another hobby I’ve picked up that helps keep my brain occupied and my hands out of trouble.
Now when I’m bored and start to scroll online, I put stuff in my cart or on a wish list. Wish lists are my favorite thing because most often, items go there to die. I allow myself to purchase one unneeded item every paycheck as my reward for not overspending. It’s rare for me to go back to that wish list to buy anything because it’s usually put there on impulse and not out of necessity. The little rewards help me feel like I’m not punishing myself, but it doesn’t curb the appetite for more.
Sometimes I feel like I just shouldn’t spend money at all.
I just can’t Marie Kondo my feelings away because everything I hold feels like it’s needed and wanted. If I pick it up, I’m usually going to buy it. If I’m in a store, I feel like I have to purchase something. Only 100% avoidance works for me. I’ll even binge buy groceries if that’s the only thing I’m allowed to buy. I throw away more expired impulse bought food than I would care to admit. And all of that just fuels the shame and guilt I have over it. If I’m not careful about where I channel those feelings, it can start the cycle over again.
I don’t think I’ll ever be free of my addiction to shopping. I try to work at it every day to keep it in check, knowing that the harder I work at it, the better off my finances will be. But the urge is always there, waiting for me to let my guard down and give in to it. Knowing my triggers and finding a way to channel it away from pocketbook is my only defense.