Money & Career

Emotional Arithmetic: What Experts say about Emotional Spending

Emotional Arithmetic: What Experts say about Emotional Spending

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Money & Career

Emotional Arithmetic: What Experts say about Emotional Spending

Pressing that Add to Cart button when you’re feeling down can lead to more than just new boxes on your doorstep.

Some people measure their level of anxiety and depression using questionnaires—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken the Beck Depression Inventory. (It, in itself, is depressing.) Some gauge their feelings based on their withdrawal from all things social; others can tell they’re in a rough patch based on physical symptoms (upset stomach, tightening muscles, etc.). Then there are those of us who assess our state of mental health using the not-super-scientific credit card method—that is to say, I know how sad and worried I’ve been feeling when my Visa is maxed on online purchases made in the wee hours from the comfort of my bed.

Heather Oliver-Hamilton seconds that system. The 46-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., is recently separated after an 18-year marriage (and a 23-year relationship that saw the birth of three kids and the death of one). Oliver-Hamilton says she finds herself spending money on her new home when she’s particularly down in the dumps. “The nights when my ex sends me a horrible email or I don’t have my kids—those are the times I just want to shop. Buying new things makes me feel like I’m in control when my life feels anything but,” she says. “Shopping has helped me through this huge transition to divorced woman and single mom.”

This is actually a thing. There are psychological reasons for this habit of buying things that, ahem, I may or may not need (usually the latter). The good news for me is that I’ve identified the pattern (feel hopelessly depressed, shop, feel euphoria at checkout, receive packages, excitedly open packages, feel depressed). The not-so-awesome news, however, is that I don’t know how to quit my expensive coping mechanism because—stop me if you’ve heard this—retail therapy is real.

When I ask (read: confess to) Marianna Golts, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital (who’s, full-disclosure, my psychiatrist), she assures me no one is capable of always making rational decisions—we are emotional beings. “So, when someone is depressed, stressed or experiencing negative emotions, buying something can bring temporary relief. But the relief is short-lived, which may leave you feeling guilty about spending in the first place, which then leads to more negative emotions and more spending.”

Sadness is also linked to feeling a lack of control, and one study published in 2014 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that shopping is very effective when it comes to restoring that power when so many things feel uncontrollable. Another study, this one published in Psychology and Marketing, reported our crummy moods can help convince us that not only will buying that new jumpsuit, pair of flats, aromatherapy kit, two throw pillows and four books (all purchases I’ve made on my mobile in the last 24 hours) make us feel better, but that we genuinely deserve the happiness, too. (It also found folks in miserable moods were likely to spend more on things rather than experiences, thanks to the instant gratification.)

“Spending money is like taking medicine for some of us—it can help us feel good,” says Dr. Moira Somers, a Winnipeg-based clinical psychologist and author of Advice that Sticks: How to Give Financial Advice that People Will Follow. “It’s also a distraction—instead of dealing with painful emotions head-on, finding the trigger, leaning into it and letting it pass, we numb ourselves and dull the pain with our credit cards.” Emotional shopping, emotional eating, emotional gambling—name your poison. “There’s controversy about what constitutes an actual addiction, but we know that when we hit that high we get a hit of the feel-good chemical dopamine—it’s anticipatory pleasure and gratification,” she says.

That’s all well and good, but how do you know if sensitive spending is becoming a problem, and how do you stop doing it? Dr. Somers says you need to sit up and pay attention if you find yourself noticing any of these telltale signs: buying and not using (some of her clients don’t even open their parcels— they order online, get the package and store the box); hiding and lying about purchases; fighting with your spouse about expenditures; credit card debt and depleted bank accounts; and buying even when you’ve run out of space for your items. (Check, check and check.) As for putting the brakes on incessant emotional purchases, it might seem daunting to us big spenders, but there are ways to squash the habit slowly. Here’s what the experts suggest.


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Expert Tips to Avoid Emotional Spending

1. Turn off one-click shopping

There are four sites I can think of off the top of my head that store my Visa details. All I have to do when I’m scrolling through pretty home decor items, clothes and kids' stuff is punch in my three-digit CVV number and—poof—transaction approved. Dr. Somers says turning off this so-called handy-dandy feature is one of the best things you can do to put some distance between your fingers and that Place Your Order button.


2. Unsubscribe to retail emails

This morning I received 22 emails from stores pushing weekend sales. "With shopping site algorithms, we get targeted emails suggesting items we might want based on previous purchases,” explains Lynne Triffon, a certified financial planner in Vancouver. “Unsubscribing from these emails may help limit temptation.”


3. Wait it out

Dr. Somers advises adding “20 or 30 seconds of friction between you and the behaviour you don’t want to engage in—there’s a better chance you’ll be able to resist if you take those few seconds to consider before acting.” Triffon pushes the window to 24 hours before going through with an online purchase. “This ensures you carefully consider whether it’s a need or a want.”


4. Look for a healthier option

Put your phone down. Leave the mall. Go for a walk, journal, have a nap, do a sudoku, watch Netflix and chill. Anything to take the place of spending. (If you find yourself swapping shopping with gambling, overeating, drinking or doing other unhealthy activities, speak to your health-care provider.)


5. Treat the underlying issue 

“Cognitive behaviour therapy can be adapted to any problematic behaviour—even emotional spending,” says Golts. “It would allow someone to identify and challenge the thoughts that lead to undesirable activities like shopping.” Working with a therapist to identify cognitive distortions or automatic thoughts you have about shopping, then examining the implications—the havoc wreaked on your bank account, the impact spending has on short- and long-term financial goals—can help you try to avoid triggers.


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Money & Career

Emotional Arithmetic: What Experts say about Emotional Spending