Winter 2005 was bleak and dreary. I was single, new to a large city and occupying a sad excuse for an efficiency apartment. Christmas was nearing, and “retail therapy” wasn’t curing my solo holiday blues. It was, however, consuming the remainder of my credit limit.
My Christmas spending couldn’t fill my loneliness, of course, but I hoped the momentary thrill of buying things would satiate my deeper longing to be married.
To my surprise, shortly before Christmas Eve, I found my husband-to-be. We married soon thereafter, and I thought my days of emotional spending were over.
But immunity from the temptation of emotional spending doesn’t accompany marriage. Communication problems and unmet emotional needs that occasionally burden all marriages can leave us vulnerable to the lure of things.
The good news? Emotional spending is avoidable with a little common sense, communication and contemplation – all free and readily available.
Using scotch tape for a Band-Aid
According to the Journal of Financial Planning, many of us use spending as an ineffective emotional Band-Aid. Incidences of emotional spending range from minor (a dog lover buying puppy-printed paper towels when the cheaper, generic variety is just as absorbent) to major (a sexually neglected wife maxing out the credit card at a lingerie store). While emotional spending is usually impulsive, it can reach a compulsive level.
We succumb for a variety of reasons. In fact, you can probably conjure up a justification to spend for each of your emotions. The most common feelings that trigger spending include:
- boredom (You’re seeking entertainment.)
- depression (You’re seeking happiness.)
- stress (You’re seeking relief.)
- inadequacy (You’re seeking to better yourself.)
- ugliness (You’re seeking to beautify yourself.)
- guilt (You’re seeking to redeem yourself.)
Even positive feelings can cause us to spend (because we “deserve it” or “earned it”).
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the resources we’ve been blessed with as long as we’re debt-free, tithing and acting generously toward those who are less fortunate. But an epidemic of overindulgence has pillaged the personal finances of Americans. According to the Center for American Progress, household debt averaged 133.7 percent of disposable income in late 2007, a record high. With savings at the lowest level since the Great Depression, many consumers are relying on credit cards to pay essentials such as medical bills, car repairs and rent.
Pain and prevention
Experts recommend redirecting spending urges to activities (such as a date night with your spouse) that may meet the underlying need. I also find it helpful to pray for wisdom before I enter a store.
Here are some additional tips to consider during the Christmas season (and year-round):
“Tank up” before you head out. It’s not a good idea to grocery shop on an empty stomach; it’s an even worse idea to do shopping of any kind on an empty heart. If possible, spend some quality time with your spouse before heading out. Discuss recent stressors and desires. Better yet, bring your spouse with you and keep each other in check.
Self-audit often. Make a shopping list. If an item not on your list ends up in your cart, ask yourself, Why am I buying this? If you can’t come up with a sensible answer, you probably need to put the item back. Be sure to scan your cart again before checking out.
Ask yourself if you can do better. Is there a less expensive version of the item you just chose? It might not appear as attractive, but you’ll leave the store with more money in your wallet.
Describe the product in your own words. The shampoo says it’s “degunkifying,” a “fusion” of “icy pineapple” with a special “tingling potion.” Really? Or is it room-temperature, pineapple-scented shampoo? Look for a product of similar quality with a cheaper price.
Get the real thing. Ask yourself, What am I really trying to buy? Will a cart full of binders, day planners and gel pens really help you become more organized, or do you just need to become more disciplined using the supplies you have at home? Do you really need to shell out a small fortune in the latest mineral makeup, or would telling your husband you’d like more attention serve the same purpose? The real answer is often cheaper, more effective and more fulfilling.
Carefully consider if you’re looking to retail therapy for deeper answers. Are you shopping with your head – or shopping with your heart?
Erin Prater, her husband and her vast coupon collection live in Pueblo, Colorado.