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No wonder shopping is called “retail therapy.” The attention of a cheerful salesperson, the reassuring feeling of walking out with that irresistible purchase – it’s calming and exciting at once. Sure, it’s another charge on your credit card, but what’s wrong with a little impulse spending after a frustrating day at the office or a fight with your spouse?

Plenty, say experts. Though it’s often dismissed with dry humor (“Shop ’til you drop,” “He who dies with the most toys wins”), overboard shopping can be just as unhealthy as excessive gambling when used to avoid or compensate for intense feelings.

“When people go shopping because they’re excited, depressed or angry, it’s very easy for them to buy things they can’t afford, don’t need or don’t even want,” says Olivia Mellan, PhD, a Washington, D.C.–based psycho-therapist and author of Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and Their Partners. “It gives people a way to avoid what’s going on.”

Mellan reasons that emotion-based shopping is partly fueled by our consumption culture, with its inherent messaging about the emotional value of possessions. Look no further, she says, than the commercials that declare, “Because you’re worth it!” or the bumper sticker that quips, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!” Mix that cultural stew with disposable income and the multimillion-dollar credit-card industry, and it’s easy to see how Americans racked up more than $800 billion on plastic in 2005 alone.

There is some evidence that shopping’s allure is partly biological. Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Kentucky in Lexington found that shopping causes dopamine to surge in the brain, creating a pleasurable feeling not unlike a drug high. Mellan, a recovering overspender, attests to shopping’s mood-boosting powers. “To me, it always felt like this wonderful tidal wave. That is, until I got home and reality set in.”

Debt is emotional shopping’s most material consequence, though health, sleep and marital problems can often follow. Debt-Proof Living syndicated columnist Mary Hunt writes about excessive spending from experience: She charged up $100,000 before confronting a mounting stack of bills and a marriage punctuated by fighting and emotional withdrawal. “I trusted Visa and MasterCard much more than I trusted [my husband],” she reflects.

The turning point came when Hunt found that she had no more options – no more credit, and no more excuses. She developed a strategy of saving a little and giving away a little each time she got paid. “Giving quieted my insatiable desires, saving quieted my inner fears,” she says. Since then, her 80-10-10 principle has become one of the rallying cries of her column: Give 10 percent away, save 10 percent and live on the rest.

Though Hunt’s situation is extreme, problem spending affects millions of Americans. April Lane Benson, PhD, a New York City psychologist and author of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self, cites in her book that perhaps as many as “15 million Americans have little control over how much they spend or what they buy,” and up to a quarter of the population might have “a compelling need to purchase that is not self-destructive, but may become so.”

Spending Surveillance

The good news is that awareness of your impulses can dramatically renovate your shopping habits. Benson suggests keeping a “shopping diary” to record your moods each time you shop. Once you have a grasp of which emotional triggers fuel your desire to spend (stress, boredom, etc.), you’ll be better equipped to deal with those emotions in a healthy way.

“If you’re feeling low, call a friend, go on a bike ride, do something fun, get active,” says Benson. “If you’re feeling mad at your spouse, take the time to work it out. Find ways to react to life’s highs and lows without spending money.” Another strategy is to make a pro-and-con list each time you want to buy something that costs more than $20. Reasoning out each purchase will help you slow down your spending. After all, marketers know that the more time you spend thinking about a purchase, the less likely you are to buy. (Ever wonder why retailers love one-day sales?)

Jon Grant, MD, codirector of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry in Minneapolis and coauthor of Stop Me Because I Can’t Stop Myself: Taking Control of Impulsive Behavior, says once you start examining your emotional impulses, you might discover that you trend toward products you associate with comfort. Mellan, for instance, says her mother showed her love with new clothes, so naturally when she needed to feel love as an adult, she headed straight for the clothing department. Mellan’s spending was more about filling a void than filling a closet – and by identifying her feelings she helped curb her destructive spending habits.

Seeing Beyond Stuff

As you work to make peace with your emotional money habits, you’re likely to encounter some challenging situations – like shopping trips with wealthier friends. It’s fine to bow out of such temptations, says Benson. Or, better yet, suggest a healthier outing like a trip to a museum, or a picnic.

The approaching holiday season is an especially sticky time for emotional shoppers. According to a 2005 poll by the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit organization that encourages Americans to consume responsibly, 59 percent of the 500 people surveyed reported significant credit-card debt as a result of holiday shopping. “Remember, you’re not competing with anyone, and what you buy says absolutely nothing about the kind of person you are,” says Benson.

She recommends making a list of people you want to shop for and the amount you can spend on each without relying on credit cards. Once you’ve finished, ask yourself how likely it is that you will follow through with that plan. If you’re not confident, give yourself more margin by revising the list to include less expensive gifts, fewer recipients, or both.

Grant and Mellan recommend telling a friend about your plan to be a conscientious consumer, and enlist him or her as a shopping buddy. Or, scrap shopping altogether and try the personal approach: Bake, write meaningful notes, assemble photo books, or offer the gift of your time and talents.

Whatever your strategy, consciousness is key. Once you’ve identified your emotional triggers, you’ll be prepared to stare down those seemingly irresistible purchases. Then comes the fun part: building a more rewarding life centered on people, not things. “There are so many wonderful ways to fill up on life,” says Benson. “Buying stuff isn’t one of them.”

What Are You Shopping For?

Learn to recognize emotional shopping triggers, and you’ll be on your way to a lifestyle that indulges your soul, not your shopping cart.

Fulfillment. Do you feel like you’re drifting through the days? Do you feel lonely? For long-term happiness, stop patching the void with possessions. Seek out real people and meaningful interaction.

Start today: Join a book club or bowling league; take a cooking or pilates class; tutor a disadvantaged kid. If you’re going to spend money, consider spending it on a life coach who will help you reclaim your sense of purpose.

Validation. Do you buy the latest hot-ticket items so people will see you as a success? Do you buy expensive gifts that you can’t afford? It’s time to get off that materialism merry-go-round.

Start today: Join a volunteer group and reap the emotional riches of giving something back to your community.

Revenge. Does fighting with your spouse send you shopping? Before giving in to reckless spending, consider that shopping is a decisive act. Might your feelings, and your desire for revenge, stem from feeling a lack of control?

Start today: Discuss your impulses with your partner, and sort out a better strategy for getting what you need!

Rewards. You put up with a lot. You work a lot. And with all that stress, it’s easy to feel entitled to a treat. But before you indulge, look for more-effective ways to ease your stress. Is it time to look for a new job? Do you need more help at home?

Start today: Give yourself a pick-me-up instead of a possession. Eliminate an annoyance, take a walk or soak in a bath with a book you’ve been meaning to read.

Excitement. Need a little zip in your life? Don’t troll the mall waiting for the urge to shop – do something that will challenge you.

Start today: Take up rock climbing, gardening, a craft, a community education class – anything! Don’t make self-imposed boredom your excuse for mindless shopping.

This article originally appeared as “The Urge to Splurge” in the December 2006 issue of Experience Life.

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