Compulsive Spending

Compulsive spending is a huge problem in our society today. It stems from the concept of needing to have everything and to have it all now. It’s a mindset that we’ve developed in the last century and it ties into having everything be fast, cheap, easy, and immediate.  The average consumer isn’t used to having any down time between wanting something and having it.

If I want food I can go through a drive through and get it immediately or I can have it delivered to my front door. If I want new clothes I can get online and instantly buy them. I can even order groceries online. If I decide I want to rent a movie I can do that right from my computer. If I need to know where the nearest coffee shop is right away I can easily find that on my phone.

Our society is completely built on having what we want and having it right this very second. The problem with that mindset is that along with the benefits of convenience and accessibility it also has some serious downfalls - the biggest of which is the spending that comes with this mindset, and the lack of a way to temper it. We have credit cards and electronic bank cards that allow us to access our money instantly with the touch of a keypad and there isn’t any way to stop us from the damage we do to ourselves and our bank accounts. Because of the way this mindset has affected us it has changed not only the methods we use to get what we want but how we think about getting what we want. And the problem is that sometimes we don’t think at all.

Have you ever stood in line at the grocery store and looked at the little racks of candy they set up right by the cashier for you to gaze at while you’re waiting in line? It’s not an accident that they set those there - it’s because they know the odds of you saying “Hey, why not?” and tossing a candy bar into your basket are much higher if they’re sitting there just by you. It’s a matter of convenience and of not thinking about our purchases in advance and thats where compulsive spending gets its sting.

It starts with wanting to have what we want when we want it and ends with you making drastic purchases without giving them a second thought or a moments hesitation. When you spend money randomly and without any sense of direction or planning you’re setting yourself up not only for a continuation of compulsive behavior but for big money problems down the road. Because what happens with compulsive spending is that it grows.

At first it may manifest as just throwing in an extra drink when you’re at the gas station or just one extra pair of shoes when you’re out getting some new clothes but slowly it can turn it to much larger and heftier purchases and before you know it you may be in a serious amount of debt without even having realized what you were getting yourself into.

Compulsive spending is a tricky habit that can develop at a young age. It’s also a hard one to catch because many compulsive spenders will genuinely not remember that they have spent money. Often they will simply block out the memory of having spent the money as an avoidance technique to prevent them from having to deal with the problem. It can also be difficult if you come from a family or have a group of friends that supports you in your compulsive spending.

Having a family with similar spending habits is one way that compulsive spending can develop but there are plenty of others. Some people learn it as a young age by watching the examples of others around them or by working in an environment (perhaps as a first job) where random purchases are common and often applauded - this is often found in young teenagers that have started out working in a retail clothing store. It’s not unusual to see these teenagers pouring all the money they make back into the store they work at - and employers are aware of this trend and offer discounts to make such spending seem even more lucrative. The problem with this is because they’re also working at the store they’re shopping at (and thus spending long hours there) they have more time to find purchases they want (but usually don’t need) and it increases the likelihood that they’ll spend money on random items they hadn’t intended on buying.

That right there is the essence of compulsive buying - you’re purchasing something that you had no intent of originally buying. Now if you see that peaches are on sale and remember that you’ve been meaning to make a peach pie for your neighbor who broke her ankle last week then that’s one thing. It’s not a compulsive buy because you were at some point planning on getting peaches for the pie and now you can do it at a discount. If you hadn’t been planning on making the pie it is a compulsive buy and while it may not seem like a terribly big deal, they are just peaches after all, is really is. People that make a firm list prior to going to the grocery store and stick to that list save an average of up to 23% compared to people that don’t and just buy what sounds good at the time. We all know that you aren’t supposed to go grocery shopping while you’re hungry because you’ll end up buying junk and whatever sounds good at the time. It works the same way with compulsive shopping - if you go to the store without a list you’ll end up buying whatever catches your eye and that may not always be the best for your budget (or your health in this case).

Another way compulsive shopping can manifest is through emotional shopping. This is when you’re using your debit card as a way of fixing your life and it’s problems. While it can feel good to get a new dress or a cute pair of shoes after a breakup it isn’t going to make things any better for you and in the long run you’re going to end up feeling even worse when you see the bill. This can also show up after a hard day of work - hitting the mall isn’t the answer, and shopping doesn’t ease stress, fix relationships, or make you feel better about yourself. It’s perfectly fine to treat yourself after accomplishing a big goal or to save to up for a gadget or something you really want but it isn’t alright to max out your credit cards because your boss gave you a hard time or your mother is lecturing you about your new boyfriend.

If you think you may be a compulsive shopper the first step is to become aware of the problem. You need to find out when and where you’re spending all your money and what your motivations for the spending are. If you’re going grocery shopping and your motivation is to have food in your house that’s not exactly compulsive shopping but if you’re walking past a store in the mall and see a new dress you want and buy it immediately that’s compulsive spending and it can quickly empty your bank account. So the first thing to do is start tracking your spending. Typically it’s best to do this for a month, just writing down all your purchases, when and where you bought them and most importantly - why you decided to buy them. The motivations here for your spending are what are most important. Try to be really honest with yourself about why you’re spending your money when you are. When your month is up take stock of your purchases and look for patterns.

The thing you want to pay most attention to are the purchases you didn’t budget or plan for. Surprises in life, such as buying flowers for someone who unexpectedly got sick, are one thing - randomly buying a new tv isn’t quite the same. So watch where your unexpected spending happens and once you realize where the excess spending is happening then you get to take drastic action to correct the behavior before it gets any worse.

For some people this may mean making some big life changes. It could mean not going to the mall with friends anymore, not shopping online, and even placing a restriction on how much you can withdraw from your bank account at any given time. For others it might simply mean skipping the morning coffee and brown-bagging it to lunch. For really serious situations there are support groups and meet-ups specifically for people that have a problem spending too much money or spending compulsively.

The solutions to this problem will look different for everyone and their unique situation but as long as you become aware of it and are dedicated to making the necessary life changes you’ll do just fine and should be able to overcome your compulsive spending habits.