A woman approached me recently after a talk I had given on the psychology of money, and asked the following question: “If I know I’m engaging in retail therapy and have it named, does this make it conscious spending?” At first, I gave her credit for recognizing that she was spending money to feel better. But as we talked, I began to sense that a degree of semantic acrobatics might be involved.
Could it be that she was naming the behavior in order to give herself permission to indulge in spending money that she wouldn’t have otherwise? It also came out that she had a rather impressive shoe collection, which led me to suspect that her shopping behavior might be a way to escape negative feelings, and that unconscious emotions could be at work. She would decide she “needed” some retail therapy and would go shopping, but that’s where the conscious part seems to end.
Ever find yourself in a similar situation? The next time you have the itch to shop, use these steps to help make more conscious choices.
The Self Check-In
Retail therapy may be an attempt to numb or avoid acknowledging certain feelings. I suggest that before you shop — stop. Pause, sit quietly, and reflect. Notice your breathing. Is it shallow and fast? Scan your body for areas of tension. Deepen and slow your breathing as you tune in to what you’re feeling. Has stress prompted an urge to shop? This kind of self-therapy may provide an alternative to retail therapy.
If you’re experiencing anxiety about an issue in your life, shopping may be your reflex escape mechanism. This self check-in allows you to be open with your feelings, and recognize and label them if possible. Once we’ve identified our feelings of anxiety they tend to lose some of their power over us. Here are a few tips to make your self check-in more effective:
1. Acknowledge and label your feelings. It can be difficult to resist the lure of shopping. Our culture is permeated with messages designed to make us want more, newer, and better things. You could be spending because you felt deprived as a child, or it could remind you of that special bond you felt when you shopped with your mother. Shopping can also bolster how we feel about ourselves and be a way of avoiding issues and feelings that need to be acknowledged. Or, you could just be having fun! Allow the self check-ins to be the quiet opportunity to explore what is driving your desire to spend.
2. Spend in a positive way. Spending as a reward can be positive and suggests honoring yourself for a job well done. Just make sure the reward is comparable with the effort put into the accomplishment and beware of overcompensating.
3. Be aware of your priorities. I wanted to help the woman at my talk view her spending in the larger context of her financial life. Just recognizing that she was doing retail therapy did not address the broader issues of defining her financial priorities. The ultimate goal with money needs to be identifying and funding those things that matter most to you to live a fulfilling and satisfying life. This starts with being clear on values and priorities. If dressing well ranks among your top 10 priorities, yet the amount you’re spending on clothes means that more important goals are neglected, then the issue needs to be addressed. By looking at the larger picture, you can decide how much to allocate for those therapeutic shopping trips.
Doing a self check-in and acknowledging your feelings helps you remain in a conscious decision-making mode. Going through the process to establish a healthy and appropriate amount to spend is a loving act of financial self-care. I promise this will be more satisfying and fulfilling than a new pair of Jimmy Choos!
Jeffrey Stoffer is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.