Shopping can be like an orgasm: Making a purchase releases dopamine, the same brain chemical that’s released during sex. No wonder why I'd leave a store on a high.
For most of my adult life, I've been addicted to shopping, but I reached rock bottom a few years ago. I was stressed out from working long hours at a job I didn’t love, dating men who are best described as players, and avoiding healing trauma from emotional abuse in my childhood. Buying something beautiful was a quick way to relieve the worry and pain in my life. I was chasing the high of feeling good.
I wasn't much of an impulse shopper. I'd envision an outfit or an item, revisit it online or in the store, and then finally commit with my credit card. The more I obsessed over an item, the sweeter that “purchase high” felt. Post-purchase, I'd go home, open the bag, pull back the tissue paper and revel in the item I coveted. I'd lovingly touch my new Isabel Marant dress, Céline tote, or pair of Manolos for a few days. But once I started using what I’d bought, my fascination would fade, and I'd move on to the next shiny thing. This is what it's like to have a shopping addiction: always searching for your next hit.
I valued the items I bought more than I valued money, so I didn't pay much attention to my collection of bills. I always paid the minimum, and sometimes more, on time. I often received balance raises and a kept a high credit score. I looked at each bill payment as making space on my credit card for more buying. I simply dismissed my debt as something to worry about when I was older. I'd pay it off when I made more money, I thought. I did not know how much I owed.
But it all changed after a layoff from my six-figure job at an advertising agency. As I looked at my severance, unemployment payments, savings, and bills, it became clear that I needed to stop shopping. The price of my fashion obsession was $40,000 — a car, a salary, a down payment for a home, or part of an education. And now I had no income to start paying it back.
I panicked. I applied to every job I found, but despite scoring lots of interviews, I didn’t get any offers because we were in the depths of an economic downturn. I had to find another way.
I was too old to sell my eggs and not in good enough shape to strip. Prostitution would be way too illegal — and gross. For even 30 seconds, these possibilities (on paper) seemed more appealing than selling my fashion collection. But in reality, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell myself just to keep my collection together. That was way too steep a price, and I knew I’d never be able go through with any of it. I may have given money freely in stores, but my body, dignity, and self-respect were too valuable.
It became clear to me that the best option was to sell my designer apparel for far less than I valued it. eBay offered me an international audience and the fastest route to cash.
The process of selling felt like a breakup. These items represented my identity. Who would I be without them? I looked at each piece and asked: "Is it making me better? Is it giving me what I need?" Photographing the item helped me feel better about my decision. I’d think: "This isn't worth it. I don't feel good with this in my life. It needs to go."
But the end of a relationship is rarely a clean break. When I'd write the description of an item, I'd fall back in love. Listing the details and all the ways someone could wear the clothes or shoes led me to reminisce. Much like seeing a recent ex, I'd think, "Maybe, just maybe…." But then I'd look at my bills, see the damage, and realize it just wasn't worth it.
The hardest part was setting the selling price. I’d often set it too high, thinking, How could I put a price on something I loved so much? Once I listed the item, I'd wait, then respond to email questions and field lowball offers. You want to pay me $150 for $1,500 shoes? That was a slap in the face.
Reality set in. I needed a look in the mirror — without my luxury wardrobe to block my view. I saw that whatever value I was getting from these items — self-worth, attention, or the envy of other women — was a temporary illusion. Generating self-worth from outside sources did not work in the long-term. Yes, I love beautiful things and expressing my creativity through fashion, but I do not need designer clothes in order to value myself. I'm good enough as I am.
Today, I'm steadily working on paying down my debt. I have about $18,000 left to go.
Selling my luxury goods on eBay wasn’t enough to pay all my debt, but it kept me afloat while I was unemployed. Thanks to my sales, I kept up with my credit card payments and paid my essential expenses.
I still sell on eBay, but I don’t have much of my designer collection left. If I’m in a pinch or I’m close to paying something off, I’ll sell a special piece. As much as it seems like it’s going to hurt, the relief of freedom from debt feels much better than any bag on my arm.
I now severely limit my shopping. The shock of my debt, the fear of financial ruin, and the realization that my precious items were worth sometimes 90 percent less than what I paid forced me to take a serious look at my life. I’ve done a lot of healing and made positive changes. I now value people, experiences, and myself more than fashion, and no longer feel the regular compulsion to shop. When I do make a purchase, it’s usually for more affordable items that I’ll use a lot, like a pair of jeans that fit me well.
I can't say I'll never buy a designer bag or a gorgeous pair of heels again, but it will be for a celebration or special occasion, not because I need a hit of feel-good dopamine. The item will enhance me, not overshadow me. And I absolutely won’t rack up debt on these purchases because — finally — I value myself too much.