When Retail Therapy Is Your Prescription for Stress

Caregiving can lead to emotional spending, but there are ways to manage your impulses.

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- Posted on Nov 12, 2019

Two older women in a shopping mall.

Lisa Weitzman, LISW-S, is the BRI Care Consultation™ Manager of Business Development at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

You give all day to your loved one, and you’re happy to do so. Yet, by evening, you feel wrung out and wonder why no one’s been taking care of you. For a quick mood boost, you turn to your favorite online shopping sites, or maybe even head to the mall. The desire to indulge yourself makes sense, given the tough emotions and demands of caregiving. But using shopping as a means to handle difficult feelings is a slippery slope that can leave you feeling even more blue, not to mention lighter in the pocketbook.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it may be the older adult in your care who has turned to emotional spending in an attempt to alleviate boredom, loneliness or depression. When his or her decision-making is complicated by cognitive changes such as dementia, you may find yourself dealing with the aftermath. Either way, you can take steps to stave off the negative consequences of misguided retail therapy.

According to Investopedia, emotional shopping occurs when you “buy something you don’t need and, in some cases, don’t even really want, as a result of feeling stressed out, bored, under-appreciated, incompetent, sad or even happy and celebratory.” In other words, emotional shoppers feel that making a purchase fills an emotional void with something – anything – that will make them happier. Shopping can meet other needs, as well. Everyone loves a bargain. Discovering a sale allows someone to feel like a savvy consumer, when the focus is on what’s been saved rather than what’s been shelled out. For others, the hook is the thrill of the hunt or the desire to “win at shopping” – regardless of whether they actually need what they have bought.

Data collected by Harris Interactive shows that 31 percent of women say that they shop to elevate their mood, and 53 percent of people surveyed shop as a way to celebrate. Men, moreover, tend to shop as a means to cope with feelings of inadequacy or success, most likely related to their careers. Impulsive shopping may also be “fueled by a desire to do something that proves a person can make their own decisions and do what they want.” And, although spontaneous spending may result in feelings of guilt, studies show that, in the moment, consumers shop as a way to feel in control of their lives.

Ultimately, however, the ”high” and instant gratification that go with shopping can fade fast, with remorse, debt and even tougher emotions left in their wake. Emotional challenges, like those associated with caregiving, can spur the desire to shop, convincing you that you deserve a little retail therapy, and yet, at the same time, these feelings are tied to a decrease in self-control and an increase in impulsivity. In addition, willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use: when you have too many decisions to make, your willpower is depleted, leaving you more susceptible to urges, cravings and purchases you may regret.

The good news is that you can adopt strategies to manage your emotional spending, including the following:

• Draw up a list of activities other than shopping that make you feel good, and take part in them instead of going to the mall or searching for items online. Have coffee with a friend, take a hike or write in your journal as a way to process underlying, difficult feelings.

• Get in touch with yourself and write down any feelings that trigger your urge to spend. When you understand these feelings, it’s easier to come up with ways to cope with them—something shopping never will do.

• Hold yourself accountable for your spending and stick to a budget. You can help ensure the process by using cash instead of credit cards.

• Tamp down on impulse purchases: over-analyze whatever you’re thinking of buying and wait at least 24 hours until you actually go ahead with it. Postponing enables you to consider the purchase within the context of other priorities and emotions.

• Avoid temptation: stay away from the mall and block ads on your devices.

• Get professional help if you need it: look into professionally supported groups like Shopaholic No More, or call the American Addiction Centers helpline at 1-866-845-6443. If your compulsive shopping is severely affecting your life, you may also consider discussing the problem with a licensed therapist or counselor.

If the older adult for whom you are caring is the one engaging in emotional spending, things can be even more complicated. It can be difficult to change his or her spending habits, especially when over-indulging in shopping is a way to deal with depression, loneliness and/or boredom, or when cognitive changes such as dementia have affected decision-making. And considering the ease of shopping online or via the phone, it can be even more challenging to control your loved one’s tendency to spend.

To help keep your loved one out of financial hot water, consider the following approaches:

• Have a conversation. Talk openly about spending behaviors and the emotions that may be responsible. Brainstorm solutions for these emotions that do not include shopping.

• Consider discussing with your loved one the possibility of appointing a financial power of attorney to add a layer of oversight and protection.

• With your loved one’s permission, read through his or her mail on a regular basis. Keep an eye out for and report scams, don’t let mail go unopened, and monitor excessive spending and late notices.

• Seek the help of a financial counselor. Many financial counseling services are free to use, such as Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People, a subsidiary of Benjamin Rose Institute on Again. Use this locator to find free financial counseling that may be available near you.

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