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Do You Shop More When You’re Stressed?

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

You’ll never be able to afford a home. You spent too much on takeout last night. The promotion you hoped to get this month is actually nonexistent; instead, there’s talk of layoffs. And oh, look, your credit-card bill is — wait, what?

Welcome to the age of doom spending, a term that blossomed from the insidious combination of doom scrolling and buying stuff online. The phenomenon is probably familiar: Ambient anxiety (the news, your phone) combined with more pressing worries (money, work, that awkward text you just got) plus the constant temptation to buy whatever you want right this minute creates a perfect storm for stress-shopping. Which, of course, exacerbates the financial pressures that drove you to zone out on your phone in the first place. Rinse, repeat.

A survey conducted last year found that doom spending — defined by researchers as spending to cope with stress — appeared to correlate with concerns about the economy. And younger generations (35 percent of Gen Z and 43 percent of millennials) were more likely to report that they shopped when they felt overwhelmed. These findings triggered a predictable firestorm of scolding headlines about how young people are frittering away their financial security on brunch and status water bottles instead of buying homes.

But this tired narrative belies the underlying quandary. Are we feeling broke because we’re doom spending, or are we doom spending because we’re feeling broke? The reality is more nuanced — and it’s not just a young-person problem, says Kristina Durante, a psychologist and professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School. “Boomers and older generations do it too,” she says. No matter their age, “people objectively do not feel good about their spending, even though they’re doing more of it than ever.”

Even Durante isn’t immune. “I work in a marketing department, and I study consumer psychology, and I’m still susceptible to these behaviors,” she says. “A box of clothes shows up at my door and I’m like, ‘Oh, what’s this? A gift?’ No, it’s just a bunch of stuff I forgot I ordered on Temu.”

The culprit isn’t lack of willpower — it’s that shopping is such a convenient and effective way to feel better. “It helps people feel more in control, at least temporarily,” says Durante. “To have a human brain in today’s world means that you’re chronically stressed out. Most of the problems we see day-to-day are things that we can’t do very much about. By contrast, buying things is an action you can complete that solves a perceived problem right away.”

Of course, it does create another problem: You’re burning through money that should probably be allocated elsewhere, kicking your stress down the road. So how do you break out of the doom-spending loop? The first step is to focus on a small task, says Juliano Laran, a consumer psychologist who teaches at the University of Basel in Switzerland. “We’ve found that thinking or doing manageable things that bring control — like organizing something — can help people self-regulate.” He recommends tidying or rearranging your desk because it establishes a semblance of calm and order. “Folding laundry can also help.”

If you think this sounds like procrastination, you’d be right — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Sometimes your brain needs a break from a stressor in order to calm down and manage it more effectively later,” says Durante. Alternatively, sometimes there’s just not much you can do about what’s upsetting you, and you need healthy ways to cope. “Finding things that give you a sense of accomplishment, resolution, and closure helps your stress level go down,” she says. In most cases, your alternative to shopping isn’t solving the exact problem that stressed you out to begin with; it’s finding a slightly more productive (or even just less destructive) way to deal with that stress, like going for a walk, taking a shower, or doing something that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.

In one of Durante’s studies, people who were instructed to write down something they had accomplished that day were less likely to engage in compulsive consumption. “I wish there was an app on my phone that would pop up and force me to do that before I bought anything,” she said. “You could also just make a list of things that you have control over right now.”

Megan McCoy, a financial therapist and professor at Kansas State University, points out that doom spending perpetuates itself — the shame of compulsive shopping creates more stress that feeds the cycle. “One of the best ways to shift behavior is to think less about what you want to stop doing and more about what you’re working toward,” she says. “Guilting yourself into saving money just for the sake of saving isn’t very motivating to people in a high-pressure moment. But having active financial goals, like being able to afford something tangible that you really want or saving for a specific activity, is a lot more powerful and can help people change their habits.” She does this by naming her savings account after the thing she’s saving for — right now it’s a trip — and maintaining a rule that she has to wait at least 24 hours before buying anything online.

Another cheesy but useful tactic is thinking about who you’ll be in ten years. “People engage in unhealthy, low-self-control behaviors when they are not very connected to their future self,” says Laran. “Ten years from now, do you have a picture of what your life will look like? Does it feel familiar to you? Then you’re more likely to do things to take care of that future person like saving money and eating healthy food. So try to identify with that future self.”

If all else fails and you find yourself hovering in checkout, Laran has one more suggestion: listing ten reasons to buy the thing you want. “You’d think that the more reasons you come up with, the more likely you are to buy it,” he says. “But research shows the opposite. As you get to a fifth reason or a sixth reason, it gets harder and harder to think of another one.” The process also slows you down — and maybe even bores you. “The act of struggling to come up with a seventh reason might be the moment where you put down your phone and move on to something else.”

Email your money conundrums to mytwocents@nymag.com (and read our submission terms here.)

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Charlotte Cowles , 2024-05-23 14:00:27

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