Are YOU addicted to emotional spending?

Are YOU addicted to emotional spending? That’s when you can’t get enough of the dopamine hit that comes with a shopping splurge. But as some women know, the habit can spiral out of control all too quickly

  • Britons spent over £6.6 billion on pandemic purchases that are no longer used
  • ‘Emotional spending’ involves spending in order to change how you feel 
  • Here, UK-based women reveal how their spending on little luxuries escalated 

When I speak to Amanda Lenahan, a mother of two from Harrogate, West Yorkshire, it is three in the afternoon and she is just returning from her job as a retail assistant. As she pulls into her drive — she’s on handsfree — she sees three boxes and two bags on her doorstep.

‘I live in a nice area fortunately, we’ve never had anything taken. The delivery guys know to just leave it now. We’re on first name terms with them.’

This, it turns out, is the least of it. Over the past 20 months, since the start of the pandemic, Amanda’s shopping habit has spiralled almost beyond control.

She has bought clothes, shoes, bags, hats and jewellery, books, beauty bits, cleaning products, hair tongs, exercise equipment, furniture, outdoor seating, side tables, rugs and rhubarb gin as well as toys, collars and coats for her dog.

UK-based women revealed how their online spending on little luxuries escalated to something close to an addiction – including Amanda Lenahan, 56, (pictured) from West Yorkshire, who admits much of the exhilaration comes from finding a bargain

Months of uncertainty and fear, lockdowns, restrictions and thousands of hours spent indoors and, quite frankly, bored, has left Amanda, 56, with something close to an addiction.

How much has she spent? She says she doesn’t like to think, but it’s comfortably in the thousands.

‘It starts off as the things you need, and then it moves on,’ she says. ‘At first it was boredom, during the lockdowns, and the excitement of things arriving. But months on, it is still exciting getting parcels.

‘My deliveries are the same now if not more than during lockdown. I’ve got into the habit of using online. As long as there is a good returns policy, I am happy to buy anything.’

She estimates she keeps 80 per cent of what she buys and anything she regrets goes on eBay — usually about 15 items a week. She views her online shopping obsession as an ‘extravagance’, but one she can afford.

According to data published this month, Amanda is one of the many millions of us who made lockdown purchases we regret.

Britons spent more than £6.6 billion on pandemic purchases that are no longer used and gathering dust across the country.

The How We Live report, commissioned by Aviva, found nine out of ten of us spent an average of £1,205 on ‘treats’ to see us through these tough times. Most regrettable items include musical instruments, kitchen appliances, pizza ovens, home gym and gaming equipment and (perhaps, less surprising) hot tubs.

Katrina Young, 41, (pictured) from Kent, had anxiety about how her family would manage as she spent on food, clothes and business equipment while her income was down during the pandemic

Amanda, who lives with her 18-year-old twins Chloe and Luca, and husband Des, 60, a company director, says her biggest mistake has been an unused £249.99 carpet cleaner. ‘It came with a million tools and is still sitting in my garage.’

She admits much of the exhilaration comes from finding a bargain, whether that’s a small beauty buy or a Prada handbag that would usually cost £1,700, discovered on eBay for £500.

But is such impulsive, seemingly irresistible spending a sign of something much more worrying?

Across the country, many of us have got into the habit of engaging in retail therapy in a very literal sense. The weekend saw the UK’s biggest Black Friday sales ever with shoppers spending billions.

Last year Britons spent more time online than citizens of any other major European country. According to the latest analysis of our internet habits, UK adults spent an average of three hours and 37 minutes online each day in 2020 and the UK’s online shopping bill grew by 50 per cent, topping £110 billion for the first time.

Experts, including Emilie Bellet, founder of women’s financial community Vestpod, have dubbed it ‘emotional spending’. ‘Emotional spending is when you spend money on something in order to change how you feel or exacerbate a current state,’ she explains. ‘When you feel bored, stressed, anxious or lonely, you look for something that is going to make you feel better fast. Or you might emotionally spend when you feel good because you’re excited and want to thank or congratulate yourself for something.’

According to analysis of our internet habits, UK adults spent an average of three hours and 37 minutes online each day in 2020 and the online shopping bill grew by 50 per cent (file image)

Indeed, scientists from Purdue University, Indiana, recently revealed a study that shows fear makes us more materialistic. Dr Eugene Chan, who co-authored the research published in the journal Psychology and Marketing, which draws on the experiences of more than 2,000 people from the UK, US and China, said: ‘Covid elicits many emotions, including fear. And one way to cope with this feeling of fear is to buy more material things. It offers some sort of physical, tangible, security that one can hold and touch which helps allay those fears.’

For 58-year-old London-based author Sally Green, what began as a souped-up habit to fill a lockdown void now resembles what some experts would call compulsive behaviour. ‘My excuse during lockdown was that I was never going anywhere or seeing anyone and, at the end of the day, I needed something to cheer me up. Now we are out of it all, but I still feel the world is in turmoil and everything is pretty depressing, so I allow myself nice things.

‘My mortgage is paid off now, so my new justification is I can invest that amount in something else.’

She has splurged on everything from silk pillowcases, kitchen gadgets, winter coats and garden plants, to Baukjen leggings, designer suitcases, garden lanterns and scatter cushions, to name a few. ‘Once I had to get oyster shuckers sent overnight by Amazon Prime because I’d ordered 14 oysters but had no way of opening them.’

Two of her most regrettable — and non-refundable — buys have been a soda stream that doesn’t taste nice (£70) and an unnecessary microfibre duvet for £120. She estimates she spends easily upwards of £500 a month on little luxuries, including theatre tickets and dinners out now freedom has been reinstated — and it’s not always easy to absorb.

 Katrina (pictured) contacted Citizens Advice, an organisation that provides free confidential financial advice, to improve her budgeting and cost-saving techniques

Problems have also arisen when binmen refused to collect all her cardboard boxes on top of the regular binfuls of waste because, well, there were just so many. ‘Now I have to break up every single delivery box into tiny pieces to keep everyone happy,’ she says. ‘I give my partner boxes to smuggle into his bins, too.’

Of course, the past 20 months have had a monumental impact on retail. The shutting of non-essential stores caused online shopping to boom.

According to charity network Citizens Advice, 96 per cent of us have ordered products online since March last year and 51 per cent of Britons feel more reliant on click-to-buy purchasing.

Amazon reported a 70 per cent increase in earnings in the first nine months of 2020 globally, up by £4.2 billion.

Last year produced an estimated 200 million more parcels in the postal and courier system and what became a fully fledged cardboard shortage.

But while shopping is clearly helping get the economy back on its feet, some of us have forged new and problematic emotional spending habits picked up during lockdowns.

Events like Cop26 have helped focus our attention on the climate downsides of rampant consumerism, but it doesn’t help that online retail has become so easy. After all, it is far harder to impulse buy when you have to catch a bus to a real-life shop and hand over a physical card to a cashier. Clicking on a saved virtual payment method or on PayPal takes a fraction of the time, meaning purchases can be made in the grip of fleeting emotions such as fear or loneliness or anxiety.

Addiction counsellor Andrew Harvey has noticed a rise in people seeking help for addictive behaviours in his Nottingham-based online therapy clinics since Covid-19 struck (file image)

Buy-now, pay-later schemes from the likes of Klarna and Clearpay offer inventive ways to buy with no immediate financial impact, and if we click out without finishing a purchase, emails remind us of our unfinished business.

When the pandemic began, business consultant Katrina Young, 41, laughed over Zoom calls with colleagues about how shopping online had become the new going out.

But after several months of adapting her consultancy business to face the rigours of online and remote working, the single-mother of two boys, aged 11 and 19, from Kent, reached a crossroads.

‘My income was down, but I was spending much more on food, clothes and business equipment including books and courses to help me up-skill. I had such anxiety about how we were going to manage. My spending habits were a real concern and I was feeling negative emotion around shopping that I didn’t feel before and I didn’t want it to filter down to the kids. Many things we were buying were necessary, but some weren’t.’

She contacted Citizens Advice, an organisation that provides free confidential financial advice, to improve her budgeting and cost-saving techniques.

With help, she has fine-tuned her monthly food and non-essential spending budget to £350, reduced her bills and placed a greater emphasis on spending wisely on things she needs or make a real difference to her mental health. She’ll buy skin products to combat the effects of being indoors with central heating, for example, and home cooks more so she doesn’t feel in a financial frenzy by the end of each month.

With such a fine line between emotional spending as an enjoyable, harmless activity and it developing into something more sinister, Katrina is wise to rein herself in. ‘When you buy something you have a surge in dopamine — you feel good — but soon afterwards you start to feel the same emotional state you did before, such as boredom or loneliness. You remember that making a purchase made you feel happy so you want to do it again, but this happens unconsciously. That’s where it becomes an issue,’ explains Emilie Bellet. Addiction counsellor Andrew Harvey has noticed a rise in people seeking help for addictive behaviours in his Nottingham-based online therapy clinics since Covid-19 struck.

‘The ones that get attention are usually substances — drink or cocaine. But having too many parcels arriving at your door can be extremely damaging, too. Being caught in compulsive spending can drive further compulsive spending. It causes debt, depression and can exacerbate other struggles.’

Andrew said an indicator you’re spending unwisely is keeping your spending habits secret and hiding boxes (file image) 

A good indicator you’re spending unwisely, explains Andrew, is when you continue to shop even though you’ve made a deal with yourself not to. ‘Keeping your spending habits secret is another. If you are hiding boxes from your other half, you have to ask yourself why. The other thing is going online just to look for something to buy. For me, that’s a red flag.’

Social media can feel like a spider’s web for emotional spending. Analysis commissioned by Visa last year found that one in four purchases in the UK are now made as a result of interacting with a social media platform.

Flash sales, pop-up ads, rosy-hued influencers promoting must-have products alongside reassuring comments propel us to click-to-buy to fit in, while artificial intelligence and targeted advertising means machines know what we want to buy before we do.

One 64-year-old retired property developer, who wants to remain anonymous, developed an addiction to shopping via Instagram interiors accounts during the many lockdowns and has found it hard to stop since things opened up.

‘My husband says I am single-handedly keeping the economy going,’ she says, detailing how she spends hours each day scrolling through vintage finds and independent dealers who put one-off items up for auction.

‘The fastest person to write, “Yes please” in the comments gets it. So now I’ve become very aware of seller’s routines — for example, if they have children I know they are unlikely to post during bathtime — and I have alerts for when favourite accounts post new items. It becomes like a drug. When I hear that ping I career across the kitchen to get to my phone in time.’

A discerning eye has prevented too many costly regrets, and much is bought for children and grandchildren, but she finds it hard to turn down certain items like pretty china or gingham eiderdowns. ‘Once you’ve bought one thing, it’s like your wallet has opened; you know you can buy more from that person and save on postage.’ Her daughters have told her she has a problem, which she accepts.

There are steps you can take to stop yourself buying unnecessarily. The first? Choosing to buy non-essential items in an actual shop now the High Street is back in business, so you have unpressurised time to weigh up whether you really want it.

Consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale suggests creating barriers to spending: remove any saved bank details from websites, delete your PayPal account, leave credit cards in other rooms. Don’t buy immediately, she advises, but instead let things sit in the basket for hours, or even days, to see if you still feel the same about them later.

‘It’s about trying to take a step back,’ agrees Emilie. ‘Emotional spending is fine, so long as it is done in a controlled way — not a vicious cycle that lands you in the red, steeped in regret or unable to pay for the important things.’

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