I once stood outside the lavish dressing room of a posh department store waiting for a friend I’ll call Tina to come out. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have seemed perplexing, but an hour before, Tina had told me she’d lost her job, then suggested we go to Neiman Marcus to find her an outfit for an upcoming job interview.
When my friend emerged from the dressing room, she looked stunning in an expensive Armani suit. As the sales associate and tailor fussed over her, Tina soaked up the attention. “Are you sure you want to spend this kind of money right now?” I asked. “You have many fabulous suits already.”
“I need something new,” she insisted. “I love this suit. I feel so confident in it!” Tina plunked down her credit card—one with a 22.5-percent interest rate—and spent nearly $3,000.
If she’d paid cash for the purchase—and if she weren’t already saddled with close to six figures in student loans—this story wouldn’t be worth telling. But neither was true. At the time, Tina was depressed and lonely. Spending at expensive stores, wearing coveted brands and being seen in her luxury vehicle fed her craving for attention and need to feel valued.
We all have different ways of coping with insecurities and crises, and too many of us try to cope via shopping, splurging on items we can’t afford or don’t need to try to fill an emotional hole. Your spending might not be as extreme as Tina’s—or perhaps it’s even worse—but there’s no reason you can’t change. Not sure you fit the profile? See if any of these statements describe your behavior:
>You sometimes buy things you can’t afford because you feel you deserve them.
>You buy high-status brands because you want others to see that you are “successful.”
>You go shopping when you feel sad, lonely, bored or frustrated.
>You get an emotional high when you plunk down that credit card—at that moment, you feel powerful.
>You purchase things for your children out of guilt because their other parent isn’t around, or because you don’t spend enough time with them.
If you see yourself in any of these statements, listen up: Emotional spending is a reaction, and a behavior you have the power to change. In my book What’s Really Holding You Back?, I write about allowing your emotions to school rather than rule you. That’s exactly what I want you and my friend Tina to do. Here’s how:
Add up your debts. If you support your habit with credit cards and loans, calculate exactly how much you owe. The number is probably higher than you think. Let it startle you; you need a wake-up call.
Tell somebody. Don’t keep your spendaholic tendencies a secret any longer; bad habits thrive in the dark. Shine a light on the problem by confiding in someone you trust, and ask that person to hold you accountable and discourage you from more spending binges.
Pinpoint when you are most vulnerable. Think back to the times you spent emotionally. What feeling triggered the spending? Get clear so you can take the next step.
Make a plan to respond rather than react. When an uncomfortable feeling occurs, refuse to react by spending to temporarily numb that emotion. Instead, make an intentional choice to respond by doing something more productive.
Now is the time to decide what that healthier, more financially responsible reaction to an emotional issue you may be having could look like. Make a list of activities that nourish your spirit. For example, instead of shopping, you could go to the park with your kids or invite a friend over to watch a movie or chat. In the long run, experiences with the people in your life will always be more fulfilling than things. And the happier you are, the less often you’ll experience the kinds of feelings that drive you to spend emotionally.
Valorie Burton is a best-selling author and founder of the Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute. Visit