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Why do we buy so much?

The psychology of spending money

Do you sometimes buy things or alternatively load a virtual trolley to fill a hole in your soul?

Making purchasing decisions can help reinforce a sense of personal control over our environment. It can also ease feelings of sadness. A study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that retail therapy not only makes people happier immediately, but it can also fight lingering sadness.

The problem is, we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need …(often to impress people we don’t like).

“Buying-shopping disorder” (BSD) is not officially recognised as a stand-alone diagnosis, but it has attracted the attention of many behavioural and addiction specialists. The issue was first described by a German psychiatrist as “buying mania” around 100 years ago and is now estimated to affect around 5% of the population worldwide. www.addictioncenter.com/news

When we say we need a little retail therapy, just about everyone can relate to the sheer joy that buying a little something for yourself brings. Home delivery can almost feel like receiving a gift (even if your paid for it yourself). Afterthought…. have you ever experienced shopper’s remorse?  This is the feeling after the purchase was made that the hole in your soul is still empty.  So is your purse and you have yet something else that you don’t need.

Does retail therapy really help us feel better? 

Yes, in fact it does, says clinical psychologist Scott Bea. “Research suggests there’s actually a lot of psychological and therapeutic value when you’re shopping — if done in moderation, of course,” he says.

Whether you’re adding items to your shopping cart online or visiting your favourite mall for a few hours, you do get a psychological and emotional boost.” he adds. Even window shopping or online browsing can bring brain-fuelled happiness.

Why do we then enjoy spending our hard-earned income so much?

  1. Shopping restores a sense of control

Research as documented in the Journal of Consumer Psychology has shown that making shopping decisions can help reinforce a sense of personal control over our environment or circumstances. It can also ease feelings of sadness. Sadness is generally associated with a sense that situations are in control of the outcomes in our life, rather than life being in our own hands. The choices and outcomes inherent in the act of shopping can restore a feeling of personal control and autonomy. 

  1. Making a purchase or looking forward to shopping distracts us from anxiety

“Shopping also stimulates the senses.  The smell of something new, the bright lights and colourful displays combine to create an imaginative, sensory experience that can remove us from our own reality, even for a little while,” Dr. Bea says.

Shopping and its sensory stimulation such as packaging, presentation, colour and lighting get us to visualise positive outcomes that can reduce anxiety.  It becomes a form of escapism, similar to a feel-good movie or achieving an adrenalin rush.

The anxiety doesn’t stay away though, and where not enough self-control is applied, more financial anxiety can be the result of impulsive purchases.

  1. The happy hormone – Dopamine – is released even before a purchase is made

Just browsing, scrolling or window shopping without making an actual purchase, can positively impact your mood. It’s this simple anticipation of the eventual possibility of a reward or treat that releases dopamine — the hormone neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you feel good.  It’s about the entire process and starts with merely browsing.

  1. Happiness created by online shopping

Have you ever selected online items but then abandon them because you already feel happy and in control?  You don’t always need to purchase something to feel delight, because you have gone through an exciting mental journey already – in that regard, there’s a relatively low hazard. Spending less money may be even more rewarding. Online shopping can also ignite the happy hormone release in another way — waiting for your package to arrive.  The unpredictability of the delivery or the look and feel of the product increases your anticipation. 

  1. Rewards that come from delayed gratification

If retail therapy works for you, there’s another route to consider. It can also be psychologically therapeutic if you save up for that reward rather than buying something immediately using a plastic payment method or a long repayment plan e.g., for a motor vehicle. Saving up for your reward gives you something to look forward to, which creates excitement and a release of dopamine over time.  And it’s so much kinder to your bank balance…. 

  1. When retail therapy becomes addictive 

It is possible to take shopping to an extreme. For some, shopping can become a problem. For many, it can become an addiction. Shopping shifts from being therapeutic to a problematic compulsive behaviour when it becomes a go-to way of dealing with anxiety, stress or loss and when it’s hard to control, Dr. Bea says.

Compulsive buying has significantly risen in developed economies and through the evolution of online shopping.  Daily reminders of online shopping deals can be tempting and detrimental to the budget.  This behaviour is linked to feelings of worthlessness in addition to a lack of power.  This addiction is similar to gambling and the high that follows substance abuse.

  1. Being a shopaholic ain’t no joke 

Be aware of the following:

  • Preoccupation with and difficulty resisting buying unneeded items.
  • Getting drawn into online and in-store special deals
  • Spending too much time researching items that may not be needed.
  • Financial difficulties because of uncontrolled and impulsive shopping.
  • Relationship problems at work, school or home because of spending that has gotten out of control.
  • Struggling with shopper’s remorse and feeling anxious about unnecessary purchases
  • Constantly buying more than what is required – from pantry items to shoes, nail varnish, tools, toys etc.
  • Many unused items in your cupboards

  1. Alternative forms of “therapy” 

Cutting up your credit cards isn’t going to do it. The focus should be on exploring the underlying causes. What is making you feel out of control?

  • Accept that happiness is not a goal – we all have days or times of low mood
  • See a professional should the low mood, anxiety or depression plague you for more than three uninterrupted weeks
  • Question your own compulsive behaviour
  • Avoid mall-crawling for entertainment – we live in a beautiful country – be outside
  • Go walking or running, play with a child, or kickball with friends under the African Sky to get your daily dose of dopamine and Vitamin D – sunshine is “mahala”(free)
  • Kids hate malls and make you buy things they don’t need with money you don’t have
  • Spend cash – don’t use a card – it is really hard to see notes flying!
  • Explore a new hobby or interest to divert your attention from the specials
  • Unsubscribe from daily reminders of special shopping deals
  • Buy what you need – no more
  • Pay yourself first on payday – choose a good investment/saving option that will give you the satisfaction of seeing it grow
  • Invest in an emergency fund – a pair of stunning shoes won’t pay for a new set of tires for your car
  • Enjoy more of what is free in life. Your family, your friends, your own company
  • And please – I speak on behalf of Mother Nature:
    • Don’t buy/accept plastic bags – our planet is suffocating in plastic
    • Take responsibility for your own garbage
    • Hello!!! Don’t litter – our mothers raised us better
    • Reduce, re-purpose, reuse, recycle – how high is your personal plastic mountain you have built in your lifetime?
    • Plant a tree – in a pot on your balcony or patio or in your garden, even a pot in your kitchen will do
  • Live simpler – everything you buy needs to be maintained
  • Give abundantly to those in need

We often don’t have rational control over why we buy some products and not others: our brain subconsciously chooses for us. Traditional marketing methods no longer work and the reasons we think we buy are deceptive. On a scary note – Neuromarketing is the new key tool that will “revolutionise” marketing strategies in the future and help us understand the science behind why we buy.

I would like to suggest a very interesting read on the above topic “Buyolgy: truth and lies about why we buy” by Martin Lindstrom.

On a serious note: People with BSD use shopping as a coping mechanism to regulate emotions by either getting pleasure or relief after shopping. Those addicted to shopping will often spend more than they can afford and experience post-purchase guilt and may even shop more to feel better, creating a vicious cycle. BSD is linked to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, and can lead to financial distress, a sense of loss of control, and conflict with friends and family. Experts are urging that BSD be studied further and labeled as its own illness due to its similarities to other behavioural addictions such as gambling

  • People who like to buy anonymously or avoid social interaction.
  • People who enjoy a wide variety of items.
  • People who like instant gratification.

Research also shows that those who shop and buy online are at an increased risk for higher severity of BSD. The speed and convenience of online shopping feed the addiction part of the brain.

Shopping online provides the opportunity to make purchases unobserved and secretly. People with BSD may feel shame or regret about their spending habits and experience social anxiety, so they avoid crowded stores or social interaction. Online shopping satisfies the desire for variety since you can purchase from multiple retailers during a single spending spree. Online stores are always open so people can shop around the clock, making it more difficult to control cravings.

Additionally, the convenience of “one-click shopping” makes it easier to spend money and studies show people spend up to 100% when using credit instead of cash. This is because paying for things with cold hard cash is a more painful experience than using a credit card. How much purchase is directly linked to the payment is known as a concept called “coupling.” For example, if I go to a coffee shop and use cash, the act of paying and the act of consuming my beverage are directly coupled. I know exactly how much I have to give up for my coffee when I pay with cash; however, when I use a credit card, there’s a break in time between when I have my drink and when I actually have to pay for it. The lack of coupling expands the distance between you and your money.

Remember we have to eat, have a roof over our heads, dress ourselves, educate and train our brains, etc. – so many purchases are an investment in yourself, your family, or your team at work.  So be wise with your hard-earned savings.

Don’t put your hard-earned income into someone else’s piggy bank!

Should you need help, ask me … it’s safe.

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