5 ways to defuse shopping addiction triggers

Many of us have bought something solely based on our mood, only to end up not using the item more than once or twice. But if you find yourself displaying that kind of behaviour every month -- or more -- it may be time to evaluate your habits.

Shopaholism, or oniomania, is one of the severest forms of compulsive buying, and can require the help of a mental health professional to overcome. But sometimes, you can help yourself before the situation gets out of hand by managing how to respond to triggers that prompt out-of-control splurges.

"What we find is that problem shoppers are trying to fill an emotional void," says Jeffrey Schwartz, executive director at Consolidated Credit Counseling Services. Schwartz recalls one impulse shopper who was spending much more on ice cream than groceries for their large family.shopping-triggers

Although often linked, chronic shopping and unsustainable debt are actually two different challenges, says Amanda Mills, a financial therapist with Toronto-based firm Loose Change. You may have one without the other. "I've worked with clients who made enough to pay for their shopping issues, although the resulting clutter and anxiety were still horrendous problems despite not being debt-related," explains Mills.

Identifying different kinds of triggers
Emotions that can lead to shopaholism include hunger for attention, anger, loneliness, tiredness, stress and boredom. The actual triggering event can be subtle.

"Someone may say something that hurts your feelings, even though you didn't notice it at the time, and then you find yourself out shopping not knowing why," Mills says.

Sunghwan Yi, University of Guelph associate professor in marketing and consumer studies, has identified three categories of emotional triggers that cue splurges.

The first is negative emotions, especially sadness and depressive feelings. "Lots of consumers tend to feel that shopping cheers them up, and this belief often leads some people to buy a lot more than they can afford," says Yi.

The second trigger category is a mouthful: acutely aversive self-conscious emotions. These include feelings of personal incompetence or worthlessness developed after experiencing traumatic or problematic relationships with parents during adolescence. Aversive feelings become so unpleasant that people are motivated to distract themselves with self-absorbing stimuli such as obsessive shopping.

The last category involves self-congratulatory feelings experienced after a large or small achievement. For instance, you may feel that you "deserve" to buy yourself a gift upon finishing a project at work. The problem, says Yi, is that self-rewarding patterns may happen too often and/or you may overspend on indulgences.

Breaking the habit
Mills has found that shopaholism is one of the hardest addictions to quit, partly because shopping is routine for most people and some triggers are inescapable. She adds that, like other addicts, shopaholics may find themselves focusing on the one thing they can't have.

Still, if you think you may have a shopping addiction, there is hope if you're willing to put in the necessary work to overcome your problem.

1. Pinpoint your triggers.
Schwartz recommends keeping a diary to identify and monitor what sets off your shopping sprees. It might be boredom, something you saw on TV, or a seemingly innocent incident that triggers episodes where unrestrained retail therapy seems to be the only remedy.

Clarity is key in understanding stimuli that lead to problem shopping. Mills asks her clients to precisely track when they shop, why they do it, what event happened to prompt the episode, and how much they spend.

Writing down all the details of your shopping sprees can help you pinpoint what makes you want to spend and provide a reality check on how much you're spending.

2. Find an enjoyable substitute.
Occupy your mind with an interest or hobby that doesn't cost as much as shopping but still provides the short-term high that shopping provides.

Mills recommends finding soothing alternatives when a strong desire to shop strikes. She says a bath or massage comforts some people, while others prefer chatting with a non-judgmental friend to calm themselves when they're tempted to go on a shopping blitz. You may find a substitute that is just as satisfying -- but without the intense buyer's remorse and worry that accompanies overspending.

3. Be wary online.
Some consumers think they can defeat their shopping urges by avoiding malls and frequenting online stores instead. However, Mills says web shopping can be even more treacherous because of the Internet's 24/7 availability. Schwartz points out that some websites present an enticing list of additional sales items at the bottom of their pages as a marketing ploy to get you to buy more.

Yi suggests setting a budget for online purchases and sticking to it. Write shopping limits on a Post-it and put it next to your monitor as a constant reminder of your budget restrictions while web shopping. You should also unsubscribe from online marketers' promotional emails.

4. Watch the plastic.
There's some evidence that credit cards can trigger or exacerbate chronic shopping.

A 2013 survey from Montreal-based psychological testing firm Queendom.com compared consumers with one credit card to those who own more than three credit cards. It concluded that the latter are more apt to use shopping as a way to cope with stress. They're also likelier to get hooked on adrenaline rushes from shopping and they present a higher risk of becoming shopaholics.

Schwartz says rewards credit cards can exaggerate the pleasures associated with shopping, since they earn you "free money" with every purchase. For consumers unable to stay within a budget, Schwartz recommends reducing temptation by leaving credit cards at home and spending cash only. And if you use a rewards card, remember that spending on unnecessary items to earn points is costing you more than you're earning.

5. Resist "deals."
Marketers often try to entice shoppers into making on-the-spot purchases by offering special discounts and savings. Yi says to ask yourself whether you really need the on-sale item, and how many times you'll use it in the next two months. If the answer is negative, you probably don't need the item in the first place.

"For buy-one-get-one-free deals, you are actually throwing your money away if you do not get good use out of the second item," Yi adds.

Mills touts delayed gratification as a mature strategy for managing triggers that lead to impulse shopping. "The more we can practice delaying gratification, the more we have control of our own lives, including problem shopping," she says.

See related: Online gambling increases chances of debt; Do you need a financial therapist?

Updated October 16, 2015

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