Sweaty, tense, slightly panicked, I searched the aisles of & Other Stories in Regent Street, looking for a dress for that evening’s black-tie dress code. I had my old faithful (well, worn four times) year-old green leopard-print dress ready to wear in my bag, but perhaps I’d find a better one? One that might make me feel more put together, positive, less nervous?
If I had found a dress that looked halfway decent on me – I didn’t – I would have stuck it on my card without question. A few days later, I found out why, when I spoke to Canadian personal-finance writer Cait Flanders. I discovered I'd been “emotional shopping”.
Flanders has explored shopping reasons and habits in a pretty extreme manner. In her book, The Year Of Less, she writes about how she gave up shopping totally for – you’ve guessed it – a full year.
At the time, her motivation was that she was failing to save and couldn't understand why. But, underneath, she says it “wasn’t about saving money. I had a nice apartment and all the basic things you’re supposed to have, I spent time with friends, did a little travelling. But I just wasn’t happy.” Going cold turkey, she realised that shopping wasn't about the stuff – it was about how she felt about herself. So, if you think that might be you, ask yourself these questions:
Are you buying for you or a perfect version of you?
“I realised that I used to buy things for this ideal version of myself – but then I never used them. I had wasted thousands of dollars on things I thought would make me smarter or more beautiful or interesting or creative. It didn't work, because I didn't actually want those things – I just wanted what they offered/represented. So, I really had to learn how to accept myself for who I was, even if my interests and hobbies weren't as ‘cool’ as I thought they should be. I used to think things like, ‘If I read more of the classics I will be more interesting.' ‘If I read this book, I’m going to be this kind of person, it’s going to help me do this thing.’ Buying it, we think we’ve done the work.”
I realised that I used to buy things for this ideal version of myself – but then I never used them. I had wasted thousands of dollars on things I thought would make me smarter or more beautiful or interesting or creative
What to do: Buy for the person you are now. “When I used to buy things thinking I’d look in fashion, most of the time those things didn’t fit me properly. Now I have a uniform: black leggings, Blundstone boots, either a grey sweater, a blue linen shirt or a green flannel shirt.”
Do you go shopping with the intention of buying something particular?
…or did you go to the shop for one or two things, and walk out with five? Flanders says even browsing can be the issue, because “when we browse, we’re going to find things we can buy”.
What to do: “Ask yourself: Have I felt the need for this thing multiple times? Have I been in a situation where I’ve known it would help?” Or are you adding to a pile of stuff to use in the future? “Spending money isn’t bad, but spending feels so much better when you’re going to go home and use it straight away.”
Is what you want to buy in line with your values?
If it’s not, then you’ve gone down an emotional-shopping diversion. “Personal finance is so personal. The things you spend money on and that add value to your life are different from your best friend’s.”
What to do: Think about your goals and values. Would you rather have new trainers or a night out with friends? To save for a trip to Guatemala or invest in a month’s Class Pass?
And the big one: are you feeling crappy?
If I’d found a dress for that black-tie party, for example, it would have been a very expensive sticking plaster for my lack of confidence. Flanders’ ban was most difficult after she broke up with a man she’d been dating for a few months. “I remember that’s when the justifications started. I’d talk myself into all of sudden needing clothes to make me look more together because I felt I was falling apart. My mobile phone was bugging me and I thought I should just get a new one.”
What to do: Ask yourself: What’s going on with me today? How am I feeling? “People think there’s a replacement for shopping. But what you have to learn to do is deal with the feelings underneath the shopping,” says Flanders. “It’s not the most exciting answer. And it is hard.” And ask a friend: “We all have friends who will enable us to make the bad decision, but you need the person who enables you to make the good decision, who tells you this is just a bump in the road.”
Buy The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders (Hay House, £15.99) here