The Habitual Shopper: Why Does Spending Money Feel Good?

woman holding brightly coloured shopping bags in the air, tossing her head back with a huge smile on her face

Shopping stimulates certain regions of the brain, providing positive feedback that gives you a short rush of something similar to happiness. In extreme cases, this can spur shopping addiction. Understanding the connection between your brain and your wallet can be a first step in curbing spending and being more intentional with your money.

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Why does spending money feel good? When you make a purchase, there’s a complex series of events that happen in your brain. Shopping is activating its pleasure regions! This triggers the release of dopamine, the same chemical that’s released when you have sex, taste something delicious, or do drugs. No wonder then that shopping can turn into an addiction.

Understanding the connection between your brain and your purse can help you curb spending and rekindle a healthy relationship with your money. This post walks you through what’s going on in your head, and how you can start shifting your shopping habits towards more intentional spending.

What’s Happening to Your Brain When You Shop?

We’ve all been there. You see something your want, you buy it, and you feel great. But why does spending money feel good like this?

Think of the high you get scoring something on discount. The relief of crossing an item off of your wish list or the excitement of treating yourself to something new. You get some kind of buzz out of your purchases. The hunter-gatherer chase feels a bit exhilarating, at least in the moment. What’s going on?

It’s no secret that buying stuff can be satisfying. But why does spending money feel good? Whether it’s online or in a shop, when you make a purchase, there’s a complex chain of events happening in your brain.

Scientists have found that shopping activates the pleasure regions of your brain. This triggers the release of dopamine โ€“ the very same chemical that’s released during sex, getting high or eating a great meal.

But it’s not just the act of pulling out your credit card at the cash register that does this to us. The suspense of waiting for an online purchase to arrive in the mail or to be brought to you at the checkout can also trigger dopamine release. Even just thinking about buying something can sometimes be enough to get your dopamine going.

When Retail Therapy Becomes an Addiction

Retail therapy is the act of shopping to improve one’s mood. It’s usually not even a conscious process. We often enter a sort of zombie mode when it comes to popping stuff in our shopping carts. One of the big reasons why spending money feels good is that for most people, it’s a harmless way to relax and lift their spirits.

Why Does Spending Money Feel Good? It’s a Coping Mechanism That Can Become Compulsive

It’s not uncommon for a little retail therapy session at the mall to serve as a coping mechanism for people experiencing negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, or stress. While retail therapy can be helpful in the short termโ€”and a heck of a lot of fun in the momentโ€”it can ultimately lead to a shopping addiction for some people.

Shopping addiction is a real condition that can be financially devastating. In medical terms, it shares a lot of traits with drug addiction because of its compulsory nature. It’s generally characterised by an uncontrollable urge to shop, even when there is no need to, no money, or even any real desire to do so.

Shopping addicts are often preoccupied with their next purchases and might spend large sums of money on unnecessary items, some of which they never use or never wear. They may even compulsively continue to shop when they can’t afford it, running up incredible credit card bills.

Some of the signs which indicate someone might have a shopping addiction include:

  • Shopping in reaction to sadness, stress, anxiety, or boredom.
  • Feeling a sense of euphoria when shopping.
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed after shopping.
  • Hiding purchases from friends and loved ones.
  • Not using or wearing purchases, or even forgetting about them.
  • Inability to resist a sale.
  • Spending beyond one’s means.

In summary, shopping addiction is different from normal shopping in that it is compulsive and can have negative consequences. While retail therapy can be a fun way to relax and boost your mood, understanding the connection between your brain and your purse can help you identify a shopping addiction. And that’s a first step towards curbing binge spending and rekindling a healthy relationship with your money.

Changing Your Shopping Habits

If your shopping habits have started to spin a bit out of control or if you’ve taken that big first step in admitting to yourself that you have a shopping problem, there are several ways to start changing your spending habits and become more intentional with your money.

As mentioned in my post on starting new habits though, it’s better to arm yourself with a strategic plan. Without one, it’s too easy to keep falling back into the trap of your old habits.

Quick Tips to Curb Spending

  • Keep a list: Before you go shopping, make a list of the things you need. This will help you stay focused on your purchases and avoid buying things you don’t need.
  • Set a budget: Having a budget will help you stick to your spending limit and avoid going into debt.
  • Unsubscribe from marketing emails and retailers’ newsletters: You’ll not only declutter your inbox, but you’ll also nix your chances of clicking through to online sales.
  • Pay with cash: For some people, paying with cash makes them more aware of their expenditures. You might also be less likely to impulse shop if you don’t have the actual cash in your wallet.
  • Leave your credit cards at home: If you opt for the cash route, leaving your plastic cards at home will help you stick to your budget and avoid racking up debt.
  • Shop alone: Shopping with friends can lure you into spending more money. Shopping alone gives you time to reflect on your purchases and whether you really need them. (If fashion is your downfall, check out my cheat sheet for making smarter clothing purchases!)
  • Wait before buying: If you see something you want, wait at least 24 hours before buying it. This will give you time to think about whether you really need it. I prefer to park things I want on a wishlist and use that as a way to gauge if I really want or need something. Sometimes I get so sick of obsessing over something on my wishlist that I delete it instead of buying it. Win-win!
  • Replace shopping with other activities: Utilise the time you usually spend on browsing online or at the outlets for something completely new and different. This is a great opportunity to discover a new hobby, re-visit your public library or start a language course. By keeping busy in your leisure time, you’ll be less prone to dwelling on new purchases and sales.

The take-home message is that by being aware of your spending habits and taking steps to change your behaviour, you can break the cycle of addiction and enjoy a healthy relationship with a normal degree of consumerism and intentional spending.

Rekindling a Healthier Money Mindset

Spending money feels so good because it gives us a sense of instant gratification. After all, we’re instinctively wired to hunt and gather for our survival.

For most of us, shopping might seem like a harmless way to cope. For some, however, it can spiral into an addiction. And that can lead to clutter and storage problems, or even financial disaster in a worst-case scenario. If you’re worried that your shopping habits are getting out of control, take heart. You can change your behaviour and develop a healthier relationship with money.

If you’re struggling with an addiction you’d like to beat, there are professionals out there who can help you. Ask your physician to recommend some therapists specalised in compulsory behaviour, or run a Google search for shopping addiction + your locale. Good luck!

Two women in their late twenties on a shopping street with bright red and green shopping bags over their arms, and Starbucks coffees in their hands. They appear to be laughing and having a great time, illustrating an article titled why does spending money feel good.
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