Most of us do it — and it’s making some of us broke
Spend away the stress.
That’s exactly what many Americans hope to do: As American’s stress levels hit a 10-year high, most of us are engaging in a little retail therapy to cope.
More than half of Americans (52%) say they have impulsively shopped to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety or depression, according to data released in November from personal finance site Credit Karma. Of those, 83% say they have regretted their stress-related impulse buys. Millennials are the most likely to stress spend (68% do it), compared to 53% of Gen Xers and 26% of boomers.
Several years ago, when public relations guru Martha Shaughnessy worked a corporate job she didn’t like, she turned to retail therapy to cope with the stress. “I used to joke with my former team that when packages from Gilt or elsewhere arrived at the office, it was because they were being bad,” she says. Shopping while stressed “felt like an accessible vice, a quick hit of serotonin, without too many repercussions in the moment,” she explains.
And indeed, for Shaughnessy this behavior didn’t have too many negative financial ramifications — though the mom of four notes the money could have been saved for college. But it can do serious financial damage to the millions of Americans who are already in tough financial straits. This includes the roughly one in three Americans who say they are “barely getting by” financially as it is, the 60% who don’t even have enough saved to pay for a $500 expense if it arised, and the roughly four in 10 households who have credit card debt.
For them, a stress-related impulse buy — particularly if they’re one of the 43% who drop $200 or more on that purchase — could cause them to fall into more debt or be unable to pay for an emergency. And that can create more stress — money is the No. 1 cause of stress for Americans — which in turn can create more spending. Credit Karma calls this the “cycle of stress spending,” and Timolin Langin, author of “Mind Over Money: How to Live like a Millionaire on any Budget,” adds that “the negative effect on our finances usually outweighs the temporary enjoyment.”
There are ways to minimize the havoc it wreaks on your life. Here are three.
Identify stressors and find better solutions, says psychologist Judith Miller Burke, author of The Adversity Advantage: Turn Your Childhood Trauma into Career and Life Success. That means looking at what’s causing this repeated stress — be it a tough boss or a right with the spouse — and developing functional, budget-friendly solutions to your stress spending triggers.
For Mike Scanlin, the CEO of Born to Sell, exercise does the trick: “When I’m stressed, I like to go hiking, get some exercise to clear my head,” he tells Moneyish. (Hillary Clinton is a fan of this too.) Other solutions might include reading and talking to a friend, says psychologist Erika Martinez of Envision Wellness www.envisionwellness.co.
Practice the slow buy, says Langin. You can have the things you want — even if you want them in a moment of stress. But “don’t buy it when you see it,” says Langin. “Take your time and plan your budget.” A pause is often just what you need to evaluate whether you’re buying because you are stressed or because you really want something.
Keep the receipts. Even if you take the above steps, a stress buy may slip into your life still. If it does, Martinez advises that you keep the receipts of what you buy so you can return them to get your money back.
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