When stores began to reopen early in the pandemic, I never thought my weekly trips to T.J. Maxx were anything that resembled a shopping addiction. It was simply something to do. This was a time with so little external stimuli that putting a mask on in order to uncover a small jewel in the racks was often the only joy I’d experience that day. I liked to think of it as low-stakes escapism at its finest—a new top or a discounted pair of jeans conjured images of both a past and future life, where socializing, travel, and fun were all still very much on the table.
At first, I dismissed my weekly purchases as an affordable way to distract myself from the overwhelming monotony of quarantine. But, as it has a habit of doing, my conscience started its nagging: The quickening of my pulse as I handed over my credit card and the feeling of euphoria as I searched for the next $19.99 dopamine hit had me questioning whether I could go even a few days without buying something new. My overflowing closet showed the answer I feared.
But then again, if the only real problem my shopping habits yield are drawers packed to capacity, do I even need to be fearful? Browsing and buying clothes objectively brings more happiness to my life than it ever did pain. I don’t spend above my means, and my purchases haven’t caused any relationship rifts. So I don’t have a shopping addiction…right?
For those of us who exist in this very particular place on the shopping spectrum—constantly buying accessible things we don’t need for sport—the question of how much is too much is bound to arise. A quick Google search can tell you that as many as 18 million Americans suffer from some form of compulsive shopping. But there’s little research to show how many of us occupy this in-between. What few statistics do exist show that as many as 8% to 10% of the population may consist of overshoppers, according to Carrie Rattle, a financial therapist and coach. But in a culture in which we’re bombarded by advertising even in spaces that are supposed to be personal, like social media, how can we possibly escape shopping’s sweet siren call?
Therein lies a dilemma, says Rattle, who runs New York–based Behavioral Cents and works in particular with women who overshop. She points out that we can never stop buying clothes altogether—eventually they’ll wear out. That’s why she calls shopping the “smiled-upon addiction,” because our culture almost celebrates it. (Just look at the $550 Balenciaga “retail therapy” shirt.)
But about half of Rattle’s clients come to her not looking to solve a financial problem—in fact, they have no debt. But they do have feelings of shame that stem from their compulsivity, and that’s ultimately what they seek to change.
The pandemic could be partly to blame, as it has heightened the intense desire for shopping that previously laid dormant in some. Since March 2020, Rattle has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of women approaching her for help. These women run the gamut from those who grew up in low-income backgrounds and felt the urge to spend after their first taste of success to those who grew up in privileged homes and felt that money was limitless.
“When you have a life-changing event like COVID, there’s fear, no control, uncertainty,” Rattle says. “All of these emotions are so extreme that you need to be able to cope somehow. So [for] people who sort of enjoyed shopping before as a happy thing, now it was their escape mechanism.”
For Kate,* a 30-year-old working in the fashion industry in Philadelphia, her shopping habits started in her senior year of high school with her first job. From there, they never really stopped, pandemic be damned.
“My salary has increased since [high school], but I think the total percent of my disposable income spent on clothing has remained about the same, which is dark,” she said. “I make excuses for myself now that the clothes are better produced in small batches or I’m buying on Poshmark, but the impulse is still the same.”
She purchases on average about two items a week, by her estimate, which she admits “doesn’t sound bad.” But a glance around her apartment reveals folded piles of clothes on the floor and in the closet. She jokingly calls herself a “hoarder.”
Part of the motivation for women like Kate is rooted in adrenaline—it’s the thrill of the hunt, finding something unexpected, and the thrill of possession, owning something interesting and spotted only by you. There is a creativity to it for Kate, a desire to re-create something expensive or designer with thrifted items or discount treasures from off-price retailers.
And on the days when she finds something so perfect—the right size, the right style, the right brand—it does feel meant to be. On a recent shopping trip, Kate found never-worn Cole Haan sling-back kitten heels priced at $4.99.
“They were just my size, they’re within my budget—what are the odds? I can’t walk away now,” she said. “On the few occasions that I do walk away, 75% of the time it is the right decision, but there is that nagging 25% where you go back and it’ll never be there again. I just have to take this as a sign from the universe that we were destined to be together.”
Every so often Kate challenges herself to take a week or two off from buying. Inevitably, something comes up—a tough week, boredom, or a looming occasion.
Elle, a 23-year-old who lives in Los Angeles and works in the tech industry, started to buy herself little gifts during the pandemic as a way to cheer herself up. She felt excited by the prospect of knowing a package was waiting for her or chatting with salespeople once stores opened up. Plus, buying clothes gave her a sense of identity.
“When I go shopping, it makes me feel powerful and important,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m put together and spending money on this thing that I want. It makes me feel like I’m gifting myself with something and I’ve ‘made it.’”
She’s now able to take a step back and correlate her purchases to times of anxiety and a lack of self-esteem. Now that she makes more money, she says she’s actually spending less.
But she also knows how quickly that itch can go from one purchase to a flood. At the start of the pandemic, she was buying so much that she hid packages from her roommates, not wanting them to see how much she spent each week.
It was the lack of control that left her feeling helpless. Even when she entered a store looking for something specific, she inevitably left with a few more things not on her list. Staying within a set budget was difficult.
Rattle feels we’re in a specific moment when it comes to overshopping. She calls it a “perfect storm” of three factors: big retail companies mastering psychology, like sending repeat emails the second an item gets added to an online shopping cart; social media feeds us constant ideas of who we should be and who we’re not; and a largely cashless society removes us from the money actually available in our bank accounts.
“We’re all vulnerable. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re dejected, you shop,” Rattle said. “Compulsivity comes when it just becomes tough so often that it becomes a behavior.”
How do we know when our shopping has crossed the border from a little too much to a full-blown issue?
“It [could] become a problem when it starts harming your life in some way and you can’t stop,” Rattle said. That might look like hiding your purchases from your partner, adverse effects at work, or even social numbness and isolation.
For many of us, the consequences aren’t that dire, but we know how easy it is to blindly listen to that impulse. I’ve tried to take weeks or even months off from shopping, but I always go back. The joy outweighs the guilt.
So what is the eventual solution? I know I can’t stop buying altogether—none of us can. But maybe dissecting what is guiding my inevitable next purchase is the first step toward some sort of shopping enlightenment.
The next time I spot a cute new floral dress or yet another “perfect” tee, I’ll ask myself what I really want this item to accomplish. Is this about sprinkling a little delight or necessity into my life or a search for a temporary high to fill a void?
And maybe, for now, the act of asking that question will be enough.
Elizabeth Djinis is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida, whose work has appeared in several publications including The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Poynter, and National Geographic.