Claire Davidson
December 27, 2014 9:49 am

I was standing in the shower, lathering up, and letting my mind drift off to what I’d do tomorrow, when suddenly I began thinking about an outfit I wanted to buy. This wasn’t an unusual daydream of mine, but in this particular instance it stopped me cold. Could I really be this careless? I thought to myself, letting the water splash me in the eyes. Apparently, yes. Yes I could.

The things is, I had recently racked up a substantial amount of credit card debt. Anyone with a credit card can tell you that a lot of debt is NOT okay, and quite frankly, a little bit scary. The interest charges on my purchases were steadily accumulating, and each month I found myself struggling to make ends meet even though I had a decent-paying job and had recently moved to a more affordable apartment to save money. My mom, who is the kindest, most wonderful person I know, offered to help me get out of this financial mess. She had remembered the fear on my face during our talk; I, somehow, had forgotten it 30 minutes later when I began fantasizing about shopping (I KNOW, I know).

When I became aware of this irony, I knew I had a serious problem. I’ve always claimed I’m “not very good with money” but why did I feel so immobilized to do anything about it? Why did I think the same habits that got me into this mess would get me out of it? I suddenly realized the real issue was lurking behind my constant desire to buy things. I let the water wash over me for a moment as the guilt mounted. I had been picturing this really pretty dress at a local boutique and dreamt up all the places I would wear it. Places real-life me doesn’t even go: to tea (sorry, what?) to poetry readings, to fancy dinners. As cheesy and embarrassing as it may sound, I began to dream about how this piece of clothing would impress people; I began to think of the woman it would make me.

In that moment in the shower, my mind began to fetishize buying new things as a means of starting over. My daydreams told me to ignore the problems reflected on my bank statement by turning my attention instead to the glamorous person I could be if I just bought one more outfit. That was the kicker right there: trying to rationalize wanting something just once more. As someone who’s naturally interested in psychology and has had her fair share of therapy, I recognized that rationalization as addict speak. A guilty feeling clung to me in the shower—one I couldn’t wash off—when I realized I might actually be addicted to shopping. When I sat down to take stock of my shopping habits, I was instantly aware of all the signs of my behavior that mirrored an addiction, such as:

I wanted to keep my behavior secret

I wanted to flaunt my new things, sure, but I didn’t want people to know I had just spent a bunch of money when they’d hear me complain about not being able to afford parking the next day. This was a red flag. If I had the money to pay for these things in the first place, I wouldn’t feel badly about people knowing I had bought them. But because I don’t, I wanted to keep my purchases a secret. I wanted people to think my new clothes were older items I hadn’t worn in a while, or gifts, or—and this might be the worst—that I made enough money to buy new things all the time. The truth is, I don’t, and the second I started dreaming about my new outfit, the belief that I would have to keep it secret quickly followed. Addiction breeds secrets.

I felt a euphoric high when thinking of the possibility of new things

Whenever my mind wandered long enough like it did that day in the shower, I’d begin dreaming of buying something new. When I thought of these new things I’d feel a euphoric sensation—a rush like no other feeling. It went beyond excitement, and turned into determination: I would have to buy that new outfit because of how good it would make me feel. I would think that if I had this new outfit, I could become a new person: a more capable, attractive, perfect person. We all fall into the trap of believing external things will give us a sense of self-worth, but when I became aware of just how much I was trapped by this belief, it felt ludicrous. If I think a statement necklace or signature scent is going to make me the woman I am, I have been sorely confused. My life is my statement: my laugh, my thoughts, how well I show the people I love that I love them. Those are the things that define who I am, not an item of clothing.

I was attempting to solve a problem with the same behavior that had caused the problem

Shame from having an addiction can cause people to seek out the very thing they’re addicted to simply because it’s become their crutch. This creates a vicious cycle. I felt so ashamed that day about my debt issues, that when I wanted to feel better, I turned to the very activity (shopping) that had caused it. It doesn’t sound logical, because it isn’t, but it’s a natural tendency of someone who’s dependent on something that’s bad for them. My reckless spending made me feel like I was on cloud nine, but it caused huge financial problems. Those problems made me feel ashamed, and instead of facing them, my addiction made me want to escape that responsibility and seek out the same euphoric feeling I had once felt.

The more I thought about it, the more shopping seemed impossible not to do

As crazy as it sounds, the more I pictured buying this new outfit, the happier I felt, and when my brain began to tell me I was being irresponsible, my initial reaction was to make excuses and rationalize my way out of it. “I need new clothes for work!” I would think. “My future career success is dependent on me buying this outfit!” Before I realized I had a problem with shopping, my default reaction was to defend my addiction with excuses I wouldn’t be able to argue with, making it impossible not to repeat my actions. Once I began poking holes in my arguments, however, I saw that I was defending my bad behavior like a child. In reality, I had plenty of clothes for work and knew that while it’s important to look professional, one’s wardrobe does not earn them promotions.

I adapted the just one more mentality

The conversation with my mother that day should have snapped me out of my spending spree, but somehow I attempted to justify going shopping one last time because deep down I knew it was irresponsible and I wanted to get one last fix before I changed my ways for good. How many times have you heard a smoker say it’s their last cigarette? If I was going to fix my addiction I would have to go cold turkey: I wouldn’t allow myself to buy any personal items that were not groceries or toiletries for six months.

So, what did I do?

Recognizing the ways in which my behavior mirrored other addictions has changed the way I view my spending and was an important step in changing my shopping habits and the way I view money.  I realize now I’m not just someone who likes to shop, but someone with an innate desire to buy new things when I’m feeling inadequate. While I’m by no means financially “healthy” yet, I’m working on taking tiny steps to change.

For example, I’ve signed up for mint.com, a free service that tells you where your money is going. They send you weekly emails on what categories you’ve spent the most on (food, clothes, entertainment) and offer suggestions on how to save money. They also let you set financial goals. My first one has been paying off my credit card debt. I gave my credit card to my mother and vowed to set aside a certain amount of dough each paycheck towards paying off the balance. Now both she (and mint.com) remind me of that goal.

I’ve also started exploring ways to gently remind myself that I’m good enough the way I am, without new things. One major eye-opener has been going through my closet and donating what I don’t want to charity. How can I justify running up credit card debt on unnecessary clothes when some people have nothing at all?

Admitting these financial missteps to myself (and now all of you!) isn’t easy, but I’m glad I’m digging in to the deeper issues at stake. Learning to break free from addictive behavior and understanding what’s at the root of it can be tremendously freeing. Aiming to esteem myself based on the quality of my character instead of the clothes on my back is a lesson I’ll need to keep studying, but the perfect one to re-examine as I delve into the new year.

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