When the pandemic arrived in the United States, shopping malls, boutiques and cafes closed their doors to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Since you couldn’t easily spend your cash at your local usual haunts—or on any of the activities or trips you planned— you may have found yourself doing a bit more digital browsing.
Maybe you ordered knitting or gardening supplies to keep you happy and calm. Or you ordered so many books, you still have a stack of unread ones on your nightstand. Maybe you put money in your savings account after your stimulus check arrived this spring, then decided that you deserved a treat since everything is so strange. And then another treat. And another.
Fast forward to now, and you may be surrounded by a sea of cardboard boxes and packing peanuts wondering where all your money went. What did you even buy? Was it worth it?
As the world slowly returns to some version of normal, you might be wondering how to get your budget back on track.
Don’t get frustrated with yourself for shopping too much. A little pandemic shopping spree is more common than you might expect. And a few small steps can help you reset your finances as we enter one of the most expensive parts of the year.
Why We Shop When We’re Anxious or Sad
When we spend money, we make a concrete decision to exchange the dollars we’ve earned for something in return. It can feel satisfying to exercise your personal authority, especially during times when you don’t get a lot of say in other parts of your life. (Like if your state told you to stay at home for a few months.)
“Shopping was a way to treat yourself and assert some control back over your life,” said Steve Pilloff, a finance professor at the School of Business at George Mason University. He described an online shopper’s early pandemic train of thought: “I’m going to get this new shirt. I’m going to punch some buttons, it’s going to come to me, and things are going to work the way they’re supposed to.”
But that control and satisfaction you feel when you shop doesn’t always last. And sometimes the quest to achieve it can even backfire on you.
You might be feeling what’s called the “misery is not miserly” effect. Coined by a group of American psychologists more than 10 years ago, it’s the impact sad events have on your willingness to spend money. Your sadness carries over to unrelated financial decisions, and can lead you to spend more than you would have chosen otherwise.
The cycle goes like this: Something makes you feel bad about yourself or your personal situation. You want to feel better and improve your situation. You think, “Buying this one thing will fix me,” and because you convince yourself you need to make the purchase, you’re willing to pay more for it.
OK, maybe you spent a bit more than you planned. But you’ve at least got some new stuff. Why don’t you feel better?
Online shoppers know the happy feeling that bubbles up twice: first when you hit the “order” button and later when the package arrives on your doorstep. But our brains can be fooled into thinking the anticipation of receiving a package is the real excitement of receiving a package, said Maggie Baker, a psychologist and financial therapist and the author of “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It.” “It creates a dopamine rush, to be expecting this great thing,” she said. That dopamine rush is normal, but if you keep chasing that feeling, you could easily lose sight of your budgetary restrictions.
And everyone’s received at least one package that didn’t live up to its online shine. Baker said the disappointment of a delivery that falls short of what you expected, plus the process of returning the items and dealing with customer service can leave you with a doubly strong sense of regret. So you chase the high all over again by ordering something new.
Lather, rinse, and repeat the process all pandemic long, and you might just now be starting to realize you can’t shop away your coronavirus fears and feelings.
3 Ways to Retrain Your Brain After a Pandemic Shopping Spree
Because of the pandemic, your internal budget regulator may be off, Pilloff said, explaining that even people who don’t keep a strict budget usually have an idea of how much they can afford to spend in various categories. “But those guard rails become a lot less useful when everything changes.”
“If buying something and waiting for the package makes you feel good, okay, fine,” Baker said. “But strategize how you’re going to do it.”
1. Make Your Budget Official
Pilloff recommended creating an explicit budget for the next few months, either on paper, a digital spreadsheet or budgeting app. Doing so now can help you plan for the holiday shopping season when temptations like to crop up around every corner. While you may discover you have less to spend this holiday that in previous years, don’t focus on your disappointment, he cautioned. Focus on the numbers in front of you and the budget you have to work with.
“When you write it down, you make it official,” Pilloff said. That concrete budget can act as an external regulator that’s easier to adhere to than trying to keep track of approximate amounts in your head.
Baker said to write that amount down on a Post-It or piece of paper and put it where you can see it—perhaps next to your laptop or on your bathroom mirror.
2. Give Yourself a Curfew
Once you know how much you can realistically spend, Baker said to give yourself a shopping curfew. It turns out our decision-making abilities decline in relation to how tired we are. Baker suggests 10 p.m., but you may want to cut yourself off even earlier—especially if you’ve partaken in happy hour or had a beverage or two at dinner. “The willpower to resist is going to wear down after dinner,” she said.
3. Don’t Hide From Your Mistakes—Examine Them
If you find yourself shopping again, Baker said don’t punish yourself. “Try to identify what it was that pushed you to break your own rules,” she said. Ask yourself, “If that’s what pushed me, next time, how can I avoid doing that?”
If you find yourself browsing your favorite clothing store’s website when you’re feeling lonely, can you call a friend instead? If boredom makes the online clearance section call your name, try keeping the supplies for your favorite hobby where you can easily see them from the place you do most of your internet browsing. This will remind you that there are other ways to fight your boredom.
That moment of self-reflection can help you take a tangible lesson into your next shopping experience, instead of a vague feeling of guilt.
You may not be able to control how quickly life gets back to some version of normal. But you can regroup and set some new boundaries that work for your lifestyle right now.