Shopping for self-worth

We’re a nation that loves to shop. It’s almost too easy to browse and buy from our smartphones. People buy on their way to work, as a form of procrastination, when they’re sad—for every and any reason. By the end of 2019, the number of online shoppers in Australia is predicted to reach 20.3 million. This is great for retailers, not so much for our wallets.

But what happens when this pick-me-up habit goes too far? Are there dangers to using shopping as a mood booster?

Shopping as a mood regulating device

The most recent ABS National Health Survey estimated there were 4.8 million Australians with a mental or behavioural condition in 2017-18 and 45 per cent of Australians had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. Mental health has become a more prominent issue among young Australians. The Mission Australia Can We Talk? report released this October revealed the rates of psychological distress experienced by young people have continued to rise over the past seven years.

With the increasing number of Australians suffering from mental health issues, it is not a surprise there is a link between spending and mental health. While shopping can boost your mood and be a positive vehicle for self-expression, growing numbers of people develop unsustainable, unhealthy and addictive shopping behaviours.

Poor mental health has been proven to contribute to unhealthy spending patterns. In a survey of 5000 people conducted by UK charity Money and Mental Health, nine out of ten respondents with mental health issues said they overspent and struggled to make sensible financial decisions when unwell. The survey uncovered a variety of unhealthy spending patterns linked to poor mental health, such as overspending and buying unaffordable items to boost one’s self-worth.

Maisie finds she regularly buys film cameras even though she doesn’t use them all. Photo: Ailish Delaney.

University student Maisie, 21, suffers from depression and recognises she uses shopping as a coping mechanism for poor mental health episodes. “I always feel like whenever I feel really sad and bad about myself, I turn to shopping because I feel like at least if I look nice and my outfit looks good then I’m a better person,” she says.

Looking at her overflowing wardrobe she muses, “I make the correlation in my head that if I look better then maybe I’ll feel better which is why I spend a lot of money on clothing.”

As well as regulating mood and mental health, shopping can be used as an activity to lower stress and tension. Perth shop assistant Danica Spear, 21, lives with anxiety and depression and believes her mental health greatly impacts her shopping habits. She finds shopping to be a good distraction for when she is stressed.

“When you’re shopping you’re buying something that makes you feel good. It’s kind of like a fake idealistic notion of self-care,” she says. Although she finds herself participating in self-help shopping frequently, she recognises the absurdity of the process. “I’m buying something for myself to make me feel better even though it only makes me feel better for a really short amount of time, so then you have to do it again which is pretty pointless.”

The Afterpay revolution

Buy-now-pay-later payment options have revolutionised the way we shop. More than a million transactions are made a month using Afterpay and Zip Pay in Australia. BNPL services are attractive to young adults as they provide instant gratification. These types of sales make up 35.6 per cent of online shopping purchases in Australia, with 57 per cent being fashion related. Why pay for something up front when you could pay it off in instalments later?

Beauty and fashion shoppers are mostly young females with similar payment preferences. Photo: Ailish Delaney.

UnitingCare West acting practice lead of financial wellbeing services Balbeer Sidhu says the statistics for Afterpay show its major client group is females aged 16 to 34 who buy things online shopping. “It’s not uncommon now to see every client that comes in to have an Afterpay or Zip Pay [account],” he says. Having the option to simply throw something on Afterpay can be damaging, especially when it comes to spending that is motivated by mental health issues. It’s not always a sustainable service to regularly use, and when financial issues begin to arise, BNPL services can become dangerous.

Sidhu says people tend to have more expenditure with Afterpay. “To apply for a credit card previously, the banks would have done a credit check to check your records to see whether your repayments were late, how much debts you have,” he says. “But for Afterpay, all this is not done because they do not consider themselves as a credit facility. So basically, anyone can have a credit card and an email account and register with Afterpay.”

For Danica Spear, BNPL services help her spend more, particularly when she doesn’t have the spare income. She knows sometimes she shouldn’t spend money but says currently being in credit card debt doesn’t stop her from shopping. “It doesn’t feel like you’re actually spending your own money, especially because you don’t have to pay anything at first,” Spear says.

Laughing, she notes, “It feels like everything is on sale but you know it isn’t because you’re like ‘oh, in the future I’ll probably have the money, so I may as well spend it now’. Even though I know for a fact that I won’t have that money, my brain tells me otherwise when I’m shopping.”

The dopamine effect

Activities like shopping cause the brain to let out dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released during enjoyable situations and stimulates people to seek out the pleasurable activity again. 

Kelmscott clinical psychologist Mercurio Cicchini notes human beings are motivated by the pleasure principle, meaning we’re engineered to avoid pain and feel pleasure. “The most troublesome of habits in any domain, whether it’s spending or stealing or substances, they serve the function of changing an individual’s emotional state from something that’s not quite pleasant to something that’s more pleasant,” he says.

Cicchini points out all addictions and habits have this same underlying mechanism. “If someone is feeling sad or depressed or lonely and they find that by doing something it improves their sense of wellbeing, then using learning theory-type understanding, it means it can be become habit forming,” he says.

Shopping, like any activity, can be used as a substitute way of trying to make someone feel better. “If it’s rewarding it’s put in the brain’s memory bank unconsciously, so when there’s another trigger there is likely to be an impulse to go back to that solution,” Cincchini says.

Perth counsellor Mary O’Brien specialises in anxiety, depression and addiction. She says it’s very understandable to want to change our mood by using distractions. Buying things like sunglasses or a new dress gives us a good feeling for a short time. “We get a little hit of dopamine or serotonin and we’ll be on a high for a while,” she says.

Dopamine helps people become ‘addicted’ to activities. It causes someone to desire and seek out, which is why people find themselves going back to activities like shopping that make them feel good. Dr Susan Weinschenk wrote an article explaining how the dopamine-seeking reward loop is associated with social media. Someone uses their phone and gets a notification, it cues the addictive effect, they feel excited and then continue to scroll for the same rush. This can also be applied to shopping.

The rewarding stimuli include things like water, food, clothing and packages. Interacting with this reward is enough to stimulate a reaction, triggering the release of dopamine. This tells the brain to pay attention searching for more rewarding stimuli. Over time, the brain adjusts and becomes less sensitive to the dopamine, meaning you’ll need more of the rewarding stimuli. This is how shopping can become an addictive habit.

Joondalup business owner Eric Han, 36, says he sometimes spends when he knows that he shouldn’t, but his mental health does not play a large role in that. He receives his dopamine rush from elsewhere. For him, shopping is a last resort attempt at perking up his mood.

Eric Han finds shopping enjoyable but doesn’t rely on it to boost his mood. Photo: Ailish Delaney.

“I don’t use it as a coping mechanism,” he says. “I have other things I use to keep myself occupied and busy like hobbies and stuff, such as my cars.” Han says working on his cars is like therapy where he gains a sense of completion and achievement. “I use that over shopping because shopping can be pretty dangerous.”

Shopping addicts anonymous

Using shopping as a coping mechanism will only give temporary relief from the problem. Whether or not it turns into an addiction depends on the pre-existing vulnerabilities that person has. From a psychological perspective, Cicchini explains that the habit can be more addictive if there are recurring stresses or issues in that person’s life. “If something makes you feel good, chances are when you’re feeling bad you’ll go back to it,” he clarifies. Like the dopamine rewards loop, it becomes a cycle of reaching for your bank card each time you feel down.

O’Brien says the negatives are usually the same for any addiction. “It’s usually short term and may lead to more long-term distress and more severe problems that affect many areas of a person’s life,” she says. However, O’Brien did point out gambling and other behaviours such as shopping cannot be necessary called addictions. “They’re recognised as having both behavioural and neurological similarities to substance addictions,” she explains, and instead should be called ‘addiction-type behaviours’.

Estimates indicate around 14 per cent of people have a mild form of compulsive buying behaviour. Compulsive buyers purchase to relieve stress, improve their self-image and gain social approval, similar to using shopping as a coping mechanism for mental health issues. Research found this condition was more prevalent in young adults, particularly women, which may be because excessive behaviour is often socially acceptable at this age.

Having worked with people struggling with money and mental health issues, Balbeer Sidhu thinks shopping addiction is quite common these days, especially with the availability of BNPL payment options. He says it’s also common someone with mental health issues would not make the best spending decisions when unwell. “If you have a mental health issue which is undiagnosed and you don’t get proper help, then chances are going on a shopping spree or going on a night out where you’re spending a lot of money may feel like they are helping you but you’re probably making it worse,” he says.

How to manage a shopping addiction

If someone wants to cheer themselves up, it’s not a terrible thing to use shopping to do so, but for many people it’s unsustainable. Without long-lasting benefits, the original issue remains unresolved and feeds the addiction-type behaviours.

“The most important note is that emotional problems require emotional solutions not practical ones.”


Explaining further he says, “The temporary respite that somebody gets from shopping or smoking or shooting up, the feeling subsides and they’re still left with the original emotional problem that hasn’t been resolved.” Cicchini recommends seeing a psychologist to deal with a shopping, or any, addiction. “With psychological assistance, they can actually deal with the root of the problem which is the driver of the problem behaviour.”

Ms O’Brien described the stages of change a counsellor or psychologist can help people through.

From a financial perspective, Sidhu recommends changing your spending habits. “It’s best that you deal with that while the debt is still small instead of having it accumulate and going on your credit file.”

“Anyone who is young and leaving school needs to remember what you do today has repercussions for your future … be more cautious and mindful of what you spend your money on.”

If you are struggling and need to speak to someone, reach out to Lifeline 13 11 14 or the National Debt Helpline 1800 007 007.

Categories: General