Personal Finance

How to stop wanting more stuff

Expert tips to tame your shopping habit and be happier with less.

Expert tips to tame your shopping habit and be happier with less

A person sitting on a couch with their laptop on their lap. They're wearing headphones and holding a credit card.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Before phrases like "one-click shopping" and "everyday essentials" became buzzwords, shopping was often a chore — the thing we had to do to cover our bodies and feed our families. These days, particularly in North America, people treat it as a pastime or even a hobby. 

But for many of us, this shift is affecting the quality of our lives. We might be feeling ready to regain control of our garages, our wallets and our landfills. Here's how to curb the urge and use shopping for what it is — a pragmatic process for getting what you need. 

What's wrong with shopping?

Nothing, when it's based on meeting a need and not an emotion, says Carrie Rattle, a  Canadian American financial coach/therapist who runs Behavioral Cents in New York City. 

True compulsive shopping — of the kind that requires treatment — only occurs in about five to six per cent of the population, says Sunghwan Yi, a professor of marketing and consumer studies at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont., who has spent 10 years studying the internal and external cues that get people to buy things they don't need.

But, he said, "It is totally possible that many of us who would not be diagnosed as pathological compulsive buyers may be doing too much shopping."

So when does shopping become problematic? If you're having trouble finding a place for all the things you've bought or you feel overwhelmed trying to manage it all, it may be a sign. Rattle points out that our stuff has spawned whole new markets, such as container stores and decluttering experts, that were not around 50 years ago.

The desire to buy is also hitting us financially. Data from August shows that the average consumer has just over $4,000 in credit card balances, which is up nine per cent from the year before. And then there's the impact of all this stuff on our planet — per capita, Canada is one of the biggest producers of waste in the world. 

There are plenty of good reasons to cut back on shopping. So why do we find it so hard to do?

Why do we shop?

In short, it feels good — at least for a while. 

When we experience an unpleasant emotion, such as boredom, anger or guilt, or if we struggle with anxiety or depression, it's human nature to want to quiet those feelings by distracting ourselves, says Yi. "Oftentimes the easiest thing is to imbibe, you know, alcohol or … engross yourself into, say, shopping and buying," he said. "You basically temporarily forget about this negative feeling about yourself."

According to Rattle, we are currently experiencing a "perfect storm" of different sectors and industries that are reinforcing this instinct to use shopping to self-soothe: social media, the financial industry and retail.

Every day on social media, we see people with perfectly curated lives. "Twenty years ago, we probably [would] only see these people in, say, popular magazines," said Yi. This barrage leads to what he terms "upward social comparison" and the feeling that you are deprived or even that you are poor. But he said, "You're comparing yourself with probably, like, the top five or 10 per cent of the population [in terms of wealth] in the world."

In a powerful two-sided assault on those feelings of not measuring up, the parent companies of TikTok, YouTube and Instagram have all recently launched e-commerce shops or announced partnerships with companies like Shopify and Amazon so you can purchase something you've seen in an influencer's post without ever leaving their platforms. 

Also, the financial industry has evolved to the point where shopping is almost too easy. We no longer need to hand over cash or even a credit card to pay for goods or services, says Rattle. "So you have, like, the one-click wonder in Amazon," she said. "And you can pay through your Apple phone."

Then there are the retailers. They are masters of money psychology and have been working on manipulating us for decades: "Retail sells you an emotional promise and attaches a product to it," said Rattle. "You will magically transform if you buy this. Your life will be better." 

Rattle explains there are four main ways retailers prey on our emotions. The first is with phrases like "one-day sale" or "only two left in stock," which trigger our fear of missing out, or FOMO. But in fact, sales happen all the time, and items are always being restocked. Then, seeing "trending" items and "[insert celebrity name here]'s favourite things" suggests others are buying these things and we should, too, if we want to fit in.

Another tactic is to position getting the best deal as a sport. Prompts like "countdown to Christmas" and "race to Black Friday" make you want to win the game. And finally, retailers take aim at our self-worth. "Essentials for holiday decorating" is a pretty powerful phrase, said Rattle. The underlying message, she said, is: "You won't be good enough unless your house looks like this."

Try to be skeptical of these tactics, suggests Rattle. Ask yourself, "If I don't buy this item, what's the worst that will happen?" or "Is this a deal if it sits on my credit card for a year at 20 per cent [interest]?" If you want to get really fired up, Rattle recommends, which tracks deceptive marketing schemes and false advertising by major brands. 

How do we stop? 

Rattle offers two strategies for making better shopping decisions. 

The first is to build in a pause between the urge to buy and the purchase. We can do this by planning ahead. She suggests calmly making a list of what you need, on paper or in a note on your phone — don't use an online shopping cart as a wish list. Review your list with a critical eye when it's time to buy, and try to shop only once a week. 

Rattle suggests putting your phone away at night and keeping it out of the bedroom. The constant advertising when you scroll will wear you down, she says. She also recommends using an app to block certain URLs during vulnerable times. If you notice you tend to shop in the evenings after the kids go to bed, for example, that's a good time to use an app to set a limit. 

When it comes to holiday spending, remember to focus on people, not products. Give some thought to what people actually want. Could it be more time with you? Rattle suggests parents ask themselves an additional question: "What did you buy [your kids] last year, and what did they end up really using?"

Rattle's second strategy for controlling the desire to shop is what she calls filling your well in advance — essentially taking care of yourself. Real self-care, says Rattle, is not buying yourself a gift. "It's trying to get sleep, eating properly, having quiet time for yourself if at all possible, [and] practising gratitude."

We also need to manage our stress, she says. That's always easier said than done, but Rattle suggests using the acronym HALT — don't shop when you're hungry, angry, lonely or tired. In those moments, she advises, try taking five deep breaths instead of reaching for your phone. 

Less stuff, more life

Yi says when he came to the United States from South Korea in 1998, he noticed North American consumers weren't judged for seeking instant gratification in the way they would have been in Korea. 

He stresses that seeking pleasure in shopping isn't inherently bad, but we are blurring the line between the everyday and special occasions.

"One thing that I often imagine is that, say, for example, my grandmother, who passed away at the age of 92 or 93 — if she became alive and [saw how] my fellow North Americans live, she would say that these people basically live like they have festivities every day." 

He compares it to having club-size packages of sweets in the house or eating fast food several times a week instead of considering them treats. "It's not very healthy for you to have access to all these sweet foods and delights every day, because this also reduces [their] value," he said. 

"We are all human," said Rattle, "with basic needs like love … and belonging. Material items can never fill these needs. The more we focus on people instead of products, the more we get out of our heads and into the world to listen to, appreciate and respect each other. Living without stuff can bring an amazing feeling of lightness and clarity." 


Jen Lauriault is a Collingwood, Ont.-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Maclean’s, Today’s Parent and Chatelaine.

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