I have a confession to make. I turned 30 a month ago, and despite my newly-minted status as a *proper* adult, I’m embarrassed to admit that I only have $9,000 in savings.
I started working full-time at 20—you do the math.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that a bulk of my salary goes towards livin’ large and…*cue the drumroll* shopping.
I just love spending on fashion. Tiny ridiculous purses that fit nothing, cut-out blazers, feathered heels—basically anything that made my heart flutter, I’d willingly part with my money. In fact, at the height of my expenditure, I could spend up to $1,200 a month on shopping only.
But while I quickly earned the title of #fashiongoals, I was also dangerously close to becoming Isla Fisher’s character in Confessions Of A Shopaholic. To many, it is a light-hearted romantic comedy filled with fun shopping montages. To me, it was a horror movie, one that could predict my dire future if I didn’t curb my habits before they become dangerous.
Signs of shopping addiction
Did I have a problem? Was I addicted to shopping to a point where it could potentially ruin my life? When does shopping move from a fun leisurely activity to a full-blown addiction? Well, according to Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist I spoke with at Gleneagles Hospital, these are some of the signs that one is addicted to shopping.
“You will feel that your shopping behaviour is out of control but you are not able to stop. The behaviour preoccupies you and takes precedence over your life and your work,” he says. “You may miss work or not attend social events just so that you can shop. Many a time, the shopping may lead to harmful consequences like credit card debts. If you are not able to or not allowed to shop you may get agitated, restless and anxious.”
Was this me? While I’ve never gone into debt, I have prioritised frivolous purchases over repaying loans and bills before. There were also times where I wouldn’t allow myself to go to bed (on a work night no less!) without combing through the entire sale section of a site—all 27 pages or so.
I decided it was time to go cold turkey and impose a shopping ban on myself.
Here’s what I discovered.
The binge happens before the purge
In the impending days leading up to the ban, I went CRAZY. I was frantically combing the internet for discount codes on some of the stores I already had wishlists on, hoping to clear them out before the ban started—especially if my items were low on stock. This ended up with me receiving parcels well into the ban. Was this cheating? I wasn’t entirely sure, but I figured it might help to curb any urges I get during the 30 days.
Total amount spent? $370.54. This was NOT off to a good start. But then I recalled Dr Lim telling me that a single episode of overspending is not a sign of addiction, so I’m safe… for now.
I had an overwhelming amount of stuff
Next, I took a scan of my finances and looked at the new items in my closet. It was a lot. I had gone on a holiday to Japan a few months ago (aka holiday spending), a press trip to Barcelona (hello discounted ZARA) and general press gifting meant that I had A LOT of new things. I loved everything that I had bought, but I wasn’t wearing them immediately either. Why? Was it because I was more interested in the idea of amassing a wardrobe as opposed to wearing the pieces in said wardrobe?
When I asked Dr Lim on why we feel compelled to buy things we don’t need, he alluded to how easily susceptible we are towards clever marketing, much more than we think. “We often like to emulate successful individuals and key opinion leaders (like celebrities and influencers) used in advertising to promote products. This gives consumers the impression that the product will make their lives or themselves better.”
In fact, this article from the now-defunct Racked titled “Everything You’re Wearing Is Because Someone Hot Did It First” couldn’t have phrased it any better.
The more painful it is to shop, the easier it is to stop yourself
You know the phrase “Out of sight, out of mind”? It’s so true. If I wasn’t aware of the things I could buy, I wouldn’t be able to buy them. I decided to remove as much temptation as possible. I shopped the most online, so this meant unsubscribing to shopping alerts, email newsletters, deleting apps as well as muting all my favourite brands and influencers on Instagram.
According to Dr Lim, FOMO is a great incentive. “Marketers will use tactics that induce the fear of missing out in a shopper by including time-limited products. Shoppers themselves sometimes feel compelled to buy things they don’t need as they may worry that they may need it somewhere in the future or in emergencies”.
With that knowledge, I unsubscribed myself off of all my shopping alerts. Painful, but necessary. These alerts were alerting me to special discounts and enticing me to spend during off-peak seasons. This enabled me to spend more than I allotted myself every month on the guise that it was a bargain and something that I would eventually purchase.
The next was to delete all my shopping apps. I had about 15 on my phone. I got rid of all of them. I figured if it was more cumbersome for me to have to log in to a site, I might get annoyed by the hassle of it all. This also helped stop the mindless scrolling I would indulge in when I was watching shows on my laptop or when I was on public transport. Shopping had become a filler for me. While people take smoke breaks, I took shopping breaks.
Also read: Op-ed: Why I Gave Up Wearing A Bra
I was obsessed with being stylish
Once I had placed physical barriers in front of me, I now wanted to determine the emotional factors that led me to shop.
And here’s what I discovered: I tied fashion too strongly to my identity as a person. And how could I not? It was my profession, my interest and my hobby. It encompassed so many parts of my life.
Why? Because it was one of the few things that I discovered I was good at.
Growing up, I never felt popular or special. While I was friends with the popular girls and adjacent to them, I never received even a fraction of the attention that they got. But all that changed the moment I started consuming fashion. I took the knowledge I devoured and poured it into the way I dressed and started receiving compliments on my outfits.
That severely boosted my confidence and taught me that while I couldn’t be the prettiest or richest person in the room, I could always work towards becoming a creative and stylish individual. That was something no one could take away from me.
Consequently, I clung that fiercely to my identity. And as superficial as that may sound, I always wanted to be one of those well-dressed women street style photographers captured that I so desperately looked up to. That if I had the right outfit, my life would become better, or at the very least look better on the outside.
People think of fashion as a superficial matter, but you don’t realise how much psychology goes into what you wear daily. And as much as we hate to admit it, it’s also one of the first impressions you can give a person who knows nothing about you at all. I was so afraid that if I didn’t dress interesting, people would automatically assume I was boring. Or *gasp* basic.
The rewards system is the same as any other addiction like drugs or alcohol
When people are upset, they turn to a vice. For some, drinking with friends works as a great escape. For me, it was obtaining a fashion item. It suddenly became jarringly simple. I received compliments when people love my outfits which thus makes me feel good about myself. So whenever I get depressed, I turn to the thing that affirms my self-esteem. Shopping was just a way to curb the insecurities that I was feeling, to obtain that boost of serotonin that my brain was craving for.
Dr Lim shares with us that shopping addiction is just like any other behavioural addiction. “In behavioural addiction, the behaviour (in this case shopping) can produce a strong feeling of gratification or positive reinforcement in the brain that makes the person want to do it over and over again even if it interferes negatively with his or her life.”
“Recovery” is a lifelong process
So, after all of that, was my ban successful? Yes and no. I wish I could sit here and tell you how I succeeded and thus far, will never be shopping ever again. But, full disclosure: I relapsed 4 days before the ban ended. But I was overseas and it was only $24. So… holiday spending?
Going full-on cold turkey also wasn’t the best way to deal with my shopping issues, especially if my profession put my “sobriety” at risk every day. Like any recovering addict, I needed to take smaller, achievable steps that wouldn’t shame me if I couldn’t attain them. For example, I would now allocate a budget for my shopping expenditure every month. And rather than a fixed number a month, I will allocate different amounts to ensure some leeway during holidays and sale periods and reduce the amount on off-peak periods to make up for that.
Evidence of me giving in to my compulsions. Also shoutout to Audrey aka @tippytoess who basically held me accountable during this press trip we were on.
I also did not re-install my apps or re-subscribe to any of my mailing lists. The brands and the influencers that most “influenced” me to shop were all left on mute. The influencers especially. What used to be a source of inspiration had now become a daily reminder of how there were tons of people out there who seemed to be effortlessly more stylish than me. I decided it was in my best interest to stop negatively comparing myself to others. Those things while seemingly small did help to curb my impulses. And for the sake of my wallet (and my sanity), I decided to continue implementing those behaviours.
It’s tough when you build up factors that have been a part of your identity for so long. And while I don’t think I can fully eliminate fashion as a part of who I am as a person—it did bring about a fulfilling career and friendships that I treasure—I can try to separate the fear and insecurity I feel when I’m not encompassed by it.
While I will continue to indulge in fashion as an appreciation of design and a way to express my creativity, I will no longer be recklessly buying. So to my fellow shopaholics and fashion fiends out there, join me—or at least don’t text me the next time you’ve been invited to a sample sale.
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