Is a purchase like the nourishing thirst-quench of OJ? Or the giddy high of sparkling wine?
DH = Dear Husband
Last week, I wrote a post about the fact that, after almost 3 years of debt-reduction – and nearing the point where we’ll be debt-free except for the mortgage – I feel like I’m hitting “the wall”. My strategy to push past it? The renovations that DH and I have been looking forward to doing and that we’ve delayed for the sake of debt-reduction. A sweet reward planned for our soon-to-be-achieved milestone of paying off our massive business debt.
It’s a good strategy. The delayed gratification of those renovations will hopefully give us the break and encouragement needed to psyche up and start all over again on the biggest debt of all: our mortgage. But I’m feeling a nagging self-doubt.
“Enjoying” vs. “tripping on” purchases
In my post last week, I wrote about how great it felt to talk about our planned renovations. “I was high on visions of tile, hardwood, and leather furniture,” I wrote. And about our trips to furniture stores, “there were undeniably several drug-like hits of sheer joy . . . ” My question was, “Can efforts to become financially wise co-exist with the high that sometimes comes with plans to purchase?”
Kay: ” I have total faith that you can pay off your debt AND be happy making your home exactly the way you guys want it.”
Chonce: “And to answer your question, yes I believe you can be financially sensible and get excited about much needed purchases.”
Kim: “You can most definitely be financially fit and enjoy buying things. That’s why you earn money, to spend on things you value.”
A consensus seemed to emerge, but as I keyed in on Kim’s comment about it being fine to “enjoy buying things,” I identified what it was that was making me doubt. I was more than “enjoying” our plans to renovate and furnish. My use of words like “high” and “drug-like hits” were not light and cutesy. They were bang on.
Most of us tend to think of addictions as being related to substances like drugs or alcohol, but that view only tells part of the story. According to an article from HelpGuide.org, Understanding Addiction, “Neuroimaging technologies and more recent research, however, have shown that certain pleasurable activities, such as gambling, shopping, and sex, can also co-opt the brain.” There it is: shopping. Right in with gambling and sex as a possible addiction.
“Shopaholic” is a term that has come to be accepted in the past couple of decades. It is generally associated with rather ditzy women, and it is usually portrayed as funny. A mild, eye-rolling annoyance that has to be tolerated – usually by husbands. If I look around, I see some evidence of the stereotype shopaholic, but I also see male addicts, as well as females who in all other ways seem to have their heads securely attached. And far from being a mild annoyance, it’s a stubborn compulsion that can lead to overwhelming financial and marital stress. “Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as cardiovascular disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. This happens as the brain goes through a series of changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behavior.”
Am I going too far here? After all, it makes sense that I’d be excited about plans to renovate and refurnish – especially with the timing involved. We’ll be marking our approaching freedom from all non-mortgage debt with something special, long desired – and completely practical too. I don’t want to become so “steady” that good fortune doesn’t even register on me. Happiness is a great response to good progress.
But I’m suspicious because I’m aware of something other than simple “happiness”. “The likelihood that the use of a drug or participation in a rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly linked to the speed with which it promotes dopamine release, the intensity of that release . . .” I would have to say that I experienced an old familiar “rush” almost as soon as DH brought up the topic of renovations with me during our Easter week-end drive.
Threat of relapse?
“In nature, rewards usually come only with time and effort.” With time and effort, DH and I have been reducing our debt. Thousands of little decisions to cut spending, to take on extra work, to say “no” to things we want to do and buy . . . They’ve added up, and our reward is the significant milestone we’re approaching. “Addictive drugs and behaviors provide a shortcut, flooding the brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Our brains do not have an easy way to withstand the onslaught . . . people who develop an addiction risk relapse even after years of abstinence.” We all know someone who has lost a lot of weight and then gained it right back again. Am I going to have the same experience with debt? Working it off diligently, only to dive right back into it as dopamine floods my brain with every long-delayed purchase? Not an encouraging thought.
I think that debtors can learn a lot from alcoholics who have succeeded in maintaining sobriety. Watch out for the triggers. Take it day by day. Adopt the attitude of managing your predisposition rather than curing it.
I’m not convinced that I’m a bona fide shopaholic, but I am pretty sure that our initial renovation talks involved more dopamine release than was healthy. I’m glad we’re not rushing into it right away. We’ll have time to work out the details and to question the wisdom of each decision along the way. It’s still something to look forward to. It’s still a celebration of a really encouraging milestone. And I want to look forward. I want to celebrate. I just want to do it sober.
Do you think shopping really can be an addiction? Do you think there is a difference between happiness and dopamine release? Am I taking my “rush” too seriously? Your comments are welcome.