A Debtor’s Dilemma: “Enjoying” vs. “Tripping On” Purchases

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.

Shopaholic?

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.

Sobriety

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.

 

 

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26 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Awareness of this dopamine release will make it so that your natural high over the renovations won’t become an addiction. There’s nothing wrong with making decisions while under this natural high as long as you’re aware of it.

    • I’m hoping you’re right, DD2. I know that I used to be very unaware of my motivations for spending. I spent a lot with my head in the sand. “Conscious spending” is a huge part of turning personal finances around – and I’m sure this applies even when dopamine clouds things up a bit. Thanks for your insightful comment : )

  • Well you have one big support group right here for you. 🙂 I’m sure shopping addiction is for real, but like any addiction half the battle is admitting there is a problem. That awareness piece will serve you well going forward.

    • Thank you, Brian! Awareness is huge, isn’t it? It’s the essence of that whole “wake-up” call that has to happen before any real change can take place. Hopefully, this wake-up call of mine will bring about needed change for this next step in our journey out of debt. Your support is much appreciated : )

  • There is nothing wrong with being able to enjoy a purchase when it’s made under sensible conditions. I do think though that it really is an addiction, and it’s best you have awareness that shopping for anything can be a slipper slope if you are really addicted to it.

    • There is that word “awareness” again – clearly the moral of this story. My daughter (DD2 above) thinks I’ve just experienced the natural dopamine release that marketers set us up for. I agree with you though, Tonya. Some people clearly feel that high more than others – and I’m pretty sure I’m one of them.

  • I have a sister who is a shopaholic, but she’s also a hoarder, sooooo … I’m not sure if that helps any. I do know that I get a rush or a high from minimalizing and it scares the bajeebies out of the hubby. He sees how giddy I get when I get rid of things and doesn’t think I have control of it sometimes. I’m also an S.A., but that’s in my latest post, so I’ll leave that one to you if you fit that bill also. So in conclusion, yeah, I’d be a bit nervous about this whole renovation thing if you have even a tiny inkling that you might go hog wild on the thing. I would recommend prayer, and lots of it. 🙂

    • I DO have an inkling – and more than a tiny one – that I might go “hog wild”. I will take your recommendation, Kay : ) I read your post about S.A. – and it does sound familiar. As for minimalizing .. . I can’t say I’ve experienced that particular brand of addiction – at least not yet. All of these dopamine release triggers!

  • First time commenter here. I appreciate your blog so much! I really like the way you express yourself.

    This is an interesting post. If I understand you correctly, you’re quite worried that this renovation won’t just be a process you’ll enjoy, but that you’ll get an unhealthy high from it.

    If this were me, and I was really worried, here’s the advice I think I’d need:
    You can’t control everything. You can control your purchases and your plans and you can be mindful and aware, but you can’t always (or even usually?) control your emotional reactions. You must simply accept the fact that you very well might get an unhealthy high from this. The thing is, that would not be the end of the world. You might FEEL the urge to spend and shop (this you can’t control), but you don’t have to ACT on it (this you do control).

    I would make sure to have a plan in place to inhibit any harmful behaviour that any unhealthy high you might or might not experience may trigger (like your budget and a firm agreement to be honest with yourself and hubby about strong impulses or any out-of-budget-spending that very same day). I would also have a plan in place to help me get through any painful emotional reactions that might be showing up, like perhaps the pain of feeling deprived for so long and still not being debt-free or whatever else. If I were to experience a lot of emotional pain, I would probably need quite bit of scheduled or as-needed time to cry/sulk/scream/have a pity-party/just rest alone in my bedroom. I would also want to have something pleasurable easily on hand – tea, a movie, a shower, a hobby etc. I would also want to have someone I could call or write to if I needed some support or to vent.

    Hope my advice to me might be helpful in some way for you as well. 🙂

    Maria

    • Wow, Maria! First of all, thank you so much for your kind words about my blog. You have no idea what that means to me. And thank you for your forthright advice! Having a plan in place to check what I fear might be an out-of-control urge to splurge is a great idea. So far, we have a very loose budget with too broad a range. I think DH and I will have to talk it all through in more detail, research prices, and come up with a more precise budget. I’m glad you identified “painful emotional reactions” because I tend to repress them and take the “Put on your big girl panties” attitude – with the idea that tough is better. Perhaps a bit more intentional molly-coddling is in order here. The one word in your list that really struck me was “rest”. I am finding it almost impossible to get much of that these days. I’m far from needing to cry or scream, but it would be nice to know I have permission to indulge in either or both if I hit a particularly rough patch. You’ve given me lots to think about. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope I’ll hear from you again : )

  • Interesting post! I just recently started reading your blog, and I definitely think that shopping can be an addiction. I even think you can become addicted to the high of getting free items or really good deals while shopping (this comes from a former couponer who speaks from experience, ha!). But I also think having your financial priorities in place and recognizing the “high” will go a long way. As you’ve talked about, because you have been on a debt repayment journey for three years, you have pent up excitement about spending that’s surfacing. Also, it may be that your home (and making it more functional, comfortable, etc.) is of high value to you, which means you are reacting more strongly to making changes at home than you might otherwise. Everyone is different, but I’ve realized my home is high value to me, so I’m willing to spend a little on it, after planning for the expense, of course. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Jennifer. I’m glad you’ve started reading my blog : )
      You have hit upon something here that I hadn’t thought of: I DO place a high value on all things home. If we were planning to buy a new car, for instance, I would certainly not have this same high. I really appreciate your insight. It makes me feel less alarmed by that rush I got when we first started to talk about and shop for these renovations. Your awareness of your value for your own home allowed you to recognize the same trait in me – and very accurately so. Thanks again!

    • Thank you! We’ve got some ideas for that celebration, including the bottle of sparkling wine you see featured in the photo – an extra bottle left over from the Christmas holidays – making it very frugal : )

  • I definitely think shopping can be an addiction! That being said, there is nothing wrong with taking a little bit of pleasure in a well thought out and budgeted for purchase 🙂 Being aware of the “high” you get from anything is a great step in the right direction to not making purchases solely for that high.

    • I am going to try to keep my awareness really attuned, Christina. I’ll have to be very conscious of my motivations for choosing what to purchase – and to steer clear of decisions that are really about getting a “hit”. Hopefully, I’ll be able to distinguish between wise options vs. dopamine-inducing options. (It’s sort of funny to me to be writing in this way, but I mean it!)

  • DD2 makes a great point. Sometimes that natural high lures us into subconscious spending. As long as you’re working in your conscious when making decisions, and have thought them out, you’ll be able to control the “high”. At least in my experience. 🙂

    • Your experience is something I respect a great deal, Laurie. I will maintain a sharp eye on all purchasing decisions every step of the way! I definitely want to control the high – and not vice versa.

  • Congratulations on paying off your debt!

    I do think shopping can be an addiction but I also feel we need to find balance. I have been so overwhelmed by choices in purchases that I became frozen in fear to do or purchase anything. Somewhere between the high and the fear there must be a happy place:0)

    • I sure hope so, Jayleen! It’s funny you mention becoming “frozen”, because just this evening, when my husband said, “Maybe we shouldn’t do these renovations yet,” I was eager to support the idea. I don’t think he expected that, and he ended up talking himself around to taking on the project once more. My own agreement was a result of this frozen state you mention. And you’re right: It is a fear. A fear of losing control I think. Thanks so much for your comment, and here’s to a discovery of that happy place between the high and the fear!

  • I think it’s possible to become addicted to anything if it results in a sense of reward. I just got back into a hobby, so I’ve been spending. And I’m definitely treading a line between enjoying my purchases and falling into a “Now what?” scenario where I’m just waiting for the next purchase.

    I have to save up for a few months for a larger purchase, so that should help set me right, I think. And actually enjoy the purchases I’ve already made.

    • I can’t help but be happy for you for getting back to a hobby that you enjoy. And I think that because you are conscious of the line you’re treading, you’ll be able to manage it well. It is strange but true that part of financial fitness is learning how to enjoy purchases – with neither intoxication nor guilt. I wish you well in doing just that. Thanks for your comment, Abigail : )

    • I think that it’s possible to save up for a good purpose, but still to experience a destabilizing addictive rush with it. What I’m realizing (through all of these very insightful and helpful comments!) is the importance of thinking through the rush. The “high” doesn’t make the planned spending a bad thing, but it might blow it up to be a bigger expense than it needs to be if it’s not balanced by straight thinking. I have never experienced saving as an addiction. I can’t help but think that would not be a bad addiction to have! Thanks for your comment, Jen.

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