Are You Financially Bulimic?

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02_SHOP-OWNER8_AnnaAlexiaBasilePhotographed by Anna Alexia Basile.

You know the feeling. You're absolutely uninspired, feel totally beaten down, and all you want to do is go out and buy something to get yourself out of that slump. It’s perfect, really — you get what you want, you feel a tiny bit more in control, and you can do it surrounded by super-friendly salespeople and bright, shiny things. Power in the swipe of your credit card? We've all been there.

However, for some, that purchase high can quickly become addictive. Shopping sprees are a regular occurrence, and each trip falls a little bit shorter of that fun movie-montage feel (you know, with a kicky pop song and hat boxes). Studies show that dopamine is released when you shop (the same chemical that makes people addicted to heroin, among other drugs), but immediately after the purchase, there follows a debilitating sense of guilt. The only answer? To return everything you bought. Believe it or not, there's actually a term for this nasty cycle. Overspending and then returning your items (or purging, to be more clinical) is known as financial bulimia. Definitely a term that makes you balk — but, essentially, it's referring to a pattern of binge-buying and then, well, purging (yikes).

Even though financial bulimia is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychotherapist Jenny Giblin tells us this is a real issue. “Just like any other shopping addiction, financial bulimia creates a high from buying. Unlike any other shopping addiction, this creates a cyclical pattern that can be hard to break. The problem is that we feel that shopping for the thing that we are buying is the only way we can have those feelings,” Giblin explains.

One individual discussing her troubles with the buying-and-returning guilt cycle is blogger Agnessa Piotrovskaja, who writes of her experience: “When I buy something I just feel so powerful, as if I can carry the whole wide world on my own bare shoulders. But when I buy without looking at the price tag, that feeling is multiplied by a billion times! It feels as if there are no boundaries. Nothing can hold you back in that moment.” The blogger also explains how these buying binges quickly lead to guilt — and a trip back to the store to make a return.

But, according to Giblin, the guilt that comes into play could be triggered by deeper issues. The person becomes convinced that they don’t deserve the item and then rationalizes the guilt with not being able to afford the purchase. They return it, but this doesn’t make them feel better. Now, they don’t have the thing they want, and they still think that they didn’t deserve it or weren’t good enough for it. “Obviously that is not true, and feeling that way is not fun, so then going shopping becomes a way to feel better.” Wash, rinse, repeat.

So, how does one overcome financial bulimia? Well, recognizing that you might have an issue is a huge step. Be aware that you have these feelings when you shop. Look at what is triggering this behavior. And, Giblin advises, “Knowing that this is a temporary fix that will ultimately not make you feel better...gives you the power to choose differently.”