COVID-19 Doom-Shopping Is Real: “I Get Anxiety About Not Buying Things”

Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally-charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
Last week, we discussed how a life-threatening pandemic has made it more tempting than ever to indulge in “doomshopping” — as in, relieving our pandemic-related anxieties and fears with some online retail therapy. This week, Refinery29 spoke to readers about their own struggles with online shopping during COVID-19.
Prices in USD.
Victoria, 26, Colorado
“I used to spend roughly $200 a month on non-essentials — toys for my dog, drinks out with friends, etc,” Victoria says. “My spending is similar, but it’s now on stupid things like clothing, skincare, books, and takeout.”
Her most recent impulse buy was $100 of sweaters and other fall clothing: “I feel foolish about it now, because my closet is overflowing and I only go into the office a few days a month.” 
“I think this is my brain's futile attempt to force ‘fun’ in a time where there is so little of it,” says Victoria. “I bought four bathing suits this summer even though I live 1,000 miles from the nearest beach. At some point I realized I was just projecting my desires to be in a different situation onto my purchasing habits. I’m trying to curb it and have set a ‘no clothing or home decor’ rule until the end of the year.”
She also knows that she’s been spending a lot more time online during the pandemic. “I used to be very good about having ‘no screen’ nights where I didn't use my phone or watch anything, but that has gone out the door with the pandemic,” she says. “I absolutely think it fueled my online shopping, because nothing — including spending money — feels real anymore.”
Hanna, 27, Ontario, Canada
“I started spending around $150 on clothes, but it's jumped over the last couple of months to about $320/month,” says Hanna. “My most recent impulse purchase was two pairs of leggings from Aerie — I ordered two to try, then [planned to] return one. Obviously, I kept both. I've been spending money on workout gear, comfortable-but-not-sloppy work-from-home clothes, and athletic equipment for home use. I've also convinced myself that buying local/small is fine, so I've ordered a few too many scrunchies, masks, and earrings from local sellers on Etsy.”
“When my workload is low, I wind up browsing based on recommendations from podcasts or social media influencers I follow,” Hanna says. “I've also started selling some of my old stuff on Poshmark, and got sucked in to the need to share other sellers' listings to get more attention paid to my listings — during which time I find things I like and then convince myself the lowered prices are too good to pass up. I'm definitely trying to curb it now, because the last few months got extremely out of hand and I honestly don't need more stuff — plus, my partner is (rightfully) calling me out on it.”
Part of the issue is just how many ads are served on social media platforms these days. “For activewear, I've been getting ads largely on Instagram, probably because of the fitness influencers, yoga studios, gyms I follow there,” says Hanna. “I've also been getting lots of ads for smaller or independent makers — mostly making non-medical masks, scrunchies, jewelry, and stationery — and local breweries and vineyards offering delivery.”
“I don't know if I resent all the social media advertising necessarily, but I definitely resent how much advertising there is on Facebook and Instagram — I feel like I'm seeing ads every three to five posts sometimes, so it feels like there's a constant reminder to browse and buy,” Hanna says. “I definitely resent how much time I'm online in general these days — it feels like almost everything I do is at least partly online: tracking my runs, using my building's Peloton, working, watching Netflix.”
Hanna says that, overall, she’s been doing alright during quarantine; her personal life is going well. “In spite of this, my anxiety is heightened, for sure,” she notes. “And I feel like I miss having things to look forward to — which is definitely playing into the cycle of online shopping and waiting for packages to arrive.”
Melissa, 28, Tennessee
Melissa isn’t entirely sure how much her online spending has increased during the pandemic, but guesses that it’s between $500 to $1,000/month currently. “It has increased a lot,” she says. “I'm scared to look!”
“I’ve bought over ten Halloween costumes for my Corgi,” Melissa says. “To be fair, she has an Instagram following of 20K people so it’s partially for that, but it's obviously out of control. I have also bought tons of stuff for our new house, books, and I give money to Joe Biden every time he emails, which is probably why they email me so often.” She has also been buying what she calls “random stuff,” which includes stationery, customized gift tags, an address stamp for mailing letters, and a lot of home decor.
“I think being on social media much more and seeing targeted ads has made me much more aware of what is online and not just in stores,” says Melissa. “I normally travel every week for work, so at least my shopping was curbed by not having time to shop, but now I have nothing but time to browse the internet. It's out of control. Oak & Luna targets me all the time, and guess what? I have their stuff now! I am literally a brand marketing manager's dream. My husband said last night, ‘Where is our money going?’” She says she’s currently working on curbing her spending.
“It's been hard being quarantined lately — we’re cooped up constantly. My dad passed away a month ago, and when I can't sleep at night I just scroll through the internet,” she says. “Things have been getting slightly better now that things are opening up, but it has definitely been a lonely and fraught time. I've lost two people who were close to me in the last couple months, one who died from COVID and one who had been sick, and the uncertainty of the economy and public health, as well as the unraveling political situation, has been really anxiety inducing.”
“I am hopeful that things will improve, but I do think my online shopping is tied to hoping for a world where I have a reason to wear new shoes, or use new wine glasses with friends, or travel again,” says Melissa. “We canceled my birthday trip to Paris, our three-week honeymoon around Asia and the Maldives, countless family get-togethers, weddings for close friends. We even had to have my dad's funeral via Zoom — our entire 2020 has been upended, just like everyone else's, and I think there will always be a bit of grief for what could have been.”
Chloe, 49, California
“I used to spend about $50 to $100 a month on non-essential items,” says Chloe. “Now it's up to a few hundred — I would say no more than $500. My most recent impulse buy is a necklace I bought this afternoon.”
Quarantine has made buying things much easier. “Working from home allows me to surf the internet more,” says Chloe. “My ‘lunch break’ consists of checking the sales and new arrivals on all of my favorite sites.”
“I have been super depressed during COVID-19,” she continues. “I miss work, family, and social situations. We have had friends and family get sick, and we recently lost our dog of 16 years. I get a big dopamine hit when I score a bargain or purchase something. It's typically followed by extreme guilt. I look forward to packages arriving and then panic when they arrive. I’m definitely trying to curb it; I did a huge purge of my belongings this past weekend, and I spoke to my wife about it and she’s helping me stick to a budget.”
“The hardest part has been lack of human connection and interaction,” Chloe says. “I miss my gym very much. I miss going to the office and dining out. I always considered myself a bit anti-social. COVID has really put things into perspective for me. Grudgingly, I must admit I love people, a lot.”
Maya, 30, Virginia
During COVID-19, Maya started spending between $200 to $250 a month through online shopping. “I’m buying skincare, makeup dupes, haircare, organization and art/hobby supplies, furniture, home decor, and self-help books on ADHD, emotional intelligence, boundaries,” she says. “I work from home as a developer, so Amazon is always just a new tab away. I’ve bought a couple things off Instagram ads, and so far they’ve all been too expensive and low quality. I almost bought a product because of an influencer, but I like to know that a product is actually good [before I buy,] and the fact that I know it’s an ad that the influencer is making money from just makes me not trust that review.”
“I was going through a divorce for the majority of this year, so now all the money that I earn is mine,” she says. “I’ve usually been broke my whole life, so having extra money around makes me want to ‘catch up’ on all the purchases that I never could afford. Also, shopping makes me feel better — but then I feel guilty for spending money on stupid stuff and being more in debt than I was before. I’m trying to curb it now.”
Maya admits that she’s been struggling over the past year. “I have not been faring well during the pandemic, I don't think,” she says. “I was very social and extroverted in the before times, seeing on average 100 people that I know per week, so quarantining and social distancing has been a huge shift for me. As a queer woman, the local queer bar is not just a bar, but a community hub, and that was taken away because of this virus. Also, going through an already very difficult experience — the end of a seven-year relationship and four-year marriage — and learning who I am individually as well as learning to be alone has been a huge struggle. My anxiety and depression have increased dramatically. I think overall it has been a very difficult time, but I am also doing a lot of self-discovery. For instance, I got diagnosed with ADHD and am getting help with it. I think once I figure that out, life will become much smoother.”
Samantha, 22, Wisconsin
“Before quarantine, I spent between $100 and $200/month on non-essentials,” says Samantha. “This has doubled to $400 or $500. I also started a full-time job during the pandemic, so some increase in spending was expected and easily managed, but I have gotten to the point where I get anxiety thinking about not buying the things I want.”
Like many others, she’s often tempted by ads that appear on social media. “Curse targeted ads that stalk me online and then show me exactly the things I want,” she says. “My most recent impulse buy was bras from Savage x Fenty. I have mainly been buying clothes, because during college I rarely bought new clothes, and when I did they were from Forever 21 or Shein and less than $20. It has been nice to build my wardrobe with some nicer pieces, but I also have a habit of buying clothes that are impractical for my lifestyle. I’ve been buying a lot of casual clothes, since they fit my style, but I have to dress business casual/professional for work, and on the weekends I just sit at home in sweats.”
“I’m really trying to cut my non-essential spending because I want to work on building my savings. I have a decent amount, but I want to get married and buy a house within the next 5-7 years,” she says. “I’m trying to remind myself that the dopamine boost I get now from buying new clothes will not compare to how proud I will feel to own my own home someday.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, I was an anxious mess. But around April/May I settled into a routine and actually felt great. I was getting to know myself better without too much distraction and had tons of time for my hobbies,” Samantha says. “In May, I graduated college, and then in June, I moved to a new city and started a new job. In July, my parents moved out of my childhood home — those three months threw me for a loop. Major life changes combined with losing my ‘home’ during a pandemic is not a winning combo. But thanks to virtual therapy, I am starting to feel better again.”
Ashley, 39, California
“Before quarantine, I was spending about $1,500 a quarter [on non-essential shopping],” says Ashley. “Now I think I have a disorder for online shopping, as I’m spending money I don’t have using credit cards. My income has decreased 75% but my spending has increased 75% to $1,700 a month or more. I refuse to do the math.”
“My impulse is to buy clothes, but I get obsessed and have to buy all the colors I like of that type of clothing,” she says. “For example, yesterday I bought five pairs of leggings for myself and five pairs for my daughter. I was a former esthetician and makeup artist for a five-star spa, so all the luxury makeup and skincare emollients I love start out at $150 per item, sale price. I just paid down some of the skincare debt I created on a late-night online shopping obsession that I labeled ‘birthday gifts for myself and my invisible clients.’ [My shopping] happens creepily at night, when I can't sleep and everyone else is. Last night I bought sweaters. I hate sweaters. What's wrong with me?”
Ashley believes her online shopping has increased because she misses having a social life, including dressing up for social and work functions. She describes what’s been going through her head as she online shops during the pandemic. “The emails from stores, the awesome sales — your mind tells you that you’re missing out if you don't buy it,” she says. “After a couple of nights you cave in, go to the site, and it’s all gone. Now you feel like you missed out on something. Now you’re searching for that item you're mourning, and you end up buying a ton of other similar things. This is the mental cycle. You've created a new bad habit that has the same mental pleasure and pain as drug addiction and gambling — the only great thing about online shopping is that you can always send it back.”
“I definitely have been spending more time online, and those ads follow you with every click,” she says. But she remains optimistic about turning over a new leaf. “This is the first step to my recovery. I am going to unsubscribe from all shopping emails today.”
“I’m healthy and I don’t have any family members who died from COVID-19, so I feel blessed,” says Ashley. “The most difficult part for me is reinventing myself after it all. My side hustle was in beauty, and I’m not going back to that job or staying in that field. COVID made me stronger and I’m ready to take on becoming a writer again and getting back into acting and comedy. If you’re alive, you are the crème de la crème.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
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