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.
This week, we hear from a reader who has become uncomfortable with how much online shopping they’ve been doing during quarantine, a time when many of us are spending more time than ever browsing social media feeds full of targeted ads.
Being quarantined has helped me slash my budget on clothing, dining out, and entertainment. But I’ve become attached to a kind of spending that’s harmful even if I have the discretionary income for it: impulsive online shopping. I paid attention to my phone’s “screen time” reports before, but that seems pointless now. I have to be extremely online to do all of my work, to socialize with many of my friends and family members, to stay up-to-date on what’s happening around my city and the country.
Living my life online and on social media has made my financial discipline even harder when I see something cool or novel advertised. Those targeted ads really know how to rope me in. I’ve been feeling pretty low throughout COVID, and I can’t seem to stop myself from finding happiness through consumption. I feel more sensitive than ever to the idealized versions of life I see online, and want to buy things that will allow my quarantined life to be picture-perfect, cozy, and safe.
How do I convince myself that I can’t buy my way out of this long-term existential gloom? I feel silly about how much money I've spent on things I don’t need when there are so many people struggling right now. Is it possible to be extremely online without becoming a bottomless pit of materialistic desire?
Dear Extremely Online,
Here is my big disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, neurologist or behavioral economist, so while I know enough to be dangerous to myself and others, I’m speaking extremely out of turn.
Finding joy through consumption is like shaking off the day with a cocktail. Some people — like seemingly everyone in Europe — don’t think there’s an issue with that behavior. Especially if you can afford what you’re buying or, in the case of cocktails, if your habit stays within safe consumption guidelines.
Early into the pandemic, facing a lot of uncertainty and fear, many of us threw our budgets and drinking rules out the window. But six months later, with possibly another 12 to go, I think we’re all starting to realize that we need to put down the phones and the bourbon and find other ways to take our moments of joy. I think this close examination of our behavior is ultimately a good thing.
The relationship we have with social media is deliberately shaped by social media companies, who profit from our attention and from the exploitation of our brains’ dopamine response system. These platforms have been purposefully engineered to foster impulsive behavior. Our brains experience a surge of dopamine in anticipation of seeing something novel or anticipating the pleasure a purchase will make us feel. This is why we keep scrolling our feeds, even when we’re fighting falling asleep. We associate scrolling and shopping with pleasure, and the more we scroll and buy, the more we reinforce the dopamine-laced habit of scrolling and buying. So if you’re predisposed to impulsivity, and you feel like your spending has crossed the threshold into the out-of-control zone, you might need to figure out what guardrails to place on social media and online shopping.
It’s human nature to seek pleasure — but social media companies capitalize on this desire, using behavioral psychology to exploit our hardwiring for profit. Welcome to the wonderful world of the attention economy. But being critical of social media and its addictive pitfalls doesn’t mean we need to quit it cold turkey forever. Social media can still provide meaningful human connections and valuable entertainment. It’s more a matter of taking control, editing your behaviors so your relationship with social media-fueled spending can be dialed to the right amount.
When it comes to building good habits, like saving money, it’s important to make that habit easier to repeat — that way you’re more likely to stick with it. That’s why it’s often recommended to create good habits incrementally. For breaking bad habits like runaway online spending, though, the opposite applies. You have to make the easy thing harder to do, and you might want to start with a couple of extreme gestures to add friction to your online shopping habit: consider a 30-day social media break, followed by or in conjunction with a 30-day spending freeze on non-essential goods, for example.
My social media drug of choice is Reddit. At the end of last year, I took a long break from work and noticed a significant uptick in my mindless lurking of Reddit during that time. I also noticed that after a certain point, it stopped feeling good, even if I could find ways to justify it. Scrolling Reddit started to feel like eating too much fast food. One cheeseburger is a delight, but three makes you sick. So I decided to take a 30-day break from Reddit; I deleted the app on my phone and iPad and put a reminder on my calendar on the day I could resume my mindless scrolling.
At the beginning of the 30-day break, it was alarming how often I felt the impulse to look at Reddit. I highly recommend that you explore these moments of desire and impulsivity. That’s the point of taking a break. By removing the reward (scrolling and shopping) you’ll give yourself space to learn more about what triggers that behavior in the first place. What often triggered me were benign feelings of boredom, and wanting to escape my thoughts on work or feelings of guilt. When we can start to recognize our triggers, we can be an active participant in responding to them.
I’ve done different types of spending freezes as well. I once went a year without buying anything new, and my wife and I recently did a 30-day spending freeze because, like you, our COVID-fueled non-essential spending was getting away from us.
Another benefit of taking a 30-day break is that you show yourself a life with a lot less scrolling and a lot less buying is actually possible, and this is what it would look like. You might learn that your relationships don’t fall apart even if you aren’t interacting as much on social media. You might learn that you don’t feel different because you refrained from buying things you hadn’t planned on buying in the first place. In fact, the opposite might be true — you might feel better by abstaining. During a 30-day break, you have a chance to find better ways to self-soothe (more on that below). And by only committing to 30 days, you can ease any anxiety that you’ll never go on Instagram and buy a fourth pair of tie-dyed socks again.
If you have a misstep before the 30 days are over, you don’t have to beat yourself up over it. You are trying to undo the work facilitated by multibillion-dollar companies whose primary goal is to manipulate the pleasure-seeking drive embedded in your human DNA. Simply recalibrate and begin again. No matter what, you can always begin again.
After your break, there are other habits you can consistently adopt to dampen the power of the algorithm. Ultimately, these habits boil down to choosing better boundaries with social media. Yes, it sucks that this responsibility falls on the individual and not the corporations — but social media platforms make money by keeping us scrolling and selling data about us to advertisers, who in turn lure us into spending unnecessary amounts of money. They have no incentive to foster healthy boundaries between its users and its product, which leaves it to the individual to actively fight against the siren call.
Create time boundaries for scrolling
You can schedule your social media time the way you would a workout or work meeting. For example, limit your scrolling to Friday afternoons. You might even go as far as deleting the app and only redownloading it on Friday afternoon. Or, use technology against technology — there are apps that stop you from continuing to scroll once you’ve reached a certain limit. If you prefer to be less rigid, you can set a timer. You know yourself best, so you know the best way to set your own boundaries. And if you’re not sure what the easiest way to hold yourself to a time limit is, now is the chance to explore different methods.
Create time boundaries for shopping
To curb spending, a good rule of thumb is to wait at least 24 hours before purchasing something. Some financial experts urge folks to wait as long as seven days. Choose a time boundary that feels good for you. Think about it like writing an email or text when you’re upset — feel free to write that mean email, but it’s probably best to wait until you’ve cooled off before actually sending it. Oftentimes, after we wait, we realize we don’t need to send it after all.
For me, this practice of setting a time boundary has evolved into a carefully curated “buy list” of things I want to purchase. One benefit I didn’t anticipate was the dopamine rush that comes from the time spent hunting and researching the single perfect shirt to add to my buy list instead of impulsively buying five.
Separate your non-essential spending
Open up a separate checking account for your non-essential spending. Fund it each month or each pay period to limit the amount you allow yourself to spend on non-essentials. In essence, you are giving yourself an allowance. If this makes you feel limited, try telling yourself a different story — tell yourself that this is freeing, because you no longer have to worry about spending money you shouldn’t be spending. It frees you from the feeling of guilt; you’re using this non-essential spending money exactly how you intended it to be spent.
Expand how you make yourself feel good
In the end, an addiction to social media — and how easy it makes overindulging on materialistic consumption — is a sign of how much of our behavior is motivated by a desire to manage our feelings. We want to find pleasure and avoid pain, and life has been extra painful this year. Social media can provide an ideal image of what a happy life could look like, but it’s often far from reality. And of course, there are plenty of ways to make yourself feel a little better that don’t create a dangerous loop and aren’t destructive to your wellbeing. Consider the moments of joy you feel when you catch a scent with a strong link to a delightful memory, or an upbeat song that instantly lifts your mood — or even how taking a few deep breaths can help soothe you.
Many people depend on just a few old habits to make them feel better. And a lot of these habits were probably formed unconsciously, ingrained in us through childhood experiences. The good news is, you can start changing that right now. I invite you to spend five or ten minutes to make a list of every little thing that makes you feel instantly good. Try to exclude addiction-prone habits — like drugs or drinking. Think of it as designing a diverse menu for when you want to relieve yourself from negative thoughts and feelings.
Here are some select items on my very long list of things that instantly makes me feel good, in no particular order: feeling grass under my bare feet, listening to music (I have an entire playlist of songs that instantly boost my mood), smiling at my wife, touching plants, going on a walk or a run, dancing, practicing juggling, playing the guitar and singing, watching cartoons, looking at the ocean, shuffling cards, submerging myself in a body of water, drawing, reading, the smell of wood, petting dogs, closing my eyes and taking deep breaths, talking on the phone to a friend, plopping onto a freshly-made hotel bed, being amazed by magic tricks.
The world is crazy, uncertain, and unjust — and that’s why we need to figure out how to find peace more than ever. I hope these suggestions will remind you that you always have the power to change how you find moments of happiness.
Your financial friend,
Do you feel like you’re more susceptible to online shopping temptation during COVID-19? Tell us your experiences here, and check back next week for a follow-up story on how R29 readers’ non-essential spending habits have been impacted during quarantine.
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