Are You Shopping for the Wrong Reason?

This article originally appeared on Betty Confidential, see it here:

As I was shopping last weekend, I came across a killer deal. A new Coach bag marked half off, from $300 to $150. Floored, I snatched it up like a prize and marveled at my incredible luck.

A few minutes later, some initial doubts set in. The purse wasn’t a one of my favorite colors, and was a little bigger than what I typically like… plus, $150 was a more than I should have been spending.

I still wanted it, but did I really need it? As I started to reconsider my purchase, I played a classic game of rationale. Picture a cartoon angel and devil on each of my shoulders:

You work hard – you deserve this bag.

This is a frivolous purchase – you should put down the purse.

You don’t have very many nice bags – this is a good investment.

You already have 20 purses you don’t use at home.

…And so on, and so on.

After a few deep breaths, I gingerly returned the purse to its home. And as I did, the rush I initially felt subsided into an icky feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t figure out why I had felt so passionately about buying something completely unnecessary and why it actually made me sad to put it back on the shelf.

The whole thing made seemed a little silly.

I started to think about what I’d felt throughout this experience and why this was causing a dramatic internal conflict. Why did I immediately feel that I had to have this purse – one that I wasn’t looking for and absolutely didn’t need, just because it was a fancy brand and on sale? Was I buying it because of what it was, or because of how it made me feel?

Marriage and family psychotherapist Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill has seen excessive shopping and the associated consequences ruin relationships and tear families apart. She explained why buying things can make us feel happy. “Shopping provides a high in the moment while actually in the process of the shopping, but it doesn’t last, which is the problem that causes long-term issues.”

Clearly, I over thought my own purchase a bit, but it’s an interesting point to ponder. Why so many of us feel a compulsion to have more, more, more. And why certain things make us feel better about ourselves because of the designer or brand.

According to psychotherapist and author Tina B. Tessina, PhD, shopping can even be linked to innate human behaviors. “Shopping syncs with the primitive “gatherer” mechanism in the brain, giving us the gratification of seeking and finding a treasure.” Which is exactly what I felt when I found the purse. An instant rush as if I’d struck gold.

Tessina also explained that the emotions we feel while shopping can be heightened by the way stores are designed. “Retailers are clever, and have done their research, so stores are arranged to be attractive and create a fantasy world we can escape to when life is not giving us what we want.” Though I certainly didn’t enter the store that day looking for a fantasy, I had made the decision to go to the mall when I was feeling out of sorts. And it worked. Shopping provided an easy distraction from the way I was feeling and a justification for spending money.

This experience isn’t going to make me stop shopping. That would take a stronger force of nature, but I am reconsidering what I’m drawn to buy, and why.

I’m not suggesting we eliminate all the non-essential purchases from our budgets (cough, cough…this wouldn’t have been my only designer bag), but maybe we should reconsider why we’re inclined to buy what we do. Is it because it’s something that we love and need, or just something that might temporarily make use feel more worthwhile?