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Is it normal to emotionally spend?
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I discovered emotional spending was a “thing” last year. Unfortunately, I also discovered that I do it a lot to cope with stress. I know I’m not alone here, and the more I ask friends, the more I uncover this “treat yourself” mentality that has increased over the past few years. Through lay-offs, a global pandemic, and inflation skyrocketing, we can’t help but illogically spend. So I want to start this conversation with all of you. Are you emotionally spending more? Are we, as women, more susceptible to emotional spending in our constant pursuit to better ourselves or to improve our sense of self-worth? Is it dangerous to admit we emotionally spend if we’re already perceived to be less savvy with money? How do you curb it?
To get started, “emotional spending” is defined as spending money during a period of heightened emotions, like stress or sadness. It often results in buying items you don't really need or even want. Knowing this, it’s obvious why we have likely increased our spending habits during the last few years. Dazed reported that young people are emotionally spending more than ever and giving up on saving, even as inflation rates rapidly rise and the cost of living crisis develops. In 2021, Financial Times journalist, Imogen West-Knights, coined the term “treat brain” which refers to a behaviour she noticed herself developing during the pandemic, stating that “suddenly, I was eating pizza upon pizza upon pizza, their boxes towering up like greasy Jenga blocks in the corner of my flat. Every day was a day for emergency chocolate. I bought video games, make-up I didn’t know how to use, and two suits in the space of one week. Gone was the little voice in my head that used to gently intervene when I was overindulging. Treat brain was in charge.”
Personally, I too notice the overwhelming need to buy a completely redundant item when I’m feeling especially uncertain about something or when I feel I need more confidence (e.g. for a speaking event). My purchases predominantly fall into the fun accessories or clothing bracket vs. beauty products, and the dopamine hit of a new purchase honestly sometimes cannot be beaten. At the same time, I don’t think I will ever regret buying fishnet tights with crystals on them or the platform shoes that I bought in two colours, just because I might need them both one day, hopefully at the same time. Personally, I don’t think emotional spending is actually all that bad as long as you’re not racking up massive debt or failing to address the actual reason you just clicked check out. As Katharina Bernecker, a social psychologist, told Dazed, “I think that from a psychological point of view it makes a lot of sense to focus on enjoying the present when you are uncertain about what the future might bring.” And while I am aware I sound like I’m overly justifying this habit, I’m here for living in the moment.
While many generations have lived in our capitalist world, I think our generation is uniquely affected (and perhaps coerced into) obsessive consumerism. We’re continually told material happiness will bring us joy via our digital social experiences, which feel more like shopping with internet friends by the day. In fact, it’s estimated that on average we now see between 6-10,000 ads every day. I have no doubt that our social technology is having an effect on our spending habits. Visual-first social platforms make it so easy to a) discover new temptations and b) buy them and c) performatively show them off once purchased, perhaps influencing someone else into the same in the process. After reading Rebecca Jenning’s fantastic essay, The Girl Internet vs. The Boy Internet, I can’t help but wonder if the consumerism of social media is dominantly affecting users who dwell in “Girl Internet,” given the visual-first platforms that dominate this landscape, which all lend themselves well to temptation.
Interestingly, it’s documented by economists that when women purchase more lipstick (or other small luxury beauty items), it’s a key indicator of economic downturns. The “lipstick effect” is a theory first proposed by the economist and sociologist, Juliet Schor, in 1998. Schor found that women bought more lipstick during economic downturns while cutting back on more expensive luxury products: “They are looking for affordable luxury,” she wrote, “buying ‘hope in a bottle’.”
Buying hope in a bottle feels pretty similar to the collective emotional spending behaviour many of us entered into during the pandemic, and as we’ve snowballed into greater economic uncertainty this past year, it’s not really all that surprising that we’ve been attempting to literally purchase hope more and more. This actually feels reminiscent of the classic post-break-up ritual women do, which usually involves “trauma bangs” or replacing your entire wardrobe, because yes, that new pair of jeans will absolutely help you gain control of the situation.
“We live in a material world, and we are constantly influenced by media that tells us we need more to be happy. In the last few years, we have reinforced the idea of self care in our society, and a lot of people are taking the idea to an unrealistic degree. Whether it's to feel good about themselves or to avoid uncomfortable emotions, we've fallen under this lie that we will be happier if we have this or that.” — Jenny C. Yip, PsyD via Well & Good.
So… I want to know do you emotionally spend? What tips do you have for controlling your urges to buy new things? When does the “treat yourself” mentality become harmful? I’d love to hear all your thoughts, here.
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What we’re reading…
Why I’m no longer going on hen’s weekends (New Statesmen)
Till next time,