Dear Swipe This!
I’m 27 years old and I have an online shopping habit. It’s been going on since college and I have no idea what to do about it. I don’t feel like I can tell my boyfriend or my family. I’ve tried to work up the courage to talk to my best friend, but every time I do, I panic. What if she thinks I’m a liar? What if she thinks I’m a horrible, disgusting person?
When I was growing up, my parents were very strict about what I could spend money on. They gave me a small allowance, and when I earned money myself, they demanded I put it into a savings account. They taught me that money was very valuable and spending it on things you don’t “need” was shameful. I lied and hid things from them just to have fun money for little things like getting food after school with friends or buying lip gloss. I had my best friend keep clothes in her closet for me so they wouldn’t find out.
Then I got to college, and as soon as I turned 18, I got my first credit card. I became totally obsessed with online shopping. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I felt a rush of excitement whenever I got a little slip of paper in my mailbox letting me know I had received a package. Holding a fresh purchase in my hands felt so good. I loved how new everything felt. So I did it again. And again.
I spent over $5,000 that first year. I had three on-campus jobs, but what I made was nowhere near enough to cover my expenses and pay my bills. So I hid the debt by taking out additional student loans. I figured, who cares, I’ll get to it later. Over the summer, I hid the purchases from my parents by renting a storage unit near my school. I told myself I had it under control.
The next three years I kept up this pattern. But when I graduated, I told myself it was time to grow up. I emptied the storage locker, I sold a ton of my online purchases, and I gave the rest to charity. I felt a huge wave of relief. I got a full-time job and started chipping away at my debt. I promised myself that I had just had a few wild years but they were behind me.
But then I had a really hard year. I had some personal upsets plus stress at work and I started to feel like nothing was going right for me. So I started buying myself little things here and there to make myself feel better. I’d find sales and convince myself that I was actually being thrifty. Or I’d purchase something “useful,” like rainboots or a new winter coat. But soon it went from a couple times a week to nearly every day. Since I could order right from my phone, I’d browse and save things to purchase all day, at work, in traffic. I fell in love with makeup spending sprees.
My really bad year got better, but my online shopping got worse. When I moved in with my boyfriend, I got a new storage locker, plus a P.O. Box so he wouldn’t question why I was receiving so many packages. That was two years ago, and I’m now more in debt than ever and the thought of telling this person who wants to build a life with me the truth about my spending habits terrifies me. I’m afraid he’ll leave me, or if he stays, it will only be out of pity. I’m also afraid he’ll tell me to ask my parents for help. They would never help me with this. They raised me to know the value of a dollar, and they’d be so furious if they ever found out the truth.
I really want to change for good. But I’m not sure how to start. I’ve tried cutting up my credit cards but I always cave and order new ones, and most of them are saved into my browsers and my phone’s autofill feature. When I look at my debt, it feels like a mountain I’ll never be able to climb.
How do I break this habit?
Dear Shameful Shopper,
Online shopping can feel totally magical. I know that rush you’re describing, the one you get when a new thing you really wanted arrives. And I can understand how you fell into the habit of browsing and swiping your way to happiness. But this isn’t a habit. It’s an addiction.
I’m not saying this to shame you, far from it. I want you to understand that to a great extent, this compulsive behavior is something you’ve become powerless over. Sure, you can make plans or cut up credit cards, but those measures don’t last. It’s interfering with your life, and you’ve gone to great lengths to hide it. If you’re really going to recover, you’re going to need help. Most likely, you will need much more help than your friends, family, or even your romantic partner can offer.
You are definitely not alone in your suffering. Shopping addiction affects as many as 18 million Americans. There are many support groups both online and off where you can find people like you who are in recovery or taking the first steps and learning how to manage their addictions. Groups like Debtors Anonymous and Spenders Anonymous are wonderful resources. Realizing there are others who share your experience and are willing to support you in your journey of recovery could be incredibly healing.
I’d also advise you to seek professional support. A good therapist will not shame you and can help you to safely uncover and treat the deeper emotional issues that led to this addiction in the first place.
A couple of things stood out to me in your letter. One is that you grew up in a super restrictive environment. Your parents were controlling, and it’s normal that you’d feel this impulse to rebel. But the other is that what you’re craving is the feeling of getting something new. Maybe you’ll unpack new discoveries once you start therapy or in your chosen support groups, but I suspect that one of the things you’re struggling with when you choose to spend is simply the act of being present.
Here’s what I’ve learned about being present: It can feel terrible until it doesn’t. No matter how difficult a feeling is, if you’re willing to sit with it, it will pass. And when you are brave enough to be present, you get to feel emotions far greater than numbing or the rush of a temporary high. You get to feel joy. No matter how badly you think you’ve messed up or how terrified you are of change, you are deserving of a life that feels vivid and full.
I can understand why it feels scary to bring your secret into the light. You’re right that people may respond in ways that are hurtful or even harmful to your recovery. You may also discover that they adore you and want to support you, or that they have a renewed respect for the courage you’re showing as you face your addiction. But most importantly, when you take responsibility for your recovery, I suspect you’ll finally find the freedom you were craving when you rebelled against your parents all those years ago.