Are You an Emotional Shopper?

There's been a major shift in shopping since this time last year.  Amazon is booming.  So is e-commerce at retailers like Walmart and Target.  In fact, online spending in the U.S. increased 44% in 2020, according to

With COVID around, many of us have stayed away from brick-and-mortar stores as much as possible.  But we're shopping more than ever, and what seems to be fueling all of the spending is frivolous purchases.

Some people joke about it.  "I can't even remember what I ordered," quips one neighbor when we meet near our adjacent front doors.  I've noticed he has packages delivered almost every day.

This isn't funny.

As I gather all of the trash from our most recent take-out dinner, I realize that my husband and I aren't much better.  Not a fan of cooking at the best of times, during the pandemic I've gotten into the habit of ordering take-out four or more times a week.  I joke about it too:  "Look how lazy I've gotten.  Oh well, it's not like we can go out anywhere!"

But it isn't funny.  All of this shopping for things we don't need leads to clutter, debt, and weight gain.  Not to mention huge amounts of plastic packaging, since not everything is shipped in cardboard.  The large trash bins in my apartment complex are always overflowing lately.

Sirin Kale, a columnist at The Guardian, theorizes that we're bored.  Since more of us work from home, our days are "flabby and formless."  Hearing the doorbell ring, and receiving a package, is "a treat to break up the monotony of yet another day."

Spending like this, for items I don't need but have a sudden hankering for, is called emotional spending.  It's all about how I feel at a certain moment.  Whether I'm bored, or sad, or stressed, buying something gives me a little rush of dopamine, the brain chemical that anticipates a reward or pleasure.  Receiving the package provides another small thrill, and a distraction from whatever emotion I was trying to avoid in the first place. 

With more time at home, I find myself loitering on my computer or phone, reading articles, checking friends' Facebook pages, and – yes – shopping, or at least browsing.  Reading reviews of books I might buy, or looking at clothes and shoes.  And online retailers make it so easy to buy on a whim.  They've saved my shipping address and my credit card information (or I can pay automatically with PayPal).  All I have to do is click, and the item is on its way!  I can do it over breakfast, while I'm waiting for a dentist appointment, or even in bed.  It's much too easy.

That's exactly how online retailers want it to be.  Everything about e-commerce is designed to facilitate thoughtless, impulsive purchases.  And since our online behavior is tracked, targeted ads follow us everywhere, to every site and social media platform we visit.

So there's a direct correlation between how much time we spend online and how much online shopping we do.  That's not surprising.  As Laura Whateley, author of Money: A User's Guide, puts it, "It's like sitting in a pub all day when you're trying not to drink."  Bad idea!

6 things I've done to make mindless shopping harder

1.  I close my browser while I'm writing, unless I'm researching something specific.  I have to use my computer, but my focus is on writing, not on spending time online.

2.  I unsubscribed from email marketing.  Those coupons and sales alerts are designed to make me shop, even if I don't need anything, and I don't want them.

3.  I deleted my credit card details from shopping sites.  If I want to purchase something, I have to go to the trouble of getting my card out and entering all of the numbers.

4.  I've made a commitment to wait at least 24 hours before making a purchase.  I may put items in an online shopping cart, but there they stay.  At least 80% of the time I don't even remember what I put in the cart by the next day, so I delete it.

5.  I quit Amazon Prime.  The only things I ever need overnight are available at my local grocery or drug store.

6.  I added a line item to our budget which I call my "allowance."  It's for discretionary spending.  If something stays in my cart for several days, I go ahead and buy it if I still want it and have the money.  By that point it's a conscious decision rather than an impulsive one.

Better alternatives

Buying a bunch of things we don't need won't make us feel better.  Clicking on "Buy Now" might create a tiny moment of joy, but it doesn't last long.  And when the purchase is unneeded (as it often is), the joy is followed by guilt and regret.

If I need to help myself feel better, there are more worthwhile things I can do.  Better options include:  

  • listening to good music
  • going outside for fresh air and sunshine
  • stretching 
  • making a cup of tea
  • talking to one of my kids or grandkids on the phone
  • laughing about something with my husband
  • taking a nap
  • praying or writing in my gratitude journal  

No purchase necessary.

Updated May 2023


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