Breaking the Shopping Addiction

As I’m writing this, I’m getting ready to host another big clothing swap. It has gotten me thinking a lot about why we buy things in the first place. Why is it that I need to declutter my closet several times a year? How do I keep ending up with more than I will ever wear?

Yes, I have a blog about minimalism – but I struggle with this too. It’s been a long time since I did my year without buying clothes. I have bad habits, and they creep back in my life at the worst times. This is why I did my year-long clothes-buying ban in the first place. If I didn’t struggle what would I gain by giving it up?

I know the feelings all too well:

Where does all this stuff come from?

Why is it so hard to let go?

I don’t need anything. Why can’t I stop shopping?

This is what I’d like to dig into today.

Shopping Addiction

First and foremost, can we just talk about the fact that shopping is addicting? Shopping releases dopamine in your brain. It’s neuroscience, people!

By now the notion of “retail therapy” has become a modern cliché. And yet it’s the rare popular idea that is actually backed by scientific evidence.

As usual, the brain chemical to credit or blame for our pleasure—in this case, the pleasure of shopping—is dopamine. The neurotransmitter surges when you’re considering buying something new—anticipating a reward, in other words. Sales, by the way, give us an even harder kick. “We’re constantly comparing what we expect with what we actually perceive,” says Columbia University professor of neurobiology David Sulzer. So when an unforeseen benefit enters our cognitive field—30 percent off!—the dopamine really spikes.

The biological point isn’t to land you in debtor’s prison; dopamine encourages exploration by rewarding us when we stumble upon something salutary. This chemical response is commonly called “shopper’s high,” Sulzer says, likening it to the rush that can come with drinking or gambling….

A new area of psychological research focuses on shopping addiction, a surprisingly controversial concept, according to UCLA neuropsychologist Robert Bilder, PhD. Not so long ago, excessive shopping was understood to be a compulsion; now experts like Bilder argue that it’s an addiction. To call something an addiction suggests that “developing a tolerance” for it is possible, Bilder says—that “it requires a larger dose to get the same effect. You find yourself needing more and more.”

-Melissa Dahl, What Shopping Does to Your Brain

This hit of dopamine, combined with the anticipation of the shopping experience, is enough to keep us coming back for more and more. There have been times when I’m having a bad day, and I know that a little shopping spree will make me feel better. Even in the store, I’m looking for relief. I can feel it coming. When I find the perfect thing and go to check it out, I feel a brief rush of happiness. But you know what else I feel? Guilt.

I feel guilt because I know that shopping is merely a coping mechanism. That it isn’t solving the deeper issues. It is a band-aid when I need surgery. In addition to ignoring the actual problem, I’m spending money needlessly and filling my home with unnecessary things….things that I’ll probably need to declutter later! There is a way to get off this carousel of consumption, but it requires some intentionality.

Hedonic Adaptation

As mentioned in the above article, one of the big issues isn’t just that shopping is fun. It’s that we keep needing more and more to get the same feeling. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation.

…This term means is that “no matter what happens to you in your life, you’ll very quickly get used to it”. Hedonic Adaptation is a feature built right into your Human DNA that allows you to function efficiently in a wide variety of environments, even very harsh ones.

A most striking example of this was a 1978 psychological study that evaluated the happiness levels of recent lottery winners, and recently injured paraplegics relative to the general population. As you’d expect, the lottery winners were pretty upbeat immediately after their win, and the paraplegics were pretty pissed off. But within just two months, both groups had returned back to the average level of happiness.

“That’s Impossible!” I thought. “How could this be!?”

Well, it turns out that when a person jumps to a new level of material convenience, he loses the ability to enjoy the things he previously thought were pretty neat. A cold Bud Light was once a true delight after a work day for the lottery winner, but after the win he quits the job and takes up high-end scotch, poured by a personal butler. Both serve the same purpose, and the pleasure is about the same. Similarly, when moving down the hedonic scale, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we can learn to appreciate simpler things with just as much gusto as we would have appreciated more expensive things. I truly love the sound of the wheels of my bike slicing through the quiet wind on an open road, just as much as I enjoyed the whirring sound of the gear-driven camshafts and the rich tuned exhaust note of my old VFR800 motorcycle.

-Mr. Money Mustache

Did you hear that? Hedonic adaptation goes both ways! This is good news!

Yes, shopping is addictive. Yes, it takes more and more of the same thing to get the same amount of pleasure out of it. But yes, it can be reversed! In as little as a few months, you can reset a “new normal” for yourself. This is the beauty of a shopping ban.

Breaking Free

A shopping ban or a “no buy” period is what I have found to be the most effective way to break a shopping addiction.

A shopping ban is not only free, but it saves you money in the process. And more importantly, it resets your brain to find happiness in the small things. Not in the dopamine hit of a flash sale. Stuff shouldn’t bring us happiness. Our happiness should be deeper than that. A little reset now and then could be life-changing.

A relationship with material objects is not inherently bad. But our homes are too often cluttered with things that we don’t really need – or worse, things we don’t like much at all….

In a world where with the click of a few buttons and the stroke of even fewer keys we can have at our doorsteps any number of conveniences, we buy too much, keep too much, equate stuff with happiness and happiness with stuff, and lose ourselves somewhere along the way.

-Erin Boyle, Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More

To successfully pull off a shopping ban, you have to know why you are doing it. Are you doing it to save money, to slow down your consumption, to reduce the amount of clutter in your home, to free up time to spend with family, or to break the dopamine addiction? Know your why. Write it down. Keep it close. 

Realize that there will be a withdrawal period. Like any addiction, big or small, there will likely be symptoms of withdrawal. There will be times you will want that thing so badly it hurts. If online shopping is your drug, you will need someone to hold you accountable so you don’t act on impulse in these moments. This is when you will really need to go back to your why. Remind yourself of the big picture. Hold fast to your why. Distract yourself by doing something else, like taking a walk, playing with your dog, or cooking an amazing dinner. Get a notebook and write about how you feel instead of acting on it. Hold fast during the withdrawal. Avoid the stores and websites that tempt you. Why would you do that to yourself? It’s amazingly helpful to simply act like those places no longer exist.

Make an effort to deal with the underlying issues. Seek counsel – either with a friend or a therapist depending on the severity of the addiction. We all have pain in our lives, and we all develop coping mechanisms. Some are healthier than others (one of mine is working out, but even that isn’t healthy in excess.) The real progress comes when we see why we’re behaving the way we’re behaving. Retail therapy may or may not be cheaper than actual therapy…but one is a band-aid and one is a heart surgeon. Give your heart the attention it deserves. It’s a worthwhile investment. 

Lastly, I’m going to welcome you to do this with me. It’s been a while since I did a shopping ban, and it’s time for a reset. For the month of September, I’m going to commit to buy only gas and groceries, in order to retrain my brain.

I’d love it if you joined me! If you’d like to do so, let me know in the comments. For more help, I’d encourage you to read my Tips for a Successful Shopping Ban next. I’ll try to share inspiration during the month to keep us motivated, and update you when it is over to let you know how it went! If you’ve been thinking about doing this already, here is your chance to do it with other people!

We’ve got this. We are stronger than the marketing and the targeted ads. We are stronger than the addiction and the bad habits. I believe in us.


What is your personal struggle when it comes to shopping addiction? Mine is Goodwill and IKEA. Someone else’s might be Amazon and Home Goods. What do you think about the idea that we are constantly programming ourselves to want more and more? How can we support one another along the way? 


Thanks for the image, Becca McHaffie!


Add yours →

  1. I’m in! I absolutely need a reset too with this. I got a little carried away the last couple of months, buying clothes for the person I want to be, rather than the person I really am. So glad you are blogging again! I missed your posts!

    • I’m in the same boat. There are styles of clothing that I like but rarely ever wear due to my lifestyle! They keep going in the donate bin. Eventually I will learn…. 😉

    • Linda,
      Thank you for saying it this way! Yes, the person I want to be rather than the person I am. I’ve done that more times than I can count. Sigh.

  2. Actually, my weakness when it comes to shopping, are the etsy vintage shops.

  3. I’m so glad you’re posting again – it’s good timing. We’re doing our own version of a shopping ban starting tomorrow and are going to see how long we can take it. Thanks for speaking some hard truths I needed to hear with this post, I’m looking forward to any encouragement you have to share along the way.

  4. I read this yesterday and was so resonating with what you said, and THEN a friend on social media had bought such a cute dress, and I started immediately thinking, “I NEED that dress! All of my clothes are no good, but I would look so great in THAT dress!” Sigh. I don’t learn easily. I did NOT buy the dress, but my heart issues remain the same. And I’m a missionary in Africa, where I see poverty and lack on a daily basis…you would think my heart would not be so quick to wander, but, alas, it is.
    Joy the one wearing her perfectly good clothes from her closet

    • That’s exactly why I’m doing this too! I struggle to wear the clothes I have now, but I’m always on the lookout for the next better thing! Let’s just admit that what we already have is good enough! 😊

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