We live in an exceedingly consumer-oriented culture. Everywhere you go, there are products and services to buy, from a simple cup of coffee to a new car. Morning until night, we are surrounded by advertising. It appears on TV, in magazines, online, and on the streets. The modern world is a non-stop barrage of temptations to spend and promises that each new purchase will improve your life and make you a happier, more fulfilled person.

Victims of Advertising?

It’s no surprise, then, that overspending and excessive shopping are common, virtually ubiquitous problems of contemporary life. They are so common, in fact, that many people hardly even recognize them. After all, we all buy things we don’t need. At what point does spending money on non-essential items go from normal to problematic?

It’s also probably unfair to place the blame for our fixation on shopping solely at the feet of advertisers. They are just giving people what they want. If we didn’t respond so effectively to ads, they’d quickly disappear. While it can be appealing to cast ourselves as the hapless victims of heartless, money-hungry corporations that virtually “force” us to overspend with manipulative ploys and calculated deceptions, that’s surely a bit simplistic.

A Primal Instinct

While it’s true that advertisers are experts at manufacturing desire, we also need to take responsibility for our own role in the situation. The fact is, acquiring goods is an ingrained survival mechanism inherent to human psychology. Amassing more stuff than you need will help you weather harsh times in an uncertain and chaotic world. Acquiring flashy and unnecessary objects is an evergreen way of signalling social status and attracting romantic attention. For better or worse, we’re “hard-wired” to be always buying things, given the opportunity.

When Shopping Goes Too Far

So, while having a healthy desire to buy things is natural and largely unavoidable, when we give that impulse too much power it can have disastrous results. Excessive debt, maxed out credit cards, and a home cluttered with unused, unnecessary products are all common outcomes. Things that seemed so exciting initially soon end up just taking up space.

In order to get out of the pattern of constantly buying things, it is important to identify what triggers and motivates this habit. While each case is unique, there are a few specific behavioral and emotional factors that underscore most people’s tendency to spend excessively.

The Unquenchable Desire for the New and Exciting

We all know the feeling. You see that shiny new flat screen TV, designer handbag, video game console, pair of shoes, or other flashy consumer good. Suddenly, you are overcome by an enormous desire to own something that, just a moment before, you hardly knew existed. Does this make any sense? After all, before you knew about this new prize, life seemed okay. Are things really going to change just because of a new purchase?

It’s easy to see that they probably won’t if you step back and analyze the situation logically. What’s occurring in this common scenario has little to do with logic, though — it’s a purely emotional response. Our natural attraction to novelty is being aggressively stimulated.

People have an inherent drive to try new things and have new experiences. Most experts believe this plays an essential role in helping us to learn about he world and figure out the how to survive and be successful. Buying something new is an easy, accessible, and risk-free way to scratch the novelty “itch.”

Many people don’t have much novelty in their everyday lives. Each day its the same thing: make the same commute, work at the same boring job, talk to the same coworkers, watch the same TV shows at night, and slip into bed at the same time. Buying something new is a quick and easy cure to the lack of novelty that this sort of routine entails.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Competition and jealousy are also common triggers that lead to excessive and unnecessary spending. When we see someone else has something new, we often begin to want that thing for ourselves. Especially among those we view as our peers, we have a strong aversion to appearing less successful. Of course, one of the clearest ways most people view success is by the quality and amount of our possessions. This accounts for the perennial popularity of “status symbols.” Whether they take the form of a Mercedes-Benz sedan, a shiny gold Rolex, or a pair of Louis Vuitton heels, these sorts of goods are valued for the status boost they imbue upon their owner, perhaps more so than for what they actually are.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a bit competitive. It’s only natural that we judge ourselves in relation to our peers. While psychologists and self-help gurus alike may argue that we should only be in competition with ourselves, this is an ideal that few will realistically ever achieve. The key for most people will be managing the impulse, rather than trying to stamp it out completely.

Boredom, Depression, and Other Emotional Issues

For many, constant buying functions as a sort of “band aid” for an existing area of dissatisfaction. Perhaps an individual is stuck in an unhappy, loveless relationship or in a dreary, dead-end job. The distracting rush of shopping is an easy, immediate, and reliable way to enjoy a temporary escape from ongoing problems. Ironically, though, excess spending (and the accumulating debt that goes along with it) can make many problems worse, including job and relationship ones. It soon becomes a vicious circle, where a person spends to feel better but the negative effects of spending only add to the original problem that motivated the spending in the first place.

Escaping the Overspending Trap

While constantly buying things is an easy habit to get into, there are things you can do to prevent falling into this negative pattern — and to pull yourself out if you’re already in trouble. One simple but effective strategy is develop a habit of stopping and asking yourself a series of pre-planned questions before making any non-budgeted purchase. These should be things like:

  • Do I really need this?
  • Is it reasonable to suspect I’ll regret this decision later?
  • What am I really going to use this product for?
  • Is this something I can wait to purchase until a later date?
  • What are some other (potentially more important) things I could use this money for?

If you’ve already amassed a decent amount of credit card debt, it may also be useful to use one of the many available online debt calculators to see just how much you will end up spending in interest payments before your existing purchases are payed off. When you realize how much money you’re giving up unnecessarily to cover interest charges, you will likely be more careful about acquiring additional debt.

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