‘I thought buying things would make me feel better. It didn’t’: The rise of emotional spending

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In the past fortnight, I have bought the following items online: a hideous cat tree that takes up most of my living room, a lavender pillow spray, two scarves, a pair of gloves, two candles, a sheet mask, a pair of fleece-lined jogging bottoms (so comfy!), a card-holder and an under-eye brightening cream. None of these purchases were essential. Many I haven’t even taken out of the packaging, leaving them in a pile by the front door.

Ten months into the pandemic, I know the rhythms of the courier networks better than I know my menstrual cycle. Royal Mail in the morning; DPD and Hermes in the afternoon. Amazon comes any time, including late at night. DPD couriers insist on taking a photo of you with the package, mortifyingly. I wonder where these photos go: me in a food-stained tracksuit, dirty-haired, holding an armful of packages I can’t remember ordering with an abashed smile. I pray they never see the light of day.

When Covid hit, I decided: no more frivolous purchases. Journalism is a precarious industry at the best of times. But the pandemic just wouldn’t stop. March dragged into June then into January. My days were flabby and formless. I was bored. So I started buying things online, for the small thrill of hitting “check out” and having them arrive a few days later, a treat to break up the monotony of yet another day.

I am not alone. The pandemic has prompted a frenzy of online spending. Mintel’s January 2021 consumer behaviour tracker shows that 53% of adults are shopping more online now than at the start of the pandemic. Data from Barclaycard, published in July, found that Britons spent £40.6bn online on non-essential items during lockdown – about £770 a person. Takeaway food and drink were the most popular purchases, followed by clothes and plants.

Courier networks and Royal Mail have struggled to cope, citing exceptional demand for their services. The volume of parcels being sent means there is a cardboard shortage. Asos, whose profits fell 68% in 2019, added 3 million customers last year and increased profits by 329%. The company’s chief executive said this was partly due to fewer customers returning parcels than usual – possibly because they were unwilling to go to the post office during the pandemic.

View image in fullscreen‘You end up buying these bits for them because they’re plonked in front of the TV’ … Alex Wiseman with his children – and some of his lockdown book purchases. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The pandemic has been financially devastating for many people, particularly for the 3 million people excluded from government support. But, for some, the last 11 months have proved unexpectedly lucrative. Research from the Bank of England, published in August, found that 65% of households had not experienced a change to their income from pre-pandemic levels. “People have had such different lockdown experiences,” says Laura Whateley, the author of Money: A User’s Guide. “A huge number of people have lost their jobs and are struggling. But many other people have kept their jobs and aren’t going out, or commuting, so they’re feeling much more flush than normal and are spending their money online.”

Most of this shopping is due to boredom. “I have all this time,” says Jonathan O’Neill, 44, a furloughed retail worker from western Cornwall. For want of something to do, O’Neill has become what he terms an “investigative shopper”: he fills his days hunting for bargains online. “I never used to be like this,” he says.

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O’Neill groans when I ask him about his purchases. “It’s all the cliched man things,” he says. “In the first lockdown, I bought a road bike – classic! I didn’t need a bike. I already had three. But it was on offer.” He has also recently bought a new TV – there was nothing wrong with the old one – and a £95 Carhartt sweatshirt, also on offer. O’Neill lives at the end of a small lane and delivery drivers often get lost dropping off parcels, meaning his neighbour collects them for him. “My neighbour leans out of the house and goes: ‘What’s in today’s box?’” he says.

This type of shopping, says Emilie Bellet, the founder of the women’s investment community Vestpod, is called emotional spending. “It is guided by how you feel in a certain moment,” says Bellet. “When you buy something, you get a little rush of dopamine. It gives us a sense of control or a happy feeling.” She is not surprised that people are spending more on discretionary purchases during the pandemic. “It’s a distraction,” she says. “There’s a little package, containing a book or item of clothing, and perhaps it’s the only thing that happens during your day.”

It’s like sitting in a pub all day when you’re trying not to drink … social media is full of things to buyLaura Whateley

Emotional spending can also be triggered by work pressures. “When I’m stressed or I’ve got loads of deadlines at work, buying things online is a nice release,” says Emrana Khatun, a 26-year-old PR executive from London. Khatun’s purchases fall into three categories: cute outfits to wear when the world reopens (she recently bought seven dresses in the Reformation sale); items for a fitness kick she plans to embark on (a NutriBullet, cycling equipment); and things to make her home nicer (house plants, an LED alarm clock). “Most of the stuff is piled up on a chair in my bedroom,” she says. “I haven’t even tried the clothes on.”

Khatun has struggled with her mood during the most recent lockdown. This is driving her spending. “There’s hardly any sunlight,” she says. “I wake up and it’s dark, and I sit at my desk all day, and it’s so cold you don’t want to go outside. It’s pretty miserable.” Buying something online “creates a small moment of joy, but it never lasts long”. Because after the high of a frivolous purchase comes the guilt. “You realise there’s nothing you really needed,” she says. “You just got sucked into the moment and the high.”

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For parents trying to juggle work with the pressures of homeschooling young children, emotional spending can also be a way to mitigate guilt. “If it wasn’t for Covid, we’d be going out with the kids,” says Alex Wiseman, 40, an insurance worker from Ipswich. “But we can’t do that any more.” Wiseman keeps buying toys and clothes for his children, in addition to about 60 books for himself – which he has no time to read, given the demands of work and homeschooling. “You end up buying these bits for them because they’re plonked in front of the TV more than they would be usually,” he says.

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Because O’Neill is working from home, he is not “buying lunch out, or commuting, or paying for car parking”. But this can be a dangerous justification for future spending. “You tell yourself that you’re not in debt or anything like that, so it’s not out of control,” says Wiseman.

Virtually all emotional spending is fuelled by social media. “I bought a paint-by-numbers kit,” laughs Sarah Kane, a 26-year-old HR worker from Surrey. “I can’t even paint! I don’t have the attention span for it. But I looked on Instagram and saw that everyone else was buying it and I did the same thing.” During the first lockdown, Kane’s emotional purchases spiralled out of control. “My flatmate joked that there was a parcel every day,” says Kane. “We lived on the third floor, so you’d have to spring downstairs every time the doorbell rang.”

View image in fullscreen‘After I took my credit card off Amazon, my purchases went way down’ … Sarah Kane. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Much emotional spending is fuelled by quick and easy-to-access credit. Kane has personal debt – she prefers not to say how much. “I never had financial education in school and would go into overdrafts and use credit cards without thinking anything of it,” she says. Before Covid hit, Kane had read Alex Holder’s Open Up: The Power of Talking About Money and decided to get on top of her debt, repaying a good chunk of the money she owed. “I was so happy,” she says. But her emotional spending during the first lockdown, along with dinners and drinks during the summer, pushed Kane back into the red. “I finished 2020 with the debts I started with,” she sighs.

Most emotional shoppers do not think about their purchases in a meaningful way. “It’s so easy,” says Kane. “It’s one click. You see it on Instagram, click on it and express checkout with PayPal.” Amazon and eBay offer one-click purchasing, while seamless PayPal integration into most online shopping sites means you never even have to get your card out. Add to that buy-now-pay-later schemes such as Klarna and Clearpay and purchases don’t even show up on your bank balance or credit card statements.

This is exactly how brands want you to spend: quickly and impulsively. “Everything about e-commerce is designed to remove friction,” says Clare Seal, the founder of the personal finance platform My Frugal Year. “Reducing load times and the number of clicks to purchase, encouraging people to save their card details – it is all removing the amount of time a shopper has to make an informed decision.” Half the time, consumers can’t even remember what they have purchased. “Every day a new parcel arrives and I don’t know what I’ve ordered,” says Khatun.

I have experienced this fugue-like state, usually when I am brushing my teeth, perched on the side of my bath, clicking “add to cart” in the final moments before I go to bed. It turns out that companies know when I am weak – and this is when they target me. “Companies will know what kind of content you engage with at different times during the day,” says PK Kannan, a marketing expert at the University of Maryland. Marketers even analyse the circadian rhythms of their users and schedule their content at times when they are particularly receptive to buying things online.

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Banner ads that follow consumers across devices trap us in a “sales funnel”. “It’s scary when you look for something online and it pops up everywhere,” says Wiseman. “It’s relentless.” The only way to exit the funnel is by purchasing the item. “These are highly specialised techniques that use behaviour retargeting on consumers,” says Kannan. “You’ve shown interest, so I will follow you wherever you go with this same ad.” Khatun is being stalked by a Chloé handbag. “It follows me everywhere,” she says. “It’s very tempting. I tell myself I will be good, but I probably will cave.”

The reason we are buying so many items online is simple: we are online more than ever. “It’s like sitting in a pub all day when you’re trying not to drink,” says Whateley. “People are tempted to buy more because we’re online all day long and social media is full of things to buy.” In April, Britons spent an average of four hours and two minutes online – up from three and a half hours in September 2019. It is a straightforward equation: more time online means more time to shop. (This is surely one reason for Google’s heavy investment in driverless cars – you can’t buy things when you are driving.)

There are ways to resist the machiavellian machinations of our social media overlords. Kannan advises clearing the cookies on your computer and using the search engine DuckDuckGo, which protects your privacy. Unsubscribe from email marketing letters and unfollow accounts that tempt you to spend mindlessly. Reintroduce the friction into online shopping by deleting your card details from your favourite sites. “After I took my credit card off Amazon, my purchases went way down,” says Kane. Whateley says some banks will block card transactions to merchants if you ask them to.

“Start spending in a way that feels purposeful,” says Bellet. “When you adopt an intentional approach to spending, you become more aware of your needs versus your wants.” Make a budget, determine the amount of money you will allocate to discretionary spending – and stick to it. “Spend it on whatever makes you happy,” says Bellet. Practise delayed gratification when purchasing items online. “Sleep on all purchases for at least a day, but ideally a week,” she says.

Kane keeps a list on her phone of all the things she would like to buy. If she stays within her spending budget this month, she may buy one item – but it will be a conscious purchase, not an impulsive one. “I thought buying all these things would make me feel better, but they didn’t. What makes me feel better is going for a walk, or doing pilates, or having a bath … I feel 100% happier now,” she says of her new approach to spending. “There’s no guilty feeling any more.”