Emotional Spending Was a Common Pandemic Coping Mechanism, Experts Say

drawing of girl in bed shopping on her computer

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Emotional spending is spending money during a period of heightened emotions, like stress or sadness.
  • It often results in buying items you don't really need, or even want.
  • Mental health experts say this is a coping mechanism to avoid addressing those difficult emotions, but there are many ways to deal with it.

The pandemic may have made it a bit trickier to visit your favorite stores, but it's not like you have to leave your home to go on a spending spree. Experts say one of the many mental health impacts of COVID-19 is a rise in what’s known as emotional spending—but it’s not a new phenomenon.

“Have a bad day, get a new pair of shoes. Broke-up with your boyfriend? How about a whole new wardrobe? Spending money to help us feel better has been a long-standing coping mechanism for many Americans,” says clinical psychologist Sheila Forman, PhD. 

A coping mechanism is a behavior we engage in when we want to change how we feel, and this could be anything from drinking a beer after a tough day at work or eating a pint of ice cream after being stood up for a date, to impulse buying on Amazon when you want to feel better.

“To be an emotional spender is to use shopping (online, in person, or both) to soothe what ails,” says Dr. Forman. And we're not talking about buying necessities here—typically, emotional spenders shop for things they don't need or even really want.

Shopping Our Way Out Of The Pandemic

Experts believe that emotional spending during the pandemic isn't surprising, considering how many of us were locked away at home with little to do—and trying to cope with an increased sense of stress and anxiety.

“The pandemic is a huge stressor that has both contributed to worse mental health for a huge number of people and has removed opportunities for other rewarding social activities that might take the place of shopping,” says Elisabeth Netherton, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. Dr. Netherton works with many women who struggle with spending in a way that’s inconsistent with their goals or values when they’re not feeling well.

The items people spend money on when they’re distressed really varies, Dr. Netherton adds. “Some women I work with tend to spend on items for their home, while others focus more on clothing,” she says. Plus with practically next-day services like Amazon Prime, you can have whatever you want with a day or two's notice. That instant gratification is highly seductive.

Dr. Forman believes that emotional spending tends to focus on items that are more pleasurable than pragmatic. “Items that one tends to forego to pay the rent may move front and center when emotionally shopping,” she says. “Emotional spending also tends to be impulsive. Red leather thigh-high boots anyone?”

When Emotional Spending Becomes An Issue

If you have a tendency to treat yourself to a new outfit or makeup when you’re under emotional stress—or maybe you have indeed purchased those red leather thigh-high boots—that’s not necessarily a major cause for concern. 

“A little emotional spending can be good for the soul,” says Dr. Forman. However, when it becomes a primary coping mechanism there could be dire consequences, such as out of control debt.

“It becomes problematic when folks find themselves spending in ways that are inconsistent with their values or with their goals for their money and time,” adds Dr. Netherton. She often hears from women she works with that they find they’re spending hours a day shopping online, and that ultimately the amount that they’re spending is really less problematic than the time that they’re spending doing it. 

“It also flags my attention as a mental health provider when emotional spending starts to become an issue within their relationship with their partners,” Dr. Netherton says. 

How To Overcome Emotional Spending

If you feel that your emotional spending is getting out of control, finding other ways to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression is key, says Dr. Forman. Instead of shopping, she recommends journaling, meditating, or talking to a therapist to help you cope with bad feelings.

"Feel your feelings, rather than avoid them," she says. "Contrary to what many believe, feelings pass. Give yourself the gift of sitting with your emotions without needing to make them go away. A good cry or a well-timed shriek into a pillow... let it all go." 

Dr. Netherton believes that the first step in shifting any pattern is recognizing that you’re engaging in a behavior that doesn’t serve you. "As you start to recognize the pattern you can practice putting in place interventions to start to shift it," she explains. "For example, noticing that you’re feeling low after a long day and realizing you’ve opened your phone to shop, you might choose instead to remind yourself of your goals for your spending or your time, step back from the phone, and go for a walk."

What This Means For You

If you think you spend money as a coping mechanism to avoid addressing difficult feelings or mental health issues, it might help to speak to a therapist. Support groups can also be helpful. And if you have money problems as a result of over-spending, a financial counselor can help you make a plan to get out of debt and create healthier spending habits.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.