Be a Quitter: How to Break Your Worst Habits
The Online ShopaholicAlicia Benjamin, 32, Boston
For most of her life, Alicia Benjamin was content to hunt for clothing bargains. But when she moved from Phoenix to Boston to live with her boyfriend, her wardrobe suddenly seemed lackluster. "My coworkers looked so put together, and I started learning about designer brands I'd never heard of," she says. Armed with two credit cards, she went shopping for a new style -- and ended up $6,700 in debt.
Her weakness: shopping online, particularly at flash-sale sites like Rue La La and Ideeli. "I'd get so caught up in the moment, thinking, ?This top is 80 percent off and I have five minutes left to buy it,?" says Benjamin. She'd tried deleting the shopping apps on her phone and unsubscribing from sale e-mails but kept getting sucked back in.
When we met Benjamin, she was ordering clothes every other day, usually during lulls at work. She suspected she was shopping out of boredom and loneliness -- she had few friends in her new city -- but couldn't find a way to stop clicking "buy."
The expert: Kit Yarrow, PhD, psychology chair at Golden Gate University in San Francisco
Her give-it-up guide: "Most regimented spending plans don't work because they make you feel guilty for wanting to buy things," explains Dr. Yarrow. Instead, she'd help Benjamin understand why she was over-shopping so she'd make smarter, more conscious spending decisions. She told Benjamin to create a list of her financial priorities and track her purchases on a spreadsheet, noting where she was when she bought something and how she felt at the time.
She also urged Benjamin to stop calling herself a shopping addict. "That can make you feel helpless," explains Dr. Yarrow. "I wanted her to see herself as someone in control."
How it worked: "I was worried Dr. Yarrow would say, 'This is your budget -- you have x amount to spend on such-and-such,'" says Benjamin. "I'm stubborn and don't like being told what to do, so her approach was perfect. I started spending less right away because keeping the spreadsheet made me hyper-aware of my purchases. I decided to track things I almost bought, too. Seeing that I could turn down purchases was empowering.
"Early on, I called Dr. Yarrow during a freak-out. I wasn't shopping online; I was at the Gap holding a pile of clothes, wondering if I should buy it all or put everything back. We went through each item and she asked me things like, 'What do you like about this? Where would you wear it?' If I didn't have a good answer, she'd say, 'I don't think you really love that.' I bought a vest I gushed about and ditched the rest. The experience taught me that it's more satisfying to get one item that fits your wardrobe perfectly than to buy a bunch of so-so stuff.
"I kept my spending priority list on my iPhone, and checking it became a regular part of my filtering process. One night I saw an amazing blouse online and thought: Do I love this? Is it more valuable to me than taking my dream vacation to Amsterdam? I didn't buy it.
"Eventually I got busier at work, which took my mind off shopping. I started running more often, putting my energy into something healthy and productive instead of killing time online. One night I logged on to one of my favorite sites and thought, Eh, I don't really want to spend my money. I had other things going on to make me happy.
"I used to feel controlled by my urges to shop, and the excitement was in the buy, not the item itself. Thanks to Dr. Yarrow, I spend a lot less these days because I think through every purchase. Now that I've prioritized my wants and needs, I don't waste my money on frivolous stuff."