To Buy or Not To Buy

You Can Never Get Enough of What You Don't Really Need

April Lane Benson
Magazine Issue
March/April 2009
To Buy or Not To Buy

It’s Monday before Christmas, and the lure of spectacular discounts has turned the usual elegance of the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue into something resembling Filene’s basement at the height of a clearance sale. Gloves, hats, sweaters, and scarves are tossed about as though Katrina has just been here. But this crowd is the exception. Elsewhere in Manhattan, discounts notwithstanding, the stores are largely empty. I stop in front of one and peer through the only part of the window not plastered with an enormous “50% off on selected styles” banner. Inside, sales associates are trying to look busy, folding and refolding.

In a large Midwest city, Michele, normally a big shopper, says she’s cut back. “It doesn’t seem right to buy so much now,” she says. “My mood’s changed.” Using leftover yarn, she’s crocheting colorful scarves for her nieces and nephew. And to model the generosity she hopes they’ll adopt, she’s donated a goat and two chickens in their names to a Senegalese family they’re going to write to. “I got an excited call from my brother-in-law. When the kids found out, they were absolutely thrilled,” she says. “The only shopping I did was for my husband, and I spent less than I’d planned! Always before, I’d get something for myself, but this year I didn’t. It felt so good and so strange at the same time.”

In a Californian suburb, the sun beats down through an atrium on a huge mall Christmas tree. Passing it, $35,000 in debt and facing the very real possibility that her husband Jason will be downsized, Sara scopes out her Christmas purchases. Like land mines, incredible bargains pop up and explode in front of her, little bursts of temporary insanity. There’s a red Dell mini-laptop for her husband, very sleek and at a jaw-dropping discount. There are taupe peau-de-soie sandals for her at an irresistible price—just the thing for putting her best foot forward at the Peta benefit she’s organizing. She buys both.

All across America, people’s shopping habits are changing. For some, unmoored by this year’s dizzying post-Christmas sales, shopping has grown even more frenetic. But for most, frightened into prudence by the shadow of the dark economy, it’s become more deliberate and fraught with anxiety. The question of “to buy or not to buy” has become more complex than ever. Maybe what we’re seeing is the just-perceptible starting-lurch of the engine of transformation. Maybe this new economic pressure on our shopping habits will begin to tip the phenomenon from what it’s been to what it can be.


Where Shopping Has Taken Us

In our consumer-driven economy, we’ve long been asking material things to do what they really can’t: regulate our emotions, improve our social status, and turn us into our ideal selves. A Cathy cartoon paints it perfectly. “Iwasn’t going to spend any money,” she begins, “but I just have to buy one new thing. If I buy one new thing, I’ll feel new. If I feel new, I’ll act new. If I act new, I’ll lose weight, excel in my job, organize my home, catch up on my correspondence, and have hordes of handsome men showering me with Casablanca lilies.” “Quite a lot to ask of a headband,” cautions the saleslady. “But well worth the $7.95 try,” responds Cathy.

That same mentality shaped this ad for “retail therapy”: “Come to Barney’s Psychotherapy Sale! Fill your emotional baggage with mood-enhancing bargains. Get in touch with your inner shopper.” Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but laced with seeds of truth. That most people immediately catch on to the meaning of these messages tells us much about the unfulfillable promises that are the implicit foundation of our consumer economy.

Transformative magic, equal-opportunity, all-purpose mood changer, generalized panacea—shopping has been touted as the answer to so many questions that it was even invoked by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 as the ultimate form of public service. We could do our part to help heal the country, he assured us, by simply going shopping. Fast forward seven years. Now, in no small part because of the recklessness of our shopping at all levels of society—in the housing market, on Wall Street, inside individual households, and by the government—America is in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

To be sure, even before the downturn, many had raised questions about the psychological consequences of our cultural devotion to materialism. Studies and indicators had found something surprising: that as our economy (and particularly our purchasing) surged from the 1960s onward, our sense of individual and social well-being dropped off sharply. The decline was documented by psychologist Tim Kasser in his 2002 book, The High Price of Materialism. Studies he’d conducted with Richard Ryan in 1993, 1996, and 2001 had shown that people who rate the relative importance of material possessions as high (in contrast to the importance of such other pursuits as self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling) report a lower quality of life. In his book, Kasser reviewed other studies that explored this connection, both from the United States and abroad, and found a consistently inverse relationship. Patricia Cohen found that adolescents who admire others for their possessions are at increased risk for personality disorders and virtually every other Axis I and Axis II diagnosis assessed in their research. Kasser’s conclusion was decisive: the more you believe happiness comes from material wealth, the more likely you are to be depressed, distressed, and anxious—and the less actual well-being you’re likely to experience.

At some level, of course, we’ve known this all along. Why else is the big shopper always portrayed as a lightweight, a cartoon caricature: the ditzy blonde struggling with armfuls of boutique bags, or the saber-toothed bargain hunter poised and ready to strike? Why else do we snicker at the bumper stickers like “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping” or the one I saw once on an Audi A8: “Veni, Vidi, Visa”? Why else do we have tongue-in-cheek disease names for our modern American habits of overconsumption: affluenza, aspendicitis, luxury fever?

Where Shopping Can Lead Us

The closer one examines the psychology of shopping, the more intricacy and nuance we discover in our decisions about what and why we buy. Whether we’re shopping for a plant, a pair of pumps, or a political candidate, it’s a way we search for ourselves and our place in the world. Though often conducted in the most public of spaces, it’s essentially an intimate and personal experience—as we taste, touch, sift, consider, and talk our way through myriad possibilities. Shopping involves searching, not only externally, as in a store, but internally, through memory and desire. It’s a vehicle for self-expression, self-definition, creativity, and even healing, an interactive process, in which we dialogue with people, places, things, and parts of ourselves.

Tom is someone who gets attached to his clothes, especially the familiar, well-loved, hole-y ones. His 15-year-old three-season jacket has been a particular bone of contention with his wife, who’d much prefer that Tom “take a little more pride” in his appearance. So for this birthday, his 60th, she’s decided he must find a replacement.

She takes him to Ralph Lauren’s, a store he’s never set foot in, and steers him toward a dazzlingly stylish, suede bomber jacket she’s picked out in advance. Immediately, an internal approach/avoidance dance begins. Holding the jacket, admiring the careful stitching, he’s gripped by a feeling of disloyalty: “My old jacket and I go way back; we’re tight, man. It’d be like selling my best friend down the river!” Then there’s sticker-shock and a guilt trip: “Who do you think you are anyway, sporting a jacket that costs 10 times what your old one did?” Still, trying it on and looking in the mirror, he’s swayed. It’s so seductively soft, and he likes the feel of the suede as he zips it up. “It takes itself seriously, but it’s not all business,” he thinks as he notices the knitted ribbing on the collar and cuffs. “Replacing the old jacket,” he tells a part of himself, “doesn’t mean I’ve joined the Radical Right or single-handedly brought on the shopocalypse.” He looks in the mirror again. “I like what I see when I look at myself in this,” he admits; “it’s me. And it isn’t a crime to look like a mature professional, confident and ready to engage with—what’s the new buzz-phrase—Ôthe Third Age’.” With this admixture of reluctance, curiosity, and determination, Tom sheds a layer of old skin, tries on and chooses a new look—and perhaps a new self—to show the world.

Shopping, then, is exploration. It can reveal or give form to pieces of the self that might otherwise remain dormant. When we reframe shopping as a process of search, a vital activity that reaches far beyond the traditional associations with simply buying or possessing, we move our quest for identity and meaning forward. In the act of searching out the exact word, the right vocation, the perfect gift, the fitting epitaph, we seek to become more fully ourselves.

Shopping’s link to exploration is readily apparent. Less overt but no less significant is how often it brings us into a world of connection, of relationships. Many of the shopping stories I’ve heard underline the importance of salespeople and companions—shopping buddies, friends, spouses, or children—either as symbolic transference figures or as real providers of affirmation and expertise. My own shopping story, the experience that first drew me into trying to understand the psychology of shopping, is about the healing power of connection.

When I was a child, my shopping trips with my mother, who’d grown up poor during the Depression, were nearly always difficult. Within minutes of entering a store, the climate between us would grow icy, as one selection after another was rejected—usually because of the price. But if my mother was the yin of shopping, the yang lived next door. Sherry had grown up wealthy on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the ’30s, and she and her daughter always returned from shopping trips laughing and excited. What struck me, though, was the relationship Sherry had with a particular store and the people who worked there. It was as if she’d been to visit a close friend, an accepting and embracing intimate; it was a place where she felt thoroughly comfortable, completely at home. Here was a template I wanted to trace.

I first happened into Charivari in 1973. Newly married, I was living on the Upper West Side, just a stone’s throw from my soon-to-be store. In the beginning, their clothes seemed too expensive and too sophisticated for me. Part of me felt undeserving, and another part wrestled with a fear of being envied, of being judged as spoiled or superficial. But I kept going back, searching for something. It was more than the clothes; there was a tender, genuine care that came at no extra charge. So when one afternoon my phone rang and the manager let me know that an expensive blouse I wanted had been marked down—”I’ve put it away for you. It’s in the closet.”— I felt stroked rather than sold to, taken care of rather than taken.

Over the years, the level of service—and of personal care and attention—remained constant, even as my shopping needs changed: first one baby, then two, then an economic downturn. I’d stop in at Charivari not so much to buy—with the kids, I’d turned to simpler clothing—as to look and chat. And through everything, like the good mother who lovingly en-courages her child’s exploration outside the home, the staff took no less interest in the choices I’d made beyond their doors.

So when, after 24 years on the block, my store finally closed, I was sad but ready to part. While I’d miss shopping and talking with my Charivari mothers, I keep with me wonderful memories of bounding home, feeling safe and cared-for, whether or not I had a garment bag in hand. Shopping there had done its healing.

This story, like all the shopping stories I know, reminds me how basic the process is. Infants, after all—like the shoppers they’ll become—explore and connect. From the first days and weeks of life, they shake bells or rattles and create sounds. They’re exploring and thereby gaining a feeling of aliveness and competence—just as Tom does with his jacket.

The parallel also holds for connection. When infants engage with objects in the presence of a loving caretaker, their exploration becomes a kind of play, advancing the cause of intimacy. That’s how it worked for me with Charivari, and how I hear it working in the shopping stories of others.

Shopping behavior, then, is close to the bone. It evolves from our earliest impulses to move out and see what the world has to offer us. And it stays with us, a playful seesaw between autonomy and self-direction on one end, and interaction and interdependency on the other.

Mindful Shopping

Amidst the coughs and sputters of today’s American economic engine, consumption is braking hard. This is a moment unprecedented in most of our lives. It offers us an opportunity, even a push, to choose—and to help others choose—between two antithetical approaches to the material world: mindless consumption, with its unrealizable fantasy of magical transformation, and mindful shopping, with its focus on search and discovery. As mental health professionals, we have a chance to help people see both the pitfalls and the possibilities of their shopping. In particular, we can help the many whose consumption is driven by emotional needs to discover what it
is they’re really shopping for and how to get it.

My client Liliana, a personal trainer and nutrition coach for 20 years, has always loved shopping, but now she’s trying to limit her spending mostly to necessities. At 3 o’clock on a recent Tuesday, she finds herself in front of Marc Jacobs in Soho, looking at ankle boots in a rich, eggplant shade: they’re $155, marked down from $530. Very tempting. In the back of her mind, though, are stop signs. She thinks about her usual Tuesday client, who’s opted for a shortened, four-day work week to forestall layoffs at the publishing company where she works; in turn, the client has cut back her workouts with Liliana. She thinks about her boyfriend, struggling mightily to make the payments on two loans, while his construction business has slowed to a crawl.

Liliana has never been a saver, but she’s caught a strong whiff of economic fear. She badly wants to cut back, and yet she’s finding it surprisingly difficult; that’s why we’re working together. We begin to look at why she’s overshopping and how it began. I give her a series of prompts and vignettes to respond to, and she makes quick connections. She comes to recognize that her jealous
and competitive feelings toward her boyfriend’s teenage daughter are strong shopping triggers. The purchases soothe her ruffled feelings and are a way of sticking it to Martin: these are the times she takes the risk of using his credit card. She then notices that her shopping has escalated in the last three months—after a negative pregnancy test. She’s wanted to keep trying, but he isn’t convinced he wants another child; it’s been the elephant in the room ever since. She notices, too, that her biggest splurges have occurred after she and Martin argue—a variation of the model she’d grown up with. Back then, when her father came home smelling of alcohol, her mother would seethe quietly, then pick up her coat and bag, and take Liliana to mall.

I ask her to carry a small journal for taking on-site field notes about her urges. In it, she’s going to plan, record, and review her purchases. “When the urge struck,” she writes about a lime-green linen sundress she flirted with online, “I was in the apartment. Jodi and Martin were talking. While Icouldn’t hear the words distinctly, I definitely heard the melody—and I found myself wishing he’d use that same honeyed tone with me. My hands were getting clammy. I was already at the computer, so it was just a couple of clicks to log on to, and I was off and running.”

Earlier, I’d given her a laminated card with six questions on it: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay? and Where will I put it? I’d asked her to answer them, preferably in writing, whenever and wherever she had a strong shopping impulse. For the sundress urge, answering only the first two—Why am I here? How do I feel?—was enough to awaken her to the connection between what she was feeling and what her fingers were doing. That time, she was able to bypass “proceed to checkout.”

We’re also exploring Liliana’s ambivalence, taking a careful look at the costs and benefits of both continuing and of changing her shopping behavior. It’s easy for her to see substantial and obvious benefits to shopping more mindfully: it would, for example, give her more flexibility if she and Martin are able to resolve the baby issue and she wants to work less; and it would eliminate the guilt and shame she feels when he goes ballistic about his credit card bill. There’s some pain, however, as well. The little ceremony she makes of going daily to Starbucks for tea—a reward she gives herself for running all over town to meet with training clients, a quiet pause for renewal—will be lost to economic prudence. And she’ll lose a way she’s learned to handle, at least temporarily, her feelings of jealousy and disappointment. We talk about the fact that while she can’t always feel better, what she can do is feel better: notice and allow all her feelings. “Allow, not swallow.” I tell her. “Allow, not wallow.”

At the same time that we’re exploring what she feels, we’re focusing on where her money is going—specifically, the amount of discretionary fluff in her spending. To check for this, she tracks all her expenses for two months: what she buys, how much it costs, and how necessary it is. She’s astonished at the results—she’s essentially wasting nearly half of what she spends. “It’s the little things that add up,” she says. “The tea from Starbucks that I bring home every day, though I must have 20 different teas in my cupboard. Ka-ching! The energy bars. Sure, running around to clients’ houses, I need the occasional pick-me-up. But I stop and buy each bar individually, another comforting little ritual. Instead, I could bring home a whole box from the Vitamin Shoppe and put a couple in my bag each morning; that’d cut the cost in half. And it’s not just the little things. I see a pair of sneakers I like, and they’re $140, but I’m attracted to them. They look, I don’t know, like I want to look. They’re cool, and I buy ’em. Do I need these particular sneakers? Do I need sneakers at all? No. I could get a much cheaper pair—and anyway, my closet’s already stuffed with sneakers.”

With the awareness and resolve she’s gained from two months of daily and weekly spending “weigh-ins,” Liliana makes a straight-on announcement: “I’m gonna stop wasting money on crap I don’t need to be buying. I don’t want to compromise on the really important things, like the quality of my food or regular massage, but I’m just not going to spend money without really thinking it through. I’m holding off on things. I’m waiting another week for a haircut, and I’m canceling my appointment for highlights.”

In support of her resolve, she’s designed alternatives tailored to meet the same needs, but not break the bank. Creating an at-home ceremony, she’s bought different-flavored honey sticks to sweeten the non-Starbucks tea she’s now making for herself. And two Sundays a month, she’s begun cooking together with five friends. Here there’s ritual and experiment and camaraderie and renewal—and they take home what’s left for a delicious and readymade second meal. As for the fantasy of what that lime-green dress would do for her—remember Cathy and the $7.95 headband?—she’s dealt with it from two angles. First, she’s acknowledged its unlikeliness: “Either we’re going to have a baby or we aren’t. But shopping to postpone a day of reckoning isn’t going to make it more likely. And things don’t really create an identity for you. Who you are is what’s inside you. I don’t have to wear the latest style. It’s not that style that people notice anyway, it’s my style—and that’s intrinsic to me, new clothes or not.” But she’s also located a safe place to dabble in fantasy, a monthly meeting where people gather to swap and refashion their clothing at minimal cost. Her first time there, she came away delighted with a dress, a sweater, and two potential new clients. With clear-sighted compassion as her pointer, Liliana is regaining her intuitive balance, her instinct for knowing that sometimes less is more.

The Bottom Line

Shopping isn’t about buying: it’s about being. It’s a conscious act, an essential process of search, an experience of learning and living we engage in all the time. If, aided by the pressures of the recession, we can help our clients look at shopping this way, it’s an opportunity that’s too good to pass up. But we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty. Finding true wealth—leveraging our nonfinancial assets in ways that revitalize our neglected spiritual and emotional appetites—requires overcoming the powerful forces that breed luxury fever. Called on as never before to untie the knot that binds shopping and buying so closely together, we’re only now starting to face the challenge of backing away from our culture’s relentless pursuit of excess. The time is ripe for a cultural transformation in which emotionally driven shopping gives way to shopping-as-search-and-discovery.

But that change must come to us as individuals, each in our own way and at our own pace. To achieve the change, we must each find ways of countering the relentless hype, manipulation, and pressure to consume that rains on us, cradle to grave. This would be a good time to adopt a simple and profound mantra: you can never get enough of what you don’t really need. If we can just grasp and hold on to that, there may still be time to learn that most traditional of life lessons: enough makes life rich; too much impoverishes.

April Benson, Ph.D., specializes in the treatment of compulsive buyer disorder. She’s the cofounder of the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia in New York City and the author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop (Trumpeter Books), a comprehensive look at compulsive buying and what to do about it.



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Kasser, T. (2002). The High Price of Materialism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Kasser, T., & Ryan. R.M. (1993). “A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410–422.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R.M. (1996). Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280-287.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R.M. (2001). Be Careful What You Wish For: Optimal Functioning and the Relative Attainment of Instrinsic and Extrinsic Goals. In P. Schmuck & K.M. Sheldon (ds.), Life Goals and Well-being: Towards a Positive Psychology of Human Striving (pp. 116–131). Goettingen, Germany: Hogrefe & Huber.