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Sad, stressed and spending: How Black Friday became hell for emotional shoppers

When Susie* feels sad, she spends money. “It was particularly bad in my early twenties,” the 46-year-old recalls. “[Once], my boyfriend hadn’t replied to me for a few days, so I went to the local high street and spent hundreds of pounds on clothes.” Another splurge came because she felt insecure about a new friendship. “I wanted her to like me so I bought her a leather coat for £100.” The biggest purchase, though, came after a particularly low few days while her parents were away. “I went out one day, decided my Citroen Saxo car wasn’t good enough, and came home with a shiny new Ford Focus.”

This behaviour is more common than you’d think. And as we approach Black Friday, the world’s biggest shopping event of the year, and brands slash their prices across the board in a bid to up your spending, it’s likely that more than one of us will make an impulsive purchase.

Had a particularly taxing day at work? Don’t worry! You can snap up a snazzy new toaster with 30 per cent off. Fresh from an argument with your mother? Chin up! John Lewis is offering half-price on Apple products. Feeling hungover and sad? Smile! Those Balenciaga boots you’ve seen all over Instagram are now £500 cheaper.

To the rational spenders among you, all of this might sound a little extreme. And it is. But it’s also a reality for many of us. According to one survey of 2,000 UK consumers by retail research platform Voyado, one-fifth of British shoppers make a “treat purchase” once a week. Typically, these are spur-of-the-moment buys used to fill some sort of emotional or spiritual void. On average, the single biggest amount we’re spending on weekly treat purchases is £350.

Millennial and Gen-Z shoppers are particularly susceptible to this way of shopping, with one report from consumer insights platform GWI finding that they are 51 per cent more likely than the average UK consumer to make impulse purchases online at least every two to three weeks. It helps us, too, with one survey by marketing specialists SAP Emarsys finding that almost half (44 per cent) of us believe making online purchases offers a mood boost, while one in five (20 per cent) say it can reduce stress.

“My husband always knows when something is wrong with me because of how many Amazon packages have arrived that week,” says Susie, whose spending habits have changed only marginally as she’s got older. “Now, I splurge on things for my daughter. If I had a bad morning [at work], I’d go into [Mothercare] and buy the latest plastic monstrosity for her – possibly because I felt guilty that I wasn’t with her.”

For some people, there’s comfort to be found in more domestic purchases. “Whenever I’m stressed with work, I end up buying things for the house,” says Jess* 41. “I think I want to feel that I am better in control of our household when business is not doing well. Last week it was Diptyque stuff: I wanted to make our flat smell better so bought diffusers and room spray. The other week it was trolleys to organise toiletries. Before that it was storage bags to declutter, hooks for organisation, bedsheets, shoe storage, bathroom accessories… the list is endless.”

One of the features of Black Friday campaigns is to create a sense of urgency and to increase pressure on consumers to spend. It’s all focused on securing a good deal in a specific time window, pushing the scarcity principle – ‘get it while you can!’

Dr Jo Perkins, chartered coaching and counselling psychologist

With the number of Black Friday deals already happening – more than half of UK shoppers have set aside funds to afford the best ones – it’s a vulnerable time for the emotional spender. And like with all psychological afflictions, you need to understand what’s driving it in order to fix it. That’s where things get complicated. Because very often it has nothing to do with the purchase you’re making.

“It’s well known that when we’re feeling down, sad, bored or lonely, we often reach out for something or someone to help perk us up,” explains Pamela Roberts, addiction programme manager at the Priory Hospital in Woking. “This behaviour is a natural part of our human psyche, and many would say that a little of anything that can ignite some dopamine is harmless and, therefore, why not?”

However, this is rarely the case with spending, which triggers a short-lived jolt of dopamine that often vanishes just as quickly as it arrives. This can leave you feeling worse. “It can lead to disappointment, despondency, and even depression,” says Roberts. “As a result, more spending is subsequently required and, hence, a vicious cycle begins.”

It doesn’t help that emotional spending is often embedded into modern marketing campaigns; over the years, brands have become far better at tapping into our psyche in order to get us to part with our money. “We live in a world where quick fixes are glamourised and the benefits oversold,” says Dr Jo Perkins, chartered coaching and counselling psychologist.

“We are told we ‘deserve’ a treat, that eating or buying something will make us feel better and are constantly bombarded across multiple media platforms with messages about ‘must-have’ products that will make us look, feel and become better versions of ourselves.” Of course, in vulnerable moments, it’s hard not to get sucked in. And on Black Friday, it might feel impossible for some people.

“One of the features of Black Friday campaigns is to create a sense of urgency and to increase pressure on consumers to spend,” explains Dr Perkins. “It’s all focused on securing a good deal in a specific time window, pushing the scarcity principle – ‘get it while you can’.” The stakes are higher, and so is the reward. At least, that’s how it might feel when you’re spending.

‘We live in a world where quick fixes are glamourised and the benefits oversold’


But spending habits sit on a scale. Some of us will be able to shop without little psychological impact, whereas for others, the consequences will be more damaging. How can you recognise whether you should be concerned? “When assessing disordered shopping behaviour, we would consider impulsive as well as compulsive attitude and behaviour,” explains Roberts. “In other words, a lack of control and a lack of reasoning and decision-making; buying and collecting without need; accruing debts and, for those without financial restraints, a disregard for money spent. Another strong hint that there’s a real problem is after the initial ‘high’ of buying, the item is actually not used or even hidden away out of sight. Buying things and then returning them is another sign.”

As for how to curb your emotional spending, Roberts suggests using the ‘PAUSE’ technique and considering each of the following before making any purchases.

P – pay attention

A – ask yourself about this purchase

U – understand the urge element

S – slow things down, ask a friend if unsure

E – what are the emotions you might be overlooking

“You need to find ways to break out of the cycle,” says Margot De Broglie of Juno, which is a money mentor app aiming to help consumers feel more financially confident. “Firstly understand your triggers. Think of a recent emotional purchase you made. What caused you to get it? What were you feeling at the time and what were you hoping to achieve with it? Spend some time reflecting on this disconnect.”

Additionally, De Broglie suggests replacing spending with other activities that bring you joy. “I used to always go and buy snacks during my afternoon slump at work,” she says. “Now, I’ve replaced it with putting on my favourite podcast and going for a walk.” Perkins adds that some people might benefit from calling a friend, meditating, or listening to a podcast.

“The first step is to accept there may be an issue, address your spending and be honest about what is going on and why,” she adds. “Try to remove the emotion and switch off your inner critic when you are trying to get an understanding of your spending. This isn’t helpful. Once you have an understanding of your emotional triggers and spending habits, you can create a practical plan that will help you regain control of your finances and meet your emotional needs in a healthy way.”

With this in mind, perhaps it’s best to take a step back from Black Friday this year. After all, the euphoria of purchasing a dress for 50 per cent off is only going to last you so long. And if you live your life chasing those spending highs, all it takes is a bit of basic maths to predict where that will leave you.

*Names have been changed

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