“Help! I can’t stop buying things I can’t afford”

Written by Naomi May

The pandemic lead to a sharp rise in sporadic spending for many, which shows no signs of waning now life is beginning to return to normal. 

I have become a marketer’s dream. During the pandemic, as the time I spent on my phone rocketed, Instagram continued teasing me with a stable of sequinned yoga mats, lip-plumping glosses and leopard print pyjamas, all of which I snapped up.

Then came glitter bags, fluorescent nail varnishes and a perfume that had me at its endorsement, which read “It smells like money and sex”. 

Before I knew it, I had tumbled so far into a rabbit hole of treating myself on a daily basis that I didn’t know which way was up. So, I continued adding to basket, and forged a new path for myself of buying takeaways – only to support the local economy, obviously – and using grocery apps to deliver myself five-star rated wines. Somehow, the £5 bottles I reached for pre-pandemic were less appealing during lockdown, and it had nothing to do with the loss of taste post-Covid. Buying myself anything and (apparently) everything became the light at the end of a very long and difficult pandemic-shaped tunnel.   

Scrolling through my Instagram ads, I became distracted by my friends’ texts, which told me of the treats they were adding to their own baskets, and the guilt which followed and needed to be assuaged soon after. What felt indulgent before the pandemic now felt necessary; something to keep you looking forward through the three- to five-day delivery timeframe. Two years on from the beginning of lockdown and my spending shows no signs of waning, including where £600 Nodaleto heels are concerned.

My behaviour, according to fashion psychologist Carolyn Mair, is not unusual. ‘Treat brain’ is a very real phenomenon. “The pandemic has shown us how fragile and short life can be and so many of us, in different ways, have chosen to live it to excess,” she tells Stylist. “We have been so constrained by lockdowns and other restrictions that we feel a sense of freedom now that justifies what we might have previously thought of as frivolous behaviour.”

Behaviour, as a whole, “is not prompted by conscious thought but by habit, and our environments”, Mair expands, which explains why so many of us have sought reprieve from the doomed news cycle and state of the world. Ensconce people within the same four walls and strip them of their liberties, and their behaviour will change. 

According to Ofcom’s annual study in national online behaviour, UK online shopping sales rose by 48% to nearly £113 billion in 2020, up from £76.1 billion in 2019. 

“Within humanity, we have a need for normalcy, a need for control,” says psychologist Dion Terrelonge. She refers to a concept in psychodynamics known as the ‘passive to active flip’. It’s “where we find ourselves at the mercy of something bigger than us as individuals, or beyond our control, so we try to claw back our sense of normality”. 

“Treating yourself is one small thing that is within your control that you can do to produce those feelings of pleasure, because our everyday pleasures such as going to the gym or going to a bar or going to the cinema were taken away from us,” she adds.

Providing our frazzled minds with distractions was another factor involved in the rise of treat brain. The hit of dopamine from buying something new helped divert our attentions from surging death tolls and shoddy government decisions. Treating ourselves to try and normalise life just that little bit paved the way for increased spending. One of grief expert Julia Samuel’s quintet of tips for coping with the anxiety caused by the pandemic that she shared with the Financial Times was to “give yourself intentional treats”. 

That’s not to say that everybody has been plagued by treat brain. Danielle Gold was made redundant in summer 2020, so the pandemic for her meant tightening the purse strings and being less extravagant. Instead of spending her money on yoga mats, nail varnish and shoes, Gold was one of the many who contributed to the spike in alcohol sales in 2020.

“I still wanted and needed to distract myself, but I couldn’t justify spending money on those sorts of things,” she says. “Instead, I’d buy nice wine and food, which was still more than I could afford.” 

Mair warns that treat brain can become dangerous, though, the more we stretch our bank balances, increasing the chances of falling into debt. “If treating yourself becomes an obsession which affects quality of life, then there is a risk that other elements of the person’s life could suffer,” she says. “They may become less sociable, more isolated, hide the items they’ve bought because they are ashamed or embarrassed about their habit. In the end, treating yourself should be exactly that, something that makes you feel good, not something you feel guilty or ashamed about afterwards.”

How to control treat brain

When combatting treat brain, and rewiring how you think, now that we are stepping towards the beginnings of life without the pandemic, Mair is clear: “As humans, we are ‘lazy’ thinkers because we’re driven by habit, which automates behaviour, so it requires conscious thought about what you’re buying and why you’re buying it.”

Terrelonge agrees: “Identify what you’re financially compensating for, and consider eudaimonic wellbeing, which is the act of self-actualising and doing things for the greater good. By focusing on that, you will create a more meaningful life and have more meaning in your life, which will make you feel much better than treating yourself to things.” 

My nails may be fluorescent and my yoga mats glittery, but, as we emerge from the Covid cocoon in which we’ve been ensconced for the past several years, I am trying to keep a check on my sporadic spending. My brain still wants treats, but I’m training it to long for those of the affordable, bite-sized variety that will (hopefully) nurse my bank balance back to good health.  

Images: courtesy of Getty.

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