Let’s face it. Sometimes we get the urge to shop when we don’t need anything. Or when it’s just plain not in the budget! What can we do to scratch the itch to spend money when we shouldn’t? Here is a list of 10 things to do instead of shop.
But first, why do we crave shopping in the first place?
It has to do with brain chemistry (very similar to the reason why moms get addicted to their phones). Shopping lights up the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. This article sums it up nicely:
“First, the reward system identifies a target and causes the brain to release dopamine. This makes the brain believe it will get happiness or pleasure from what you’re craving.
This desire for immediate gratification blocks your prefrontal cortex from weighing your long-term goals against the craving.
Next, your body releases stress hormones that make you feel discomfort or pain. The stress essentially tricks the body into believing the only way to feel better is to succumb to the craving.”
Wow. Thanks a lot, brain! I thought you were my friend. Have you ever picked at a hangnail because it feels good at first, but then can’t stop until you tear the whole thing off, leaving a bloody cuticle? It’s the same mechanism at work.
Dopamine helps us see rewards. It also motivates us to take action to move toward those rewards. It’s why we get up off the couch and fetch something to eat, get a job, find a mate. Etc.
“For some people, if they’re feeling sad, shopping will make them happier because it restores some control in their lives. source: Why Does Shopping Feel So Good?
As it turns out, other, more positive “control-restoring activities” can make us happy and better about our lives. Here are a few.
10 things to do instead of shop
Deep clean something
Take everything out of your freezer, closet or pantry and wipe down the surfaces. Then put each item back, one by one, after cleaning it off. The area will look better, giving you a little happiness boost every single time you encounter it.
What if you made a pact with yourself that before you could shop, you had to get rid of something first? A one-in, one-out rule. This would keep your house tidier and would force you to slow down before giving in to the impulse to shop. Gathering up a bag of unneeded items for Goodwill also makes you think about how much money you wasted on those things. It might help train your brain to dislike shopping.
You knew I was going to say this! Exercise helps balance brain chemicals and makes us happy. But also, sometimes the urge to shop comes from boredom or excess nervous energy. What our bodies might really be asking for is movement. Here are 11 ways to add more movement to your day.
Create a long to-do list and start attacking it
Your brain releases dopamine when you finish something. And it doesn’t matter whether the task is small or large. The happiness boost is the same. (You can go ahead and cheat and write down all the small steps it will take to finish a large project!) You know that satisfying little ping you get after checking an item off your to-do list? Thank dopamine.
Make some cash
That pile of stuff you created when you decluttered? List some of it on eBay, Craigslist or take it to a consignment shop. Earn some cash from your discards.
Start a new savings account and set aside small amounts of money for something you really want (a vacation?). I use Digit for this. Or start an investment account – it only takes $5 to do so with the Stash app, and you get that $5 free when you sign up. Working towards a goal boost dopamine levels in the brain, so every time you see your balance go up, you get a little shot of happy.
Call a friend
When you want to shop, maybe what you’re really craving is companionship. I remember a time as a young stay at home mom when I was so lonely, I would run an errand every day just to encounter another adult. This wasted time and gas. Eventually, I joined up with some mom’s groups and found the human interaction I needed. So text or call a friend or invite someone over instead of reaching for the debit card. Better yet, call on God. Say a prayer and ask for help getting your spiritual needs met, and the desire to shop might disappear altogether. This is especially true if the desire to shop is coming from deeper needs that are unmet.
Make something with your hands
When your brain goes into creative mode, it’s dopamine that helps you reach that state of “flow” that’s a major contributor to happiness. So work on your favorite DIY project or hobby when tempted to shop. Bonus points if the activity saves you money! (Ideas: prep some freezer meals for those busy or tired days when you might be tempted by take-out. Paint something to make it prettier. Give yourself a mani/pedi. Bake muffins for an elderly neighbor.)
Listen to music you love
Hearing music you enjoy costs nothing and releases dopamine (unless you overdose on Morrissey – but didn’t you learn that lesson in the 90’s?). When I need a mood boost I crank up Spotify or Pandora on my phone. I like French Cafe Radio to transport me. Which reminds me that I long for Paris, and shopping isn’t going to help me get there.
Look at old photos
Grab that box of old-school photos from the top of your closet (I know I’m not the only one with one of those!) and sit down with a cup of tea to look at them. Looking at old photos tends to remind us that people and experiences matter, things don’t. My kids love looking at old pictures and asking questions about themselves at various ages. We can spend an entire afternoon doing this. Reminiscing about good memories makes us happier.
If your life is feeling out of control or unhappy in some way, you’ll be especially attracted to shopping. Try journaling about your feelings. Are you bored and need to take on a challenge in your life? Lonely and need to schedule coffee with a friend? Maybe you’re truly depressed and self-medicating with shopping. Journaling can help you figure these things out so you can take action.
Bonus tip: declare a spending fast!
Sometimes it’s easier to quit “cold turkey” instead of saying no to something over and over. Do a no spend challenge to re-set your bad habits with money. It shows up weak areas (I’m talking to you, coffee and books!) and mindless spending.
More help with things to do instead of shop:
Check out Anna Newell Jones’ excellent book, The Spender’s Guide to a Debt-Free Life. It has a huge, long list of things to do instead of shop in the appendix. Tons of fun ideas from a former shopaholic. This read made my list of personal finance books read this year.
And my ebook, The Temporary Tightwad, has tons of ideas on lowering your spending to meet an important financial goal. Check it out!
What are your favorite things to do instead of shop? Please share them in the comments.
I always have a cardboard box for Goodwill donations in my house. It seems like I’m always decluttering. But hey, it works.
I would add go to the library to the list. It’s like shopping…but free! Well, as long as the books are returned on time. 🙂
oooh good one, I forgot to add that! Library “shopping” also has that same “seek and find” type of feeling we get from shopping. 🙂
yep, there are a couple of boxes in my room right now for Goodwill, and one for consignment. Better in that box than in overstuffed dressers though!
Love this list. These are all great tips!
Thanks Anne, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Martha Miller says
I love these ideas! And the library is my absolute favorite place to shop!