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Watch out for 'comfort buying' during pandemic

Many are engaging in "comfort buying" out of

Many are engaging in "comfort buying" out of stress or boredom.  Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/filadendron

The coronavirus has yet more consequences: a rise in retail therapy. While many have lost their jobs and are struggling to afford the basics, some people are shopping online for stuff that’s not essential, to ease the pressure and pain from the pandemic.

A recent Credit Karma survey found that more than a third of Americans are making impulse purchases and nearly 20% said they’re spending more now than before shelter-in-place orders. Of those who have overspent, 10% have gone more than $1,000 over their budget. Similarly, a WalletHub survey found that 43% of those polled were “comfort buying” -- buying beyond their usual for things like alcohol.

“People have absolutely shifted from panic buying to comfort spending.  It could become a big problem for people who were at risk for this type of behavior prior to COVID-19 and will enlist new people,” says Jennifer Bohr-Cuevas, a disaster mental health specialist and clinical social worker in Huntington.

What’s driving the behavior? “Online shopping gives people an escape, relieves anxiety and quells boredom. The anticipation and delivery of packages replaces the joy that was sought elsewhere prior to COVID. But it is only a Band-Aid,” she says.

Overspending once is likely not a big deal. Trouble is, it can become addictive. “The ‘feel good’ moment when you press that final button to close the deal is like a ‘runner’s high,' ” warns Ellen Ettinger, a Manhattan life coach and certified disaster recovery professional.  

Since the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, how then to curb the craving?

Identify your feelings

“Get to know your internal self. What is quarantine triggering for you? Anxiety? Boredom? Loss of control? Depression? Anger?” asks Bohr-Cuevas.

Prior to making a purchase, do a reality check about how you’re feeling. “Are you bandaging specific feelings?” she asks.

Limit screen time and find other ways to get that dopamine rush. “Other pleasurable activities include cooking, watching funny movies, exercising, meditating, calling a funny friend and chatting, or gardening. This will give you a much-needed break from work,” says Dr. Lea Lis, a psychiatrist in Manhattan.

Be strategic

The best way to reduce overspending is to create a solid budget. “Determine how much money you can spend each month on splurge transactions and set an alarm, through apps such as Mint, to notify you once you’ve gone over your limit,” says Jared Weitz,  CEO and founder of United Capital Source in Great Neck.

Try to browse the web in “private” or “incognito” mode so search engines cannot gather information about you. “This will decrease the number of ads that are targeting you -- and those that are actually more appealing to you, which is why they gather the information to begin with. Make sure to clear your cache and cookies frequently to prevent websites from gaining more info about you,” says Lis.

Adopt a spending mindset of "I can buy this ... OR, not this .... AND that.  This way you treat yourself but not to everything. This makes you choose, think, save money, but also affords some immediate gratification,” says Michelle Smith, CEO of Source Financial Advisors in Manhattan.

Put it on pause

Add your item to your cart, but don't check out yet. Give it the classic 24-hour waiting period, though right now you might want to extend that to 48 hours -- or even more -- to give yourself time to mull it over.

“During this period, make sure you have a clear idea of how you'll use the thing you're buying. For instance, are you eyeing a new bag? Will you carry it everywhere or only with certain outfits? Be honest about how often you're going to use something. Those high heels might look gorgeous on screen, but if you know they're going to hurt your feet it's better to just skip them all together,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst with DealNews.com.

Only allow yourself to make online purchases once a week. Make a list of what you need to buy and do it all at once. Says Lis, “This will prevent impulse buys and make you reflect about whether or not you really need it.”

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