THE BLOG

Are You a Bulimic Spender?

19/02/2014 14:40 GMT | Updated 20/04/2014 10:59 BST

If you managed to refrain from spending your way out of the winter blues, congratulations, you're in the minority.

With figures released by the Bank of England showing that household borrowing has again hit a record high, it's interesting to note that our "you are because you have" society is now so firmly entrenched that most of us are programmed to believe the more we have, the more worthwhile we are. So much so that not being able to buy nice things, even for just a month, left many of us feeling depleted and incomplete.

The flip side is that spending feels good. So good that if the thousands of people contacting our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for help with debt are anything to go by, emotional spending is dramatically on the increase, giving rise to what we have noticed as, several new breeds of spender:

Experience spenders - spend to feel good. Most of what they purchase ends up in the back of the cupboard, destined never to be used, but the ritual of shopping helps them to avoid thinking about any problems and becomes a form of escapism, every bit as addictive as smoking, drinking or gambling. They avoid adding up how much they've spent and easily rack up debts.

'Bulimic' spenders -purchase only to rush back to the shops, guilt-stricken to return what they've bought, once they realise they can't afford it or that it's not actually going to give them the lifestyle they want. Although their 'reverse shopping' habit keeps their finances under control they expose themselves to high stress levels and feelings of self-loathing.

Givers - overspend on other people to improve their relationships and for the sense of altruism it gives them.

Frugal fatigue spenders - make very rational and cautious decisions about money for a long period of time, only to find that they've made themselves, and the people around them, very unhappy, prompting them to end up going to the other extreme in a sudden rush of unaffordable overspending.

Perhaps the reason that just 17% of the 8.8 million people struggling with debt in the UK have sought help is because if we're really honest with ourselves, we know we're programmed to buy stuff we don't really need. The fact is spending habits are fed by any emotional vulnerability we might have (buying that will make me more attractive, feel better, fitter or smarter, or just stop me from feeling bad). It stimulates a pleasure centre in the brain. When we know we've overspent, it also triggers a stress response, and the cycle starts again.

Most of us don't realise when we're indulging in emotional spending. Our material possessions have become so intertwined with what other people think of us, that it's become next to impossible to make a purchase without our emotions getting in the way.

The sophistication of consumer brands doesn't help. Manufacturers have managed to move far beyond persuading us that we need something to a stage where what we buy defines our identity, in a way that other parts of our lives might fail to do. We don't just have a Gucci handbag or an iPhone, we're a Gucci\iPhone kind of person.

The first step to getting out of debt, or stopping yourself from getting into debt if you're lucky enough to be reading this before things get really out of control, is to separate the material stuff from your emotions. What is it that you're really feeling? How will having those things change your life?

Unlike other addictions, such as drugs or alcohol, shopping is unlikely to be something you can totally avoid since we all need to buy food and clothes from time to time. That means you have to answer tough questions about just where to draw the line between what you 'need' and what you 'want'. If you have high expectations for how you want to live your life, but you don't have the cash to maintain that sort of lifestyle, it might be time to reconsider those expectations. Will that sort of lifestyle really make you happy or are there things you could be doing to make up for whatever's lacking in your life now?