Saturday 16 December 2017

Eejit economics

Ed Power is guilty of ridiculous impulse purchases, and you can bet your bottom dollar than the rest of us are culpable of the same crime. Reckless spending or simply scratching an itch? We investigate...

Ed Power

Ed Power

Several times a month I go to my favourite store and, in plain view of other shoppers, have a loud, ill-tempered argument with myself. In my hot little paws I am typically clutching something heavy and expensive – something I have a sudden, overwhelming urge to purchase. I can't afford it – and, needless to say, don't need it.

There is a high probability I will buy it anyway. If you happened to be lingering outside, you would see me exiting with trembling hands and a flushed expression – a person who has done something they know they shouldn't and is unsure whether to be excited or ashamed.

It's an affliction – if that isn't too melodramatic a word – many suffer. We may be financially responsible 23 hours a day (perhaps a result of being skint rather than any supreme powers of prudence on our part). But we have a secret weakness – a hobby or passion we cannot look in the eye and say 'no' to. We spend and spend again and promise that really, truly this is the last time. We know it's a lie – but, as we're only fibbing to ourselves, there's a good chance we won't take the deception personally.

Though there are lots of secret spendaholics, no two alike. My weakness is for expensive board games most people have never heard of. Would you plonk down €90 for something called Rivet Wars: Eastern Front? Over €100 on Zombicide Season 2? No you would not. For others the siren call may come from video games, Chuck Converse runners, obscure beers, luxury restaurants.

Surely the best onscreen representation of the impulse was Sarah Jessica Parker's Sex and the City character, who lived to buy shoes and clothes she rarely wore. Admittedly it was not an especially sympathetic portrait: now the dust has settled you must agree Carrie Bradshaw was among the most irritating protagonists ever to appear on television. Still, her shoe fetish had a glimmer of truth: she couldn't stop herself – and many of us know exactly how she felt.

As with lots of things in life, the internet has of course made our predicament many times trickier. Amazon one-click shopping is to extemporaneous splurging what a crack pipe is to substance abuse, and Hailo's transport fetching abilities, even when one has no cash, are an incredibly useful but often wasteful cash drain. Thanks a bunch guys, for making it easy to spend before you think – or, at least, before the responsible side of your brain has a chance to rush in and calm down the excitable part of you down. There's something about entering your CVV code that can stop you in your tracks.

The funny thing is, it is possible to be completely rational about our spendthrift failings – and yet utterly helpless when the urge takes hold. In my case I know it is ridiculous to fritter so much on hobby games – at this point I own half a dozen 'survival horror' space board games. Do I really need another? Apparently the answer is 'yes' – whenever a new one hits the shelves, the compulsion to immediately purchase is all-consuming. As I type this I'm staring at the latest addition to my collection – still shrink wrapped, the hefty price sticker a reminder of how weak-willed I can be.

For most of us, impulse purchasing is more minor problem than full blown crisis. Or perhaps that's simply our way of rationalising it. So you've just surreptitiously splurged on your eighth Candy Crush lives top-up this week, OKAY, this evening. Well, all right – you go hang your head a bit. But it isn't as if you're down the bookies blowing the children's allowance or buying a round of drinks with your kids' communion money. Isn't there a limit, the self righteous part of you demands to know, as to how bad you ought to feel?

What's especially disconcerting is that the impulsiveness can come from nowhere. Through my twenties I was generally responsible with money – that's when I had any (which was never). Then, at an age when I should be above such silliness, I find myself with a spare room heaving with Arkham Horror expansions and Dust Tactics miniatures.

Compulsive spending is often described as an 'addiction' even if nobody would go so far as to compare it to alcoholism or ruinous gambling. Nonetheless, 'shopholism' is recognised as a condition and is estimated to effect around 6 per cent of the population.

As with many forms of unchecked behaviour, the thrill is in the buying itself rather than any subsequent frisson the purchase may bring. The simple act of approaching the till and handing over your credit card brings a rush of endorphins and dopamine, 'feel-good' chemicals that override the logical voice telling you to put your wallet in your pocket and back away from the counter.

At its most extreme, shopaholic tendencies can be destructive to our finances and our relationships. Declan Tarpey of Solas Counselling and Psychotherapy warns that if a person feels their spending is spiralling they need to take stock. "What is behind this 'self harming'? What are they escaping? What is the payback? When the person understands this and faces the underlying issue, the spending will have no purpose and will simply fade away."

The biggest telltale is genuine shame over your activities. When it reaches the point of hiding purchases from others – your partner or kids say – it is probably time you sat down and had a serious conversation with yourself or, perhaps more usefully, someone else.

I would love to tell you there's an easy way out. The fact is, going cold turkey can be tough. We all have moments of weakness – perhaps we are stressed, maybe it's been a terrible day at work. We think the world is against us – that life has singled us alone out for harsh treatment. We want to feel better and suddenly there we are, staring at an online shopping basket or standing in the aisle of that store we swore we'd never darken again. In our back pocket it feels as if our wallet is about to spontaneously burst into flames.

At such moments, it helps to have a support system. First up, get a grip on your finances – know how much you are bringing in, what your spending limits need to be. "How many people review their quarterly bank statements when they arrive in the post? Not many," says Keelin Fitzgerald of

"This is an essential part of tracking spending, and budgeting. Once a person decides to review their bank statements monthly they become more conscious of what they are spending on a day-to-day basis.

Financial advisor Alan Morton of advocates the straightforward step of tracking where your money is going. Do that and you may find the urge to spend withers quickly. "We suggest people keep a list of every item they spend money on a little notepad or the notes page on a smart phone; and sit down at the end of the month and count it up," he says. "All those lattes can add up! I did it myself once and bought a good coffee machine for the office instead."

Sound advice, or the doorway to caffeine addiction? Meh, we all have our vices.

Irish Independent

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