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Is Doom Spending Hurting Your Finances and Well-Being? Here’s How to Put an End to It

More than a quarter of Americans admit to this dangerous habit to cope with stress.

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Worried about your finances? You’re not alone. Two-thirds of Americans say that current economic uncertainty -- think: inflation, mortgage rates, employment prospects -- is creating anxiety about their own finances, according to a recent survey. And many say they’ve engaged in “doom spending” to help them ignore the news and their own financial woes.

Similar to doom scrolling, doom spending may provide a temporary diversion from broader financial challenges, but it doesn’t do anything to alleviate your anxiety. Instead, this shopping habit only perpetuates the problem -- it can prevent you from saving money and sink you deeper into debt, creating a vicious cycle of financial stress. If you’re guilty of doom spending, don’t lose hope. We’ve talked to three financial wellness experts, who have ways to help you break the cycle and get your finances back on track.

What is doom spending?

Doom spending is when anxiety about the economy or world events triggers a person to spend money. On a larger scale, economists refer to this as a doom loop -- one negative event triggers a response that only emphasizes the first event, creating a vicious cycle.

Once the mood boost from making a purchase wears off, the buyer may feel even more stressed about their finances because of the purchase. But instead of revisiting their budget, they self soothe by spending again. Continual doom spending can make it harder to save and can send a person spiraling into debt.

Who’s doing all this doom spending?

More than a quarter of Americans say they’ve engaged in doom spending due to the economy, according to a study conducted by Qualtrics on behalf of Intuit Credit Karma.

Of the survey respondents, 96% said they were concerned about the overall economy, with Gen Z and millennials most likely to report financial anxiety and doom spending. Perhaps accordingly, their average credit card balances have increased 44% (millennials) and 55% (Gen Z) since March 2022. 

Why do people doom spend?

Amid news of a world disaster, tumultuous stock market or financial crisis, people may try to exert control over whatever they can, even if it’s just what they’re buying, according to Dr. Traci Williams, a board certified clinical psychologist and certified financial therapist.

“People experiencing financial stress often feel helpless, overwhelmed,” she said. “Shopping can give us an immediate but temporary boost of happiness. When we spend money on things we want, our brain releases feel-good chemicals, including dopamine, and reduces feelings of stress or sadness.”

Shopping is often easier than dealing with depressing or upsetting news. But the effects of this shopping euphoria are temporary, and when the credit card bill arrives, the additional stress can send you into an endless spending loop.

“Shopping to soothe our emotions ends up backfiring since our shopping trip is followed by a reality check about our finances and can then lead to feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety,” Williams said. “Some people become stuck in a cycle where they continue shopping to ease negative emotions, in spite of their financial distress.”

10 ways to stop yourself from doom spending

As much as we might like to avoid it, bad news is an inevitable part of life. Rather than shopping, use these strategies to break the vicious spending cycle.

1. Change your routine

Look at your patterns: Is there a time of day when you tend to shop? Maybe it’s after work or just before you go to bed -- it’s likely when you have enough time to scroll through news and social media, which triggers the desire to spend. Changing your routine can help you break the shopping habit, according to Brent Weiss, a certified financial planner, accredited behavioral finance professional and head of financial wellness at Facet.

“It’s about creating healthier habits that replace the urge to spend with more fulfilling and less financially impactful activities,” he said. “For instance, a new bedtime routine could involve reading or meditation instead of browsing online stores. This not only diverts the mind but also helps build long-term, sustainable and healthier coping mechanisms.”

2. Track your spending

If the idea of making a monthly budget only stresses you out more, try tracking your spending for a short period -- like a week, said Tammy Shweiger, a certified money coach and certified public accountant. Use this time to observe your spending habits without judging or changing your spending. Then, repeat the process again next week.

Shweiger suggests not using an app to track your spending, at least at first. The passive nature of apps automatically connecting to your accounts and categorizing expenses can trigger the feeling that you’re not in control -- which can lead to more doom spending.

“Use something physical like a paper and pen or an Excel spreadsheet,” she said. “Having it be active makes this process more intentional.”

Once you know where your money is going, you can start making plans for your money. By creating goals, you can visualize them when you’re tempted to spend. 

3. Celebrate small wins

Creating unrealistic goals is a recipe for failure, which can lead you to give up and start spending again. Instead of trying to correct the entire problem upfront, try setting smaller, more attainable goals, like focusing on just one or two categories and reducing your spending incrementally. 

“Make really small changes,” Shweiger said. “Celebrate those small wins.” 

By incorporating a small change each week -- or even every day -- you’ll gradually spend less on purchases without leaving yourself feeling deprived.

4. Make room for fun

There’s no need to go cold turkey on all spending -- in fact, that’s a bad idea, according to Weiss.

“Creating the space for a little fun or a little spending is not only OK but quite healthy,” he said. ”This approach fosters a healthier relationship with money, where spending is a choice within boundaries, not a reflexive action to stress.”

Set aside a small amount of money for these break-in-case-of-emergency moments to give yourself a reprieve without hurting your finances.

5. Create barriers to buying

There are plenty of tricks to reduce your opportunities to spend -- start by removing the temptations from the devices you use the most:

  • Remove your credit card number from retailer websites. 
  • Unsubscribe from retailer emails and SMS alerts. 
  • Delete retailer apps.
  • Set up app limits for shopping categories.

“This step creates a buffer, allowing individuals to pause and reflect on their spending decisions, making them more deliberate and less reactive,” Weiss said.

6. Change the way you pay

One of the go-to pieces of advice for curbing overspending is to switch from using credits cards to cash. You’re likely to spend less by paying in cash than using a credit card, according to an MIT study. But totally forgoing the credit card isn’t always possible -- plenty of establishments no longer accept cash.

In those cases, consider these options: 

7. Don’t buy in to gift guilt 

We get it -- it’s the holidays. What better way to assuage financial anxiety and holiday blues than by splurging on everyone you love (or yourself)? But spending recklessly during the holidays can come back to haunt you in the new year when the credit card bills arrive. Instead, follow these experts’ strategies to avoid gift guilt and enjoy a more stress-free holiday season.

8. Go on a news and social media diet

If a visit to your go to social media or news app leaves you feeling depressed, limit your intake. Set a time limit on your phone or use the parental controls -- yes, for yourself -- that force you to take a break from depressing news that trigger your shopping instincts. You can even try deleting your apps temporarily. If you scroll social sites out of boredom, consider a hobby to replace this activity with -- like reading, going for daily walks, or listening to music or a podcast.

9. Get an accountability partner

Sharing your plans to get your spending under control can help you reach financial goals by holding you accountable, Williams said. You can do this in different ways. If you’re not avoiding social platforms, try documenting your journey online to stay accountable. Or make a pact to text or call a loved one before checking out, so you can share your concerns and stress rather than making a purchase.

10. Understand why you’re doom spending

Learning strategies to break a doom spending cycle can help you in the short term with a bad habit. And although you can address the ways in which you spend, addressing the underlying emotional triggers can help you make a more permanent change, according to Shweiger.

Early memories about money -- like watching the way your parents spent money or getting paid for the first time -- can have a lasting effect on your emotional response to it, she said. If those memories cause shame or pain, it may be the reason you resort to spending when you’re stressed. You may need to address the issue in a professional setting.

But by identifying the source, you can make lasting changes in your response and your relationship with money, according to Weiss.

“Creating clarity in your financial life and making financial decisions with confidence can put you back in control of your money,” Weiss said. “That feeling of control will help you navigate the chaos and complexity of modern life with a sense of financial calm.”

If your spending feels out of control, try these resources

You can’t control global news events or news crises, but you can control how you react. Weiss points out that stress is a normal part of everyday life and learning the right coping techniques can help you respond in healthier ways that don’t hurt your finances. If you’re experiencing lasting stress or anxiety, it may be time to seek professional help. 

“If stress or anxiety is prevalent in your life, you aren’t bad or broken; you are human,” he said. “You aren’t alone. Seek help when you need it and to remember that you have the power within you to overcome any obstacle.”

If the urge to buy feels out of control, you may have a compulsive buying disorder. The condition can lead to substantial debt, relationship issues and even legal problems. You can seek professional help with diagnosis and treatment of this disorder by consulting the following resources:

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a senior editor for CNET Money with a focus on credit cards. Previously, she covered personal finance topics as a writer and editor at The Penny Hoarder. She is passionate about helping people make the best money decisions for themselves and their families. She graduated from Bowling Green State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and has been a writer and editor for publications including the New York Post, Women's Running magazine and Soap Opera Digest. When she isn't working, you can find her enjoying life in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her husband, daughter and a very needy dog.
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