Overspending during the pandemic? Psychologists know why.


A pile of clothes on the floor took Isabel Varela back to a painful time in her life.

These are all items she bought when she was spending more than she could afford.

“Every time I wore something wild, I got this instant gratification of ‘Oh, Isabel, that’s cool’ or ‘Isabel, what are you wearing?'” Varela said.

Clothes and shoes ran up a debt of $100,000. She shopped online and in person; however, for Varela, the problem was not limited to money.

“I was going shopping because I was angry. I was alone because I was bored, I broke up with my boyfriend,” Varela said.

Varela is an extreme example of overspending. Yet Americans’ shopping habits have changed during the pandemic. A McKinsey survey found a 30% increase in the number of people shopping online.

Dr. Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, said there is sometimes an emotional connection when spending money, especially since people’s lives have been turned upside down due to the coronavirus.

“The expenses are related to the stress they experience, anxiety, sadness or loneliness,” Stern said. “These uncomfortable emotional experiences that people have cause them to fill a void sometimes filled by shopping.”

Dr. Stern advises his patients to think more about why they shop.

“Start tracking your internal experience with what you find in your spending habits,” Stern said.

“The truth is, I hadn’t paid my bills, my rent, my utilities for three months,” Varela said.

This experience alerted Varela to confront her relationship with shopping and focus on paying off her debt over seven years.

“How I paid: I had so much hustle and started selling my clothes,” Varela said. “I completely stopped shopping for two years.”

Now she speaks openly about her struggle, helping others understand their own spending.

Her advice: “Track how much you’re spending each month and why you’re spending it. Start noticing your behaviors,” Varela said.


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