Low body image linked to overspending and debt

A new study examines ties between weight and purchases to make us feel better

By  |  Published: July 24, 2017

John Egan
Personal Finance Writer
Writes trendy stories about credit cards.


Body image linked to debt study shows

What you see in the mirror may reflect what you see in your bank and credit account. And you might not like what’s staring back at you.

A new study examines the ties between weight and spending decisions. The study’s authors say the connection between body image – your perception of the way you look – and eating has been explored before, but this is the first time that research has drawn a correlation between body image and spending.

The study, “Costly Curves: How Human-Like Shapes Can Increase Spending,” appears in the June 2017 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Those consumers who are thin are thought to be better at controlling their spending and achieving financial success,” says study researcher Adam Craig, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Kentucky. “This link is often reinforced in the media, which allows consumers to easily recall positive financial associations when they encounter subtle shape reminders in the environment resembling the thin human form, such as product packages.”

The study even digs into body image and its ties to credit card spending.

Craig says that after being exposed to “thin” silhouettes, test subjects with a high body mass index, or BMI – a key measurement of body fat – were more inclined to grab for a credit card when debating whether to buy something now or wait until enough cash was available.

“Marketers and advertisers like to use thin, idealized shapes in their products and messages,” Craig says. “Recognizing that these shapes may make us, at some low level, feel worse about ourselves could help us understand the desire to reach for the credit card in the moment of temptation.

“This understanding could make us feel more confident in our self-control capabilities in the end.”

Craig says the research he conducted with Marisabel Romero, assistant professor of marketing at Colorado State University, didn’t study thin people and how their body image relates to spending, but future research will delve into that side of the weight-and-spending equation.

Experts, though, say they’ve come across people at both extremes for body image – too heavy or too thin – who’ve leaned on spending as an emotional crutch. And, some experts say, troubles revolving around body image and spending disproportionately affect women compared with men.

Debbie Roes

Debbie Roes

Debbie Roes

Debbie Roes

San Diego writer and editor Debbie Roes, who publishes the Recovering Shopaholic blog, says she has been on both ends of the spectrum. She has coped with eating disorders and negative body image as someone who has judged herself as being too heavy or too thin, and she has simultaneously grappled with compulsive shopping.

An article published in 2007 in the journal World Psychiatry also noted that people with compulsive buying disorder frequently suffer from eating disorders.

Roes says she’s still battling her eating and shopping disorders, but she says the blog, which she launched in January 2013, has served as a form of therapy in combatting her shopaholic tendencies.

Roes, who’s 50, says she’s now able to stick regularly to a budget. That wasn’t the case back in her 20s and 30s.

At one point, Roes had 10 to 15 credit cards, she recalls. Over the years, Roes says she has struggled with yo-yo weight gains and losses in the range of about 75 pounds. In both her heavier and skinnier phases, she bought clothing and accessories to make her feel better about herself.

Those sorts of self-healing purchases don’t just involve clothing. They also can include cosmetics and weight loss products – many of which are aimed at women.

Alexis Conason

Alexis Conason

Alexis Conason

Alexis Conason

“We live in a culture that is invested in making us feel bad about ourselves and then profits off selling us products to make us feel better,” says Alexis Conason, a licensed psychologist in New York.

“We are bombarded with marketing that tells us that unless our body fits into a narrow ideal, we are not beautiful, desirable or acceptable.”

Roes doesn’t remember how much debt she racked up when her overspending hit its worst point, but it was enough to prompt her to seek help from a debt consolidation service and to get financial support from an ex-boyfriend (once) and her father (twice).

From Roes’ perspective, credit cards can mask problems with overspending.

“Credit cards kind of cushion the blow,” she says, “and it makes it feel like when you’re spending, you’re not really spending. It doesn’t feel as real as if you’re actually laying cash out.”

Personal finance blogger Penny Elms (aka “Mrs. Picky Pincher”) also has fought the twin demons of negative body image and overspending. She recalls coughing up $1,000 on Amazon during a three-month period to buy hair extensions, jewelry, stretch-mark creams and other products to boost her mood.

Licensed clinical psychologist Marla Deibler, executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, says such purchases can make us feel good and push away negative thoughts.

Penny Elms

Penny Elms

Penny Elms

Penny Elms

Elms says: “I did get a high when my Amazon items arrived in the mail, which encouraged me to continue buying more junk. I reached out to a counselor to treat my body image issues first. Once I was in treatment for those, I tackled my finances.

“It was tough, but I built confidence and financial discipline. I learned how to express my emotions and to love myself, which is one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”

To help others overcome similar situations, Elms became a certified body image counselor. Today, Elms urges those who find themselves at the intersection of poor body image and overspending to seek help.

“I do think it’s important to identify that you have a body image and spending problem,” Elms says. “It’s too easy to overlook the fact that these issues are related and to treat them with Band-Aids.”

Among the ways that experts suggest addressing difficulties with body image and spending are:

1. Seek therapy from a licensed counselor or other qualified professional.
Therapy will enable you to learn what’s triggering your issues with body image and spending.

“While body image and spending are seemingly quite different in nature, they both share obsessional components that often come from the same psychological source,” says Dr. Daniel Hochman, a psychiatrist in Austin, Texas. “They are both processes that help distract the mind from a distressing emotional state, usually a deep … anxiety.”

To find a specialist in financial therapy in your area, visit the Financial Therapy Association website. Financial therapists deal with both mental and money matters.

2. Take stock of your beliefs about money.
“A lot of overspending behaviors are linked to beliefs around money, like the belief that more money is going to make me happier, more things are going to make me happier,” says Hawaii psychologist and certified financial planner Brad Klontz, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute.

3. Get your finances under control.
Start by making purchases with cash instead of credit cards, at least temporarily. Also, hold off on purchases for a few hours or a few days, perhaps avoiding unnecessary spending.

4. Discuss your feelings about body image and spending with a friend or relative.
“If it doesn’t feel that severe, sometimes it helps to simply talk about it … to get feedback and be open with someone you can trust,” Hochman says.

5. Chronicle your feelings in a journal or blog.
“Recognize that feeling good about yourself doesn’t come from a magic cream or potion. There is no amount of product that will repair the wounds to our self-worth,” says Conason, the New York psychologist.

“Feeling better about yourself comes from changing your thinking, not changing your body.”

See related: Survey: 5 in 6 Americans admit to impulse buys, Your weight, debt and clutter may be connected


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Updated: 10-23-2017

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