How to stop overspending during the coronavirus pandemic

Online shopping is more tempting than ever, but you don’t have to capitulate. Here's how to fight the urge to spend


You’re locked at home and bored. So why not go shopping? There are plenty of reasons not to and lots of ways to resist the urge.

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You’re stuck in the house and you’re bored.

All you have for entertainment is your phone, your TV and your computer.

Your computer might represent your only way to shop, so you just go for it – you’re using plastic anyway, so you can just pay for it later.

Does this sound like a familiar scenario?

Many people overspend with their credit cards from time to time, but during the coronavirus crisis it can be more tempting than ever.

Keep reading for expert advice on how not to spend more than you can afford with your credit cards during the crisis.

See related: How do credit cards work?

Online shopping might make you feel better momentarily

Most of us have been in lockdown since March, staying six feet apart and feeling anxious about going to the grocery store.

Before that, life was on a familiar, predictable path – we had our health, our jobs and our plans for the summer.

Suddenly all that changed.

There is an unseen enemy in our midst, and at any moment, we could get sick and even die.

On high alert, with our usual habits abruptly changed, we instinctively seek sources of pleasure to take the sting out of the devastating reality of the coronavirus, said Dr. Maggie Baker, psychologist, financial therapist and author of “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It.”

In this high stakes drama we are living in now, the past sinks into the background, including the bills we owe and credit card debt we have been carrying in the past, she added.

There is worry about not working and whether you’ll have a job at the end of the pandemic, but in a state of coronavirus-related shock both the past and present can feel surreal, Baker said. The present moment can feel uneasy at best and severely painful at worst.

So where’s the good news?

Shopping online is always there for you, Baker said.

Can’t sleep? Just click to Amazon and the world is normal again.

Bored out of your mind, mixed with a hefty dose of uncertainty?

Go online shopping — it’s so easy, it’s so available and in the moment it feels so good, she said.

But then there’s a nagging voice in your head telling you it’s sabotage – that moment of intense satisfaction will inevitably be replaced by uneasiness regarding mounting credit card debt.

See related: Poll: 23% of consumers added to their card debt during the pandemic

Find healthier and more productive habits

What can you do that is a healthier and more productive response to your present overwhelming circumstances?

Many people, Baker acknowledged, have gotten recommendations such as taking up a new hobby, staying in contact with friends and family, eating healthily, exercising regularly or seeking help from a therapist.

These are important activities that can bring calm and perspective, she said, but if these are new habits, it will take effort and focus to learn them and carry them out routinely.

At the very time we feel scared, depleted and uncertain, it is asking a lot of ourselves to put forth effort instead of doing something well-practiced, fun and immediately gratifying, Baker pointed out.

But it’s worth the effort, Baker advised, because when the pandemic ends – when you are back to work, your children are in school and you’re planning an outing – you’ll likely be satisfied, not regretful about all the debt you racked up during the lockdown.

And for those of us who still have to shop no matter what, think about putting what you want on a wish list instead of clicking on the “add to cart” button, Baker suggested.

See related: Credit card issuers offer cardholders relief amid coronavirus outbreak

Overspending is a reaction to trauma

Debra L. Kaplan, psychotherapist and author of the book, “Battle of the Titans: Mastering the Forces of Sex, Money and Power in Relationships,” said that in times of stress or traumatic events our natural reaction is to turn to something comforting, like shopping.

This isn’t a moral failing of will, she explained, but is due to our limbic system – a structure of the brain responsible for our “fight, flight or freeze” response.

Although we’ve evolved, our brainstems are the same as those of our earliest ancestors, Kaplan said.

However, Kaplan noted, other parts of our brain have changed to allow us to think and process differently.

That is, she said, until we experience stress or a threat. Then, the primal part of the brain hijacks our ability to think straight, reason or respond instead of react.

Nervous energy created by fear must be discharged

We’ve evolved as higher thinking humans because of our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains responsible for our more adaptive ability to reason, calm ourselves and think straight – and the first thing to be hijacked by the powerful “fight, flight or freeze” reaction.

Many who are experiencing an increase in stress and trauma may be reacting to what feels imminently threatening – as if life will end tomorrow, Kaplan said.

For some, the threat is real, but for others it’s not as imminent as they perceive – and knowing the difference between what is highly stressful versus life-threatening calms our fear and restores balanced thinking, she added.

The job of our fear response to threat is to warn us of danger, but being mindful and reasoning allows us to remember that although we feel scared, we will be here tomorrow.

Nervous energy created by fear needs to be discharged, Kaplan said.

A credit card purchase – unless it is buying you an instant jaunt on a treadmill – might momentarily calm your thinking but do nothing to discharge energy.

Spending money today will only create more duress and stress down the road – as will excessive eating, gambling, compulsive sexual behaviors or other pleasure-seeking activities, according to Kaplan.

Those activities only deliver the hope of calm but do little to alleviate anxiety – instead, they activate and stimulate the reward system, Kaplan said.

But there are ways to avoid overspending.

See related: COVID-shaken consumers dial up debt as they stockpile supplies

Exercise or meditate instead of shopping online

“If you feel like you need to shop online, do some jumping jacks, deep squats in place, pushups or run on a treadmill if you have one instead,” Kaplan suggested.

Engaging in physical exertion to discharge energy is healthy – it brings oxygen to the brain, helps calm the nervous system and restores logical thinking.

Attending a virtual 12-step meeting to help with compulsive or addictive behaviors can also can be hugely beneficial and has been associated with positive recovery outcomes, Kaplan mentioned.

Meditation, yoga and deep stretching exercises are also valuable ways to calm an overreaction, she said.

See related: How I’m spending differently during the pandemic

If nothing else works, consider restricting your card

Silviana Barbu, online shopping and coupon expert at DontPayFull suggests putting away your credit card if you can’t stop shopping during the pandemic.

“You must restrict your access to your credit card in order to curb your overspending on it,” Barbu said, “because you might not be able to control using your card if you have quick access to it.”

To limit emotionally-driven online purchases, remove the saved card details from all of the online stores in which you shop.

By removing the credit card details, you won’t be able to make instant purchases with a single click, which might give you time to really think about that purchase and decide if it’s a “want” or a “need,” Barbu added.

Act now to protect your financial future

You might choose to take a practical approach to overspending, such as restricting your access to your credit card.

Or you might opt for a health-based approach, like taking up a new hobby, staying in regular contact with friends and family, eating healthily, exercising regularly or seeking help from a therapist.

Whichever way you go, curbing your overspending now will help you keep your finances on track in the future.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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