Stress can drive people to do self-destructive things ... such as using "retail therapy" as a distraction or grabbing some Ben & Jerry's to lift the mood. Whether your emotions drive you to overeat or overspend, there are strategies to eliminate the connection between your feelings and behavior you know is bad for your wallet or your waistline.
It's all about learning self-discipline, say Ellie Kay and Danna Demetre, co-authors of "Lean Body Fat Wallet."Doing so transforms your mind-set to the point where your internal motivation to do the right thing becomes natural.
Getting to that point -- the point where you "realize that you don't need to eat or spend money to feel good about yourself" -- begins with thinking about why you overeat or overspend, Kay says. "For example, I've worked with military families that have a high level of debt. Some of them spend too much money just to comfort themselves when a family member is deployed."
Breaking that habit -- snipping the connection between your emotions and your bad habits -- is the goal of the strategy that Kay and Demetre developed.
The 3D Strategy
The 3 D's are: determine, distract and delay.
Kay describes the 3 Ds in action: "If you go to the mall and just buy the shoes your son needs, you start out determined not to buy anything you don't need," she says "Then you see some amazing Jimmy Choo shoes in the window that are on sale, but you know they're not in your budget. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%So you distract yourself by going to the other store and buying your son's shoes. Then you delay by promising yourself that you'll come back in a week or two if you can find money in your budget to buy those shoes. Chances are you won't be back."
Demetre suggests starting with a 10-minute delay before eating anything or buying anything, just to exercise your discipline. During that 10 minutes, ask yourself, "Why do I want this?" "If it's immediate gratification, you may have buyer's remorse," Demetre says. "Whatever you're about to do, think about your quality of life, your health, or maybe your retirement and the impact your action will have on it."
Wallet Wake-Up Calls
The "waiting period" approach is a popular strategy for building discipline.
Linda Rudnick-Smith, a credit counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Syracuse, N.Y., also recommends waiting before making any purchase to make sure you really need it. But the waiting period she recommends is 24 hours.
"Leave the credit cards at home, so when you want to spontaneously buy something you have to go back home to get them," Rudnick-Smith says. She even recommends a more extreme measure: "Try freezing the credit cards in ice, so you have to chip away or melt it to get at them."
Regular reminders about the ramifications of overspending are another strategy to help people stay on track.
Sherry Tetreault, a credit counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Clarksville, Tenn., says she worked with a client who went shopping when she got depressed, and often became so caught up in her retail therapy that she spent way beyond her means.
"During our conversation we determined that her children were the most important things in her life and that as a single parent she would do anything to take care of them," says Tetreault. "She said she never wanted to see them dealing with the financial struggles she was dealing with. I suggested that she buy a key ring that had a picture holder on it and place a picture of her children in it. That way every time she pulled out her keys to go shopping, she would see their picture and it would remind her that she had to stick with her goals and priorities. Later, during a follow-up with the client, she said this really worked for her as it gave her an immediate wake-up call."
Tetreault says the same strategy worked with a woman who was terrified that she would lose her husband if he found out about how much debt she had accrued from her shopping addiction. She advised the woman to remove all credit cards from her wallet and put them in a safe place with his photo on top.
"I also suggested that she place his picture in her wallet," says Tetreault. "This way, every time she started to use a credit card or even open her wallet to pay with cash, she would see his picture."
The Communal Approach
Strategies that work in weight-loss can be adopted for those trying to trim their spending, too.
The most successful weight-loss programs, such as Weight Watchers (WTW), exercise a community approach for accountability, says Kay.
"You can set up your own club with friends or coworkers about whatever you're struggling with, whether it's losing weight or getting rid of credit card debt," says Kay. "If you're not comfortable sharing your financial situation with a group, then you either share just a small part of it that you feel safe sharing or you can make yourself accountable to one friend."
A debt-management plan is another way to incorporate accountability -- and built-in restrictions -- into your routine. One reason clients are successful in repaying debt and getting a "fresh start" through a debt management plan is that the accounts they enroll in the program are closed, says Thomas Nitzsche, a former credit counselor and senior media relations coordinator for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in St. Louis.
"Clients are instructed that opening new lines of credit during repayment could result in some creditors dropping them from the program and increasing their interest rates and payments," says Nitzsche. "Clients are only allowed one credit card in good standing and with a manageable balance to be left out of the program."
Make the Wealth-Health Connection
Whether you struggle with overspending or overeating, it's important to create balance in your life.
Guy Penn, principal and founder of G.M. Penn Wealth Management in St. Louis, says the most important investment you'll ever make in your life has nothing to do with money.
"Invest in your own well-being," says Penn. "Eat well, make time for meaningful leisure, cultivate your relationships, and eliminate stressors. A sizable investment portfolio means very little if you're sacrificing your own health to achieve it."
In the wake of a number of high-profile cruise ship disasters, the cruise industry announced this week that it had approved a passengers' bill of rights. The document, which the industry says will be legally binding, mainly concerns passengers' rights in instances where a ship has become disabled.
It resembles a similar bill of rights for airline passengers that the Department of Transportation drew up in 2011. Those rules concerned procedures for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays, lost baggage, and similar issues.
That got us thinking: If cruise ship passengers and air travelers have their own bills of rights, why shouldn't shoppers?
Sure, visitors to retail stores typically don't encounter situations as maddening as being stranded on a floating hotel where the bathrooms don't work, or trapped in a cramped coach-class seat while their flight sits on a tarmac for hours. But the shopping experience is still riddled with frustrations, and less-savvy shoppers are often taken advantage of by dodgy pricing, pushy salespeople and inconsistent policies.
We'd love to see a self-policing effort by the industry to assure shoppers that they can expect certain standards of treatment when they walk into a store. Here are a few things we would include in a shopper's bill of rights.
When retailers run sales and coupons, they include fine print that limits what the deal actually applies to. In most cases, it's relatively harmless -- it defines the effective dates of the promotion, and may exclude select items like gift cards and jewelry.
But problems arise when retailers go totally overboard and try to exclude half the store. Department stores like Sears (SHLD) and Macy's (M) tend to hold sales that exclude dozens of brands from the discount, and earlier this year Guitar Center took some heat for a coupon that excluded more than 300 brands.
Sure, in a perfect world everyone would read and understand the fine print. But it's not unreasonable for someone to see "20 percent off everything" and assume that it applies to most of the merchandise in the store.
It's bad enough when there's a ton of fine print in the ad. It's even worse when store employees are inconsistent about applying those terms.
The other day I was shopping at Banana Republic (GPS), which was having a 40 percent off sale. I found an item I liked and confirmed that it wasn't excluded in the fine print, but a cashier insisted that the discount did not apply. Only when I threatened to leave empty-handed did she check with a manager and apply the discount.
It's understandable that the price of certain big-ticket purchases -- cars, TVs, and so on -- will depend in part on your ability to successfully haggle down the price. But whether or not a store fairly applies the terms of a deal should not be contingent on your willingness to make a scene.
It's not just the fine print on coupons that's often left to the interpretative whims of cashiers and associates. Corporate policies on everything from returns to price-matching are often poorly understood or selectively applied by front-line employees.
In our review of store price-match policies, we noted a report from Cheapism that found that some stores were inconsistent in their application of those policies. At Walmart (WMT), for instance, cashiers insisted on seeing competitors' ads to perform a price-match, despite a company policy that explicitly says that you don't need to show them.
We know it's not easy to educate every last employee about every last policy, especially at an enormous company like Walmart. But those policies don't mean much if the people who have to follow them haven't read them. Which segues nicely into ...
Retail employees also need to be informed about the products they're selling, so that they can give accurate advice to shoppers.
That means if you're buying a TV, you have the right to an employee who can tell you the difference between plasma and LED. If you're buying a bra, you have the right to a saleswoman who can properly fit you. If you're buying a computer, you have the right to a salesperson who can tell you whether or not you really need to pay for an antivirus program.
Having smart salespeople makes good business sense for retailers -- Best Buy (BBY), for instance, has realized that well-informed customer service is one of the few advantages it can wield over online competitors. But it's also a matter of consumer rights: If you're misled into buying the wrong TV, bra or software product and then find that you can't return it, that's money out of your pocket.
"Is there anything I can help you find?" is no longer the only question you're asked at a retail store. Store associates and cashiers may ask you to sign up for store credit cards and rewards programs; upon checkout, they might also ask for your zip code and email address.
Of course, you have every right to say no to these questions. But sometimes they won't take no for an answer -- I have dealt with pushy associates eager to get commissions on credit card applications, as well as cashiers insisting that I reveal my email address.
But giving them your email address invariably means getting marketing emails, and your zip code can be used to locate you and send you catalogs. Meanwhile applying for a store credit card can temporarily lower your credit score. Shoppers should be notified of the downsides involved with saying "yes" to any of these questions. And salespeople shouldn't be allowed to pressure you after you've said "no."
You're legally entitled to the price on the price tag. But there are still plenty of shenanigans happening in the background.
One trick: Creating the illusion of a discount by touting a high "original price" next to the ticket price. Kohl's (KSS) is dealing with a lawsuit claiming that it misled customers in this way, while J.C. Penney (JCP) was recently accused of fabricating prices to make its discounts look better.
And while we're at it, let's keep barcodes honest, too. Some retailers have dealt with barcode-scanning shoppers by covering the barcode on the box with one of their own creation; the custom code will confuse any price-comparison app. Retailers don't have to tell you all about the lower price you can get from a competitor, but they shouldn't actively hinder you from making an informed purchase.
There are a lot of things we wish retailers would do better. We hate having to wait in long lines at checkout, for instance. We hate that every retailer has its own return policy to pore through, with various exclusions and time limits. And we wish retailers didn't feel the need to hand us a mile-long receipt covered in promotions and surveys when we're just buying a pack of gum.
We left those grievances out of our proposed bill of rights, because this isn't meant to be a shopping wish list -- the focus here is on basic standards of fairness and honesty that will protect the shopper.
Still, we may have missed a few. If there are certain rights that you feel every shopper should be guaranteed, we'd love to hear about it. Give us a shout in the comments or send an email to Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com.