If you’ve ever felt a buzz after scoring a deal on a great new pair of shoes — while you’re buzzed from a strong margarita — you’re not alone. The U.S. now boasts a $14 billion-a-year drunk shopping industry, according to the latest survey by Finder, which revealed that some 17% of Americans shop under the influence.
I admit it, I can relate. On occasion, a good friend and I meet at a restaurant for lunch, where we indulge in a few glasses of wine. Then we head to the nearest Target where we spend a ridiculously long time touring the aisles and filling our shopping carts with housewares, clothing and beauty products that we probably don’t need, but truly thrill in purchasing. It’s a mostly harmless escape where we blow off steam and have a little fun. Sometimes a new skirt — or duvet cover, or a pair of sneakers — simply looks better through rosé-colored glasses.
I have on occasion unpacked the shopping bags later and wondered if I really needed another coffee mug, but I’m lucky in that I’ve never made a purchase that I seriously regret, or one that blew up my credit card bill. I can see how these sprees could spiral into a problematic habit, though — drunk shoppers spend an average of $250, and some are buying big ticket items like furniture, artwork and even cars, while under the influence, according to the survey.
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Why do we buy things when drunk?
“We know that alcohol tends to lower inhibitions and increase the rate of impulsivity in decision-making,” says Janelle S. Peifer, PhD, LCP, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond. Alcohol stimulates receptors for a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA), which quiets the nervous system and reduces brain activity. Just one or two drinks can soothe anxiety and produce feelings of pleasure and reward, which can contribute to excessive behaviors, including shopping.
In fact, for those who really love a good department store haul, the rush of a big-ticket item from a high-end boutique or the thrill of scoring a deal on a favorite shopping app, the high from shopping alone can be similar to the effects of a few drinks. And for people at the far end of the spectrum, who experience a full-blown shopping addiction, it often co-occurs with other disorders, including substance use disorder. And if you’re at home with your Merlot and your MacBook, drunk shopping is even easier: Roughly 70% of Americans routinely shop on their smartphones, tablets and computers, and in a 2021 survey, 88.6% of people admitted to buying impulsively online. “For those looking for that neurotransmitter level dopamine rush, you’re able to find it anytime, at your fingertips,” says Peifer.
Mix in a few cocktails, and people are even more likely to hit “add to cart.”
Is drunk shopping really so bad?
Like most things, how harmful booze-fueled buying is to you depends on how far you take it. The most obvious problem is that you can find yourself in the red, and fast, says Paul R. Linde, MD, medical director of psychiatry and collaborative care with Ria Health, an online alcohol addiction treatment program based in San Francisco. “Financial products such as payment plans can further enable impulsive shopping behavior, leading to greater financial strain,” he says. Being able to defer costs of a new coat with buy-now-pay-later platform makes it all-too-easy to overspend, especially when you’re buzzing from a few beers.
And then there’s the issue of drinking so much that you get drunk (no matter what you do in that state). If you consume alcohol in excess (defined by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men) over time, you are at higher risk for a wide range of chronic diseases and other health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive issues and a weakening of the immune system.
Drunk shopping as a behavior may also be disguising a third and more complicated problem: an underlying mental health issue. Engaging in excessive behaviors like impulsive shopping or drinking alcohol (alone or in combination) is often a way of trying to cope with anxiety or depression; the shopping or alcohol use, while potentially harmful, can also be distractions. “Those behaviors may be masking a deeper need,” says Peifer. In drinking or shopping, you may be seeking a feeling that you’re not getting in other areas of your life, it may be a way to avoid difficult emotions, or it may be the result of ongoing stress, she says. “Following the pandemic, we have seen an uptick in mental health concerns and substance use, and I’m not surprised that some problematic excessive behaviors have emerged,” says Peifer.
How to tell if you have a drunk shopping problem
Meeting a friend for a cocktail and then doing a bit of shop-hopping or sipping a glass of red while you place an Amazon order isn’t inherently bad. “There can be ways that people engage with this in totally healthy, normative ways,” says Peifer. But there are also red flags you can watch for.
You might have a drunk shopping problem if you:
- Feel shame about erratic spending sprees
- Are hiding impulsive purchases
- Feel out of control when you shop or afterward
- Are spending beyond your means
- Are drinking and shopping alone
How to stop drunk shopping
A general principle to curb a drunk shopping habit is to introduce a bit of friction, so it’s not so easy to act on impulse.
- Don’t store your card information: “The tap feature on your phone and saving all of your credit card information on frequently visited websites makes it much more likely that you’re going to engage in impulsive spending,” says Peifer. “That’s why the systems are designed that way.” Before you meet friends for drinks, consider disabling Apple Pay, for example. If your boozy spending sprees tend to happen online, add a few more steps between “add to cart” and “check-out,” such as removing your credit card information from your shopping apps and favorite websites — having to enter card numbers and remember your passwords can really slow you down.
- Let apps help you: There are a variety of inhibiting apps that can limit online shopping. Install the Pause by Freedom browser extension, and you can literally freeze-out a website and pause your purchase until you’ve had a 24-hour cooling-off period to sober up and think it through.
- Unsubscribe: Saying goodbye to brand newsletters and deal alerts can also remove some of the temptation that leads to browsing and buying in the first place.
- Monitor your drinking: “For individuals who enjoy the comfort of holding a wine glass, there are dilution or substitution options available that can provide a similar experience without the alcohol content,” says Dr. Linde. Consider sipping a wine spritzer or mocktail, which may tamp down the urge to browse.
- More ways: “For people who engage in moderate drunk shopping, having a meal before shopping, asking a friend to join as an accountability partner or taking a brief meditation break can help clear the mind and increase impulse control,” says Dr. Linde.
When to get help
If you’re unsure if your drunk shopping has become a behavioral dependence, ask yourself if it’s causing you harm (financially, or in your relationships, for example). Consider whether you can stick to a spending budget if you set one in advance. “And do a gut check,” advises Peifer. “What does drunk shopping do for you and what could it be masking in your life?” If you are concerned about your drunk shopping, it’s time to seek support from a mental health professional, she says.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.
Karen Robock (she/her) has been reporting on health news, wellness fads, parenting trends, and beyond, for over 15 years. She has been published in Prevention, Reader’s Digest, and dozens of other magazines and websites.
Karen’s side passions include walking her dogs, buying more books than she can read, playing Barbie with her youngest daughter, and attempting to keep her houseplants alive.