If The Price Is Right: Compulsive Buying Among College Students

Photo by Mattison Henson.

By Mattison Hansen

As the pandemic drags on to its third year, college students are growing more concerned about their physical and mental health.

A survey by TimelyMD reveals that out of 1,700 students, 54% of respondents were experiencing stress and anxiety of COVID-19’s impact on the quality of their education and social life, as well as 34% experiencing negative emotions in response to COVID-19’s impact on their ability to work.

“I have been feeling very stressed because of the responsibilities I face as a student,” said Emily Newton, a junior at Flagler College. “To make myself feel better, I like to listen to music and hang out with my friends so I am not alone.”

“I typically go online shopping, call or text my friends, watch sports, or go to the beach,” said Grace Tumminelli, a freshman at Flagler who has been experiencing stress and fatigue during the spring semester.

TimelyMD’s survey also reports that 88% of students say there’s a mental health crisis at United States colleges and universities. Nearly three out of four (73%) students say they are feeling the same or even more stressed and anxious than in January 2021.

“I’ve definitely been stressed with it being midterm time,” said Nicole Fruscella, another junior at Flagler College. “Retail therapy is the best way to pass time and take my mind off of school stress.”

For a lot of individuals, luxuriating in retail therapy is a common form of self-care. The act of shopping is used to help reduce negative moods like anxiety, as well as boost creativity. With the rise of online shopping, it’s easier than ever before to make continuous, unlimited purchases.

One item the majority of college students invest in is coffee, a product used in an attempt to get through early morning classes and late-night studying, or to simply enjoy. Last year, however, coffee prices reached a new high when Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, suffered a severe draught. As seen in numerous products, when the demand for an item increases, so does the price.

Coffee isn’t the only expense that has risen. Gas has increased by 40%, food about 7% more, and housing more than 4%. In a span of 12 months, the most recent data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that prices have gone up 7.5%, making this year’s annual inflation increase at its fastest pace since 1982.

“Price inflation that is really affecting me is the price of gas going way up. I have to use my car so I’ll pay the prices, but it’s just annoying having to spend about $30-40 and up to fill my tank,” Fruscella said.

Gas prices have risen about 20 cents between January 2022 to February 2022, making gas about $3.52 per gallon. For college students, and other individuals looking for work, this affects what kind of jobs they are applying for, as they now have to keep in mind the cost of driving to and from work. If the cost is too high, then the job candidate might have to turn down the position purely because the costs would eat up a large percentage of the salary being offered.

Rising gas prices have also forced some businesses to reevaluate their hiring plans, as less spending results in decreased sales, both of which influences a company’s ability to hire. What could have been a job opportunity for college students before might not exist anymore, and if it does, then the salary decreased enormously.

These raised prices can be traced back to the supply chain crisis, as well as global shortages on labor. Companies have also increased their costs to counteract higher charges, including labor, the transportation of their goods and the escalating value of raw materials.

“The price inflation has affected me, as I won’t be going out to eat as much and will only be buying things if I have either a gift card or if it’s something I absolutely need, like food for my dorm and water,” Tumminelli said.

“To save money, I am trying to be more mindful of what I buy and if it actually benefits me or if I’m being impulsive,” said Newton.

Pandemics like COVID-19 are rare, which results in few historical parallels to inform policymakers on how to respond. COVID-19 restrictions led to a shutdown of supply, primarily because jobs that manufacture and produce various objects halted. At the same time, the pandemic completely flipped demand. Suddenly, no one was investing in travel plans or public outings like movie theatres or concerts, but instead in a new laptop or items to start new hobbies at home.

College students already have difficulty paying for things as they are, living off part-time wages or what little allowance is given to them by their parents. At Flagler College, tuition has increased approximately 5.8% over the last three years. Other costs that students put their money toward include other necessities like housing and food.

As economies are boosting again, they’re doing so at a pace where supply and transportation can’t keep up. Consumers around the world are seeing higher prices for goods and services, making inflation the next worldwide pandemic.

Signs of Compulsive Buying

Compulsive buying is distinguished by excessive obsession or poor impulse control with shopping and results in unpleasant consequences, such as financial problems.

A person may often purchase things on impulse that they could live without. These types of shoppers experience a rush of excitement when they buy, in which this euphoric experience isn’t from owning something, but from the act of buying and whether they should.

“Most of the time its online shopping, so it doesn’t always make it out of the shopping cart. But just putting things into the cart is part of the fun,” Fruscella said.

A compulsive buyer may also continuously shop to help alleviate unpleasant emotions or fill an emotional void, like loneliness or lack of self-esteem. These kinds of purchases result in short-term happiness before circling to feelings of remorse, as they feel guilty for irresponsible purchases.

Tips to Prevent Compulsive Buying

In today’s economy, it’s difficult for college students to pay for luxuries that were once an option. With overwhelming negative emotions, like stress, growing throughout the school year, it might be difficult to figure out what one can do instead of spending money. The most essential thing that could help with saving money while prices continue to increase is to create a budget.

“I should make a budget, but I know I wouldn’t stick to it, so what’s the point?” Fruscella said.

Budgeting might feel overwhelming, so much so that most individuals avoid creating and keeping one. However, it’s very helpful to make a plan tracking one’s spending, setting goals and adjusting habits when necessary.

Some suggestions to help with saving money include waiting a couple of hours, or even a few days, before making an immediate purchase. Or, instead of going out, try doing something at home. For instance, instead of going to the movie theatre, watch a movie in the comfort of your own couch — and use the money you saved on some snacks.

It’s also important to find more physical ways to make oneself feel better. Going for a walk or taking up a new hobby, like baking, are some good examples.

With recent anxieties that have risen due to the pandemic, self-care activities like luxuriating in retail therapy isn’t a bad thing. However, overpaying or consistently buying products that aren’t a necessity should be avoided, especially with recent price inflations.

The harmful impacts COVID-19 had on mental health, the stress that students face and the rising cost of living all impact spending habits of students in different ways. Moving forward, it’s important for college students to access their financial circumstances, but know there’s a healthy balance between compulsive buying and treating yourself during these demanding times.

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