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How I stopped buying my way out of everything

I learned the hard way I couldn’t shop my way to a new self.

An illustration shows a tiny figure walking away from a cluster of giant shopping bags covered in a maze pattern. Lorena Spurio for Vox
Lilly Milman is an essayist based in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Billboard, Boston magazine, Philadelphia magazine, and Boston Globe magazine, and she publishes a biweekly newsletter with Melinda Fakuade called This Is Why!

The pile of recycling in the corner of my kitchen was taller than the counter at some points in the month. The precariously stacked boxes from Amazon, the Gap, Williams Sonoma, and direct-to-consumer brands I had found on TikTok threatened to fall over, though that didn’t stop me from adding another to the top when a new supposedly life-changing package arrived at my doorstep.

I didn’t realize that I was revenge shopping — a term that explains the way people spend compulsively on less-than-necessary consumer goods to make up for lost time after a period of being denied the opportunity to shop. It became hugely popular about a year into the pandemic, with millennials and Gen Z reporting that they were spending $1,016 more per month in 2021 than they were in the summer prior. By the time I hit my shopping peak, it was late 2021. Like many others at that time, I was bored of sitting at home in the same clothes. Perhaps more importantly, I was bored with myself and I couldn’t find another way out of the life I was living.

Shopping made it easy to envision myself in a new life — one where, instead of working a series of dead-end jobs and hardly leaving my apartment, I was always surrounded by friends, eating at the best restaurant in my city, and casually wearing the perfectly put-together outfit that would reify me as a Hot Girl.

As I came to see much later, shopping never delivered on that promise. There was never an end in sight — only new opportunities to reinvent myself. If I was constantly trying on something new, there would never be a moment to ask myself who I actually was, or to even consider why I was so scared of the question itself. That would’ve required me to make changes I wasn’t ready for: to go out and meet new people, to quit the job that made me feel unappreciated and less-than, to look in the mirror and accept that this just may be what I look like, and that’s okay. Until I faced that fear, there was only recycling piling up, a flash of guilt or shame as I broke down the boxes, and the quickly returning urge to buy my way out of being unhappy. Month after month, I flipped myself like an old house with decent bones, hoping a new layer of shiplap or subway tile backsplash would cover up what I wanted to hide.

A short scroll on TikTok or Instagram Reels will present you with thousands of different single-use tools that purportedly deliver the ultimate life hacks, must-have “staple pieces” for your closet that’ll “never go out of style,” and skin care products that will make your face glow and pores shrink. In these videos, people with blown-out hair and shockingly white teeth tell you about that one Amazon item that improved their entire life — whether it’s a jade roller that “de-puffed” their face or the dress that has fulfilled their lifelong aesthetic goals. As you sift through video after video, watching before-and-afters or step-by-step outfit tutorials, it’s easy to start believing them. I certainly did.

Rarely do these videos mention the psychological impacts of continuous shopping, or the environmental ones. US consumers now have about five times more clothing in their closet than in the 1980s, despite the fact that many items will only be worn once; in the US alone, over 34 billion pounds of textiles are thrown out each year, meaning that each resident produces roughly 100 pounds of textile waste per year. While it can be easy to downplay individual responsibility to combat climate change when considering the more significant role that large corporations play in creating waste, our consumption habits still have a measurable impact on the environment. The hard truth: The more you buy, the more that companies create to buy, and the more you are willing to throw away and replace.

Through our consumption, we are complicit in this vicious cycle, while it’s the large corporations behind the products and the influencers marketing them that stand to gain the most. Influencers using the popular online shopping platform LTK sold over $3.6 billion worth of products in 2022 alone, according to the company’s numbers.

At the height of my revenge shopping, I prioritized figuring out my “aesthetic” rather than leveraging any power I could have as a conscious consumer. I spent weeks mindlessly scrolling — and shopping. I bought flared leather pants, and a couple of weeks later I found myself thinking they were cringe. I succumbed to the Shein haul, a TikTok trend in which one buys copious amounts of low-cost clothing from the Chinese fast fashion giant, to buy all new bathing suits before a trip to the beach with friends, and still felt self-conscious about my body in nearly all of the photos. The algorithm served me countless videos of girls each discovering their own hyper-specific looktomato girls who shined wearing reds and neutrals, cottagecore girls who preferred baking bread and wearing loose linens. Their smiles told me: I’ve figured out who I am, and I feel lighter because of it.

I tried on a “clean girl” aesthetic, and then the “model off duty” one, but my hair seemed too unmanageable for either. I recalled the videos I had seen during my hours of scrolling, of proud “curly girl” influencers who created entire careers around their perfect hair, whose comment sections were filled with endless compliments. So that’s my problem, I thought again and again, as I purchased the supposed solutions on their Amazon storefronts: $40 conditioner, $75 hair gel, a $35 Denman brush. When my curls still broke apart and fell out of place, I thought it must be my fault, and I turned back to the app for advice (and more product recommendations).

Buying matching athleisure sets was going to make me work out every day. A detailed planner was going to make me more productive. Each purchase offered a second of control, in the face of mounting, overwhelming insecurity. Despite how bad I felt whenever I discovered a new problem in need of fixing, seeking out signals online to tell me how to behave felt natural; it was far from the first time the internet molded how I lived my life.

I was in seventh grade when Instagram came out, and my childhood best friend and I were early adopters. We didn’t know then that our blurry pictures of our backyards or our Starbucks cups with sepia-toned filters were an introduction into a digital panopticon — one that opened us up to a world of strangers in addition to the already steep judgment of our peers.

By the time I was in college in the mid- to late 2010s, I was self-conscious about posting twice in the same outfit — especially in posts too close to each other on my profile. The problem was that I barely had enough cash to cover necessities like school supplies, food, and toiletries. By making the ill-advised decision to attend a private school I couldn’t afford, and to live among people who could afford it, I had put myself on a stage that I wasn’t ready for. I felt like I was performing an improv show — attempting to convince my peers that, in my empty hand, there was really the latest iPhone and that I wasn’t wearing the same pair of threadbare leggings every day.

Not long after the pandemic hit, I realized I had more money in my bank account than ever before. I had found a slightly higher-paying work-from-home job, so I wasn’t commuting or taking Ubers anywhere, I wasn’t going out to bars, and I wasn’t eating out at any restaurants. At first, I was responsible; I took some time to set aside an emergency fund, and I opened a retirement account. But when I still had funds left over from my paycheck, I started shopping.

Suddenly, I had access to a world that I felt I had previously been denied entry to. For many groups of women, including my friends, shopping is a collaborative activity: You wait outside the dressing room to give one friend your honest opinions on her look; you say, “Just do it, you deserve it,” when another asks if she should splurge. Virtually, you send a link to the group chat when your favorite store is having a sale or a video of your most recent haul.

When I was younger, this was a bonding experience I couldn’t as readily participate in without feeling immense financial anxiety. Now, I was far from meeting any of my long-term financial goals, but the opportunity to avenge my younger self was tantalizingly within reach. Finally, I could buy the same signifiers that had always told me someone else had it all together, without actually needing to have it all together: porcelain pasta blates from Sur La Table, jeans in every wash and cut, a puffer jacket with North Face emblazoned on the front.

In the process, I built up a graveyard of things hardly worn, hardly looked at — my very own pigeon’s nest of lightly used garbage that I swore I would donate (and, more excitingly, replace). But the pile presented a problem. It made it difficult to explain why, with so many options, I still felt like I had nothing to wear. Why nothing felt right or comfortable or like “me” except for a couple of sweaters that I had stolen from my boyfriend or a few pairs of jeans that I had worn into the ground. Eventually, the prospect of attempting yet again to find and buy more stuff to make these feelings go away started to feel exhausting rather than exciting.

Shopping didn’t give me freedom or agency. By placing me on a conveyor belt where I was constantly tasked with keeping up with the latest trends, it took control away from me. The ease with which many of us can shop now — through the same digital panopticon that encourages us to always present ourselves as something new — is a quick comfort. It’s easy to feel that way when you are trapped under flooding Brooklyns, global pandemics, and threats of international war. It’s also a double-edged sword. It’s true, shopping can provide a dopamine hit that feels like a momentary break from the life you’re living in. But if you’re constantly taking that break when you feel unsatisfied and insecure, you are letting the muscle that deals with the negative parts of your life atrophy. When do you actually start accepting who you are? At what point are you living your life, instead of planning for a new reinvention of it?

Deep into my shopping spiral, I started experiencing reinvention fatigue. There was no epiphany, only a gradual decline until I felt less happy, and less like myself, than ever. Half of the clothes in my closet looked like they belonged to a stranger, and I was tired of pantomiming trends set by people being paid to create them. (I mean, when was I ever going to wear that Y2K-inspired backless top from American Eagle or the “SHEIN Knot Strap Ruched Bust Shirred Back Ditsy Floral Top?”)

Even though I had more money than before, I hadn’t gotten any better at my performance of happiness or of what I perceived to be normal. Not to mention, I felt less creative than ever. I was still in the same rut I had been in when the pandemic started, but now I was down hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Shopping helped me turn my brain off, but deciding to close the tab of an online cart filled with things I didn’t actually need made me realize that I didn’t want to be off anymore. I can’t deny that I still miss the boxes arriving on my doorstep, but every time I go out in an outfit I’ve worn dozens of times before, it feels like a small win, an acknowledgment that I am consciously accepting who I am and where I’m at.

When I was younger, I felt stuck with what I had: frizzy hair, hand-me-down clothes, glasses that never sat completely straight on my face. Like most teens and young adults, I was deeply insecure, and I blamed that on the fact that I couldn’t buy things like my friends could. But, in the same way that revenge shopping didn’t help me today, having more stuff wouldn’t have helped me then, either. This is a realization I didn’t come to until I actually stopped shopping — especially in the moments that I really, really wanted to, when I was feeling the most restless, the most desperate for an easy way out. It was in those moments that I had the opportunity to reckon with what made me uncomfortable or unhappy with myself, and to make changes. To write, or go on a walk outside, or call one of my friends and have a long conversation.

Remembering all the times from my younger years when I yearned for a different life, a different closet, a different body, I now think: The fact that I was forced to stick with what I had wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And I’m proud that, even though I didn’t have much choice, I was able to be myself through it all. As an adult, I’m trying to return to that.