The Myth of the Shopaholic and Female Overspender

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myth of the female overspender

The Myth of the Shopaholic and Female Overspender

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The shopaholic, the overly ‘emotional’ young woman practicing ‘retail therapy’, the stay-at-home mom spending all of ‘her husband’s hard earned money’, there’s no shortage of cultural archetypes for the female overspender, ‘wasting’ money on supposedly thoughtless and needless purchases.

In 2018, the UK-based Starling Bank, commissioned a study on gendered language around money, finding that 65% of money related articles in women’s magazines characterized women as excessive spenders. Meanwhile, 70% of money related articles targeted toward men emphasized making money.

“Women are told to cut back on coffee to save up for a new pair of shoes. With men, money is all about power suits and investing and long-term goals. Supercars and yachts and people looking quite smug,” the study’s commissioner and Starling Bank’s CEO, Anne Boden, told journalist Kristin Wong in a 2019 New York Times piece.

But these well-worn tropes are not grounded in real gender spending differences. “Our data as a bank demonstrates that there’s really no difference in the way that men and women spend on a day-to-day basis,” says Boden.

Spending similarities across gender identity are reflected in US data as well, with a 2019 survey by CNBC and Acorns finding that men are just as likely as women to make impulse purchases, though men report being more likely to spend more when they do. And a 2021 report finds that men and women tend to have similar overall shopping behaviors, with men being slightly more willing to spend on non-essential goods than women – likely as a result of having higher earnings on average.

In other words, despite popular perceptions of women being more likely to spend excessively, real differences in how men and women spend are minimal.

What does differ is our collective willingness to judge and critique spending when those purchases reflect expenditures stereotypically associated with women.

For example, discretionary spending on clothing, handbags and accessories is often characterized as frivolous while similarly discretionary spending on electronics, automobiles and tech is often positioned as ‘worthwhile’.

So what makes spending on speakers, protein powders and golf clubs more likely to be considered a ‘good use of money’, as opposed to so-called ‘wasteful’ spending on a skin care regimen?

Maybe it’s the mere idea of women spending money on themselves, which defies the patriarchal expectation that their time, energy and resources should be fully committed to caring for others. Or maybe it’s the assumption that their money wasn’t personally earned and thus, isn’t rightfully theirs to spend. Or maybe it’s the devaluation of all things stereotypically ‘feminine’.

The outsized tendency to judge, blame and shame women for their spending might explain why women are twice as likely to associate negative emotions like ‘discouragement’ and ‘overwhelm’ with their finances. So not only is the idea that overspending is a ‘typical female’ trait untrue, we can also see how this rhetoric can be harmful in informing women’s own relationship to their money.

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