Sitting on my bed last December, I stared at the stacks of make-up scattered around my bedroom. I’d counted 213 lipsticks, 130 eye shadow palettes, 102 blushers, 65 eyeliners and 17 mascaras – and that wasn’t even all of it.
After doing some initial calculations, I worked out that I’d spent the best part of £30,000 on skin, hair and makeup products, and £15,000 of that was in the last year alone. "Argh, Emma.* £30,000!" I thought. The shocking numbers confirmed what I had been worried about: that my make-up spending habit had got seriously out of hand.
In that moment, as I looked at the number of products - which were nearly equal in value to the average deposit a first-time buyer pays for a house in the UK - I had to confront the reality that I had a problem. I was 25, and the only reason I hadn't spiralled into debt was because I was still living at home with my parents. If I'd moved out a few years earlier, my financial situation would have been a whole lot worse.
Some people would laugh if you told them you couldn’t stop buying make-up. And I get it: Britons spend nearly £4,500 on beauty a year – whereas I spent nearly triple that in 2017. Plus, handing over money for lipstick, not drugs, doesn’t exactly set off ‘addiction’ alarm bells among friends and family.
But the obsessive behaviour I experienced was similar: I was buying make-up as a way to improve my mood when I was struggling with depression and, as the urges to buy increased, I would hide my shopping from those closest to me.
Buying make-up gave me a high – a feeling of being elated and hopeful – that made me feel better after feeling low about my job and self-worth. But once that high faded, the comedown would spur me on to spend again. It was a vicious circle.
I don’t remember the day it all started, but I was always drawn to the transformative power of make-up. I watched old Hollywood films and admired glamorous film stars like Vivien Leigh and Maureen O’Hara, who rocked a red lip.
I knew it was a look I wanted to copy one day, and as soon as I started getting pocket money, I’d spend it on make-up. As I got older, I loved getting creative with different looks, although that’s what lots of teenagers do, don’t they?
But things began to change in my early twenties, around the time I got my first job. I was so excited by what sounded like my dream role, but the reality turned out to be very different. There was no progression for me at the company, and I didn’t feel valued at all. Sometimes I wondered whether it mattered to them if I even turned up or not and, as a result, I started to feel depressed.
Instead of going out with my mates, I would stay home and trawl beauty hashtags and videos on Instagram and YouTube. My low moods meant I had no energy, and watching videos online gave me ideas of what items I could buy next to make me feel better. It might sound ridiculous – unrealistic, even - but I became convinced that if someone was wearing a lipstick, and they looked happy, then buying that lipstick was going to make me happy, too.
And so, the spending escalated. Whenever I had a rubbish day at work, I’d think, "I’ll just pop to the shops and see what’s new." Even my boyfriend encouraged me to treat myself, thinking whatever would make me feel happier was surely a good thing. In store, I would sample things like pigmented lipsticks or sparkly eye shadows, and if they looked pretty or just felt nice, I’d buy them.
I’d feel so happy the second my fingers clasped around a bag filled with new beauty treats. But five minutes later, I’d be sitting on the train home and that feeling would have completely faded. And instead of realising that perhaps buying make-up wasn’t the solution, I’d think, "I haven’t bought enough to make me feel better. Next time, I’ll try a more luxurious brand; I’ll spend more." I hid my habit from those around me but I didn't feel guilty - I was too caught up with my own feelings.
Before I knew it, I was buying make-up every day. I was on first-name terms with all the shop assistants at my favourite shop, and I once spent £1,500 on a shopping trip, splurging on premium skincare and luxury make-up. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. The ironic thing was that I didn’t even need the products – I wouldn't even use them.
Once back at home, I’d put the bags in a corner, where they usually remained unopened. I don't think my boyfriend and family realised the extent of what was going on.
As weeks passed, I felt more depressed and lonely: like no one would understand me if I told my loved ones how much I was spending – and why I was spending that much. I also started to not care what I looked like: I’d leave the house without brushing my hair or wearing make-up – all my usual standards had disappeared.
My boyfriend became seriously worried and my friends stepped in, saying I’d become withdrawn, and encouraged me to do something to help my mental health.
I decided to quit my job and, straight away, I noticed my mood improved. I didn’t have that overwhelming urge to spend. Then, for the first time, I opened up to my best friend about how serious my shopping habits had become. She was understanding, and introduced me to a make-up addiction forum, which had over 40,000 users swapping stories similar to mine.
But the more I read about people getting joy out of owning something but not using it, or buying something that they already had seven of at home, the more I panicked. One woman even lost her house because her 'addiction', as she called it, had got her into so much debt.
It scared me into taking back some control. Some people on the site had mentioned doing a ‘No Buy’ challenge to help curb the behaviour. It's where you don't buy any new products for a set period of time, and it's apparently popular in the make-up rehab community.
After trying a couple of other challenges, I decided to give it a go and set myself a 12-month timeframe in an effort to also use up my existing stash at home. To see what I was up against, I started by doing an ‘inventory’ of what I'd spent so far. That’s when I found myself sitting on my bed in disbelief – but it just made me more determined to do something about my problem.
To help me get things under control, I unsubscribed from newsletters of brands that encouraged me to spend, and curated my social media to follow other people who had successfully completed #nobuy challenges. Following their progress helped me face up to my habits - if I wanted to copy their make-up tutorials, they encouraged me to look for similar products in my own stash, rather than buying more.
I also vlogged about my project, to help me stay accountable. After my first video, I received messages from people who were constantly buying not just make-up, but anything to make themselves feel better. It felt useful to talk about the issue, share my experience and offer advice, too.
While I have been determined to reach my goal - and I'm not far off - there have been challenging moments, and I know this is something that could become a problem again if I don’t keep on top of it.
For example, I was recently given some vouchers and, as I wasn't technically spending my own money, I used them to buy some make-up. I still got a little bit of a kick from it, but unlike when I was at my lowest, I was excited about using the products that night, as opposed to discarding them as soon as I got home.
Realistically, I will buy beauty products again, say, when mine all eventually run out, but the important thing is that I finally have my mood (and my spending urges) under control.
Now that I'm not spending thousands on beauty products, I've managed to start saving for a house deposit. I've also got a job that I really enjoy, and am part of a team that makes me feel valued.
I’ve learnt that not feeling valued is a trigger for my abnormal spending behaviours, and now I know this, I can recognise the signs. Of course, I still get down, or have bad work days like everyone. But I remember that I used to look at my dressing table covered in make-up and feel resentful and sad about losing control.
Today I look at it and I feel a sense of achievement. I’m dealing with my issues and that makes me feel quite powerful.
* Emma's name and some details have been changed.
As told to Natalie Ktena
If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, help and support is available from these organisations.