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Help for Compulsive Spenders

Is Your Shopping is Out of Control?

I struggle when I go into stores. I want to buy something. Anything. When I shop, I lose all sense of good judgment. I don't care how penniless I am, how I'll pay my bills or how guilty I'll feel afterward. I just want to shop. And when I go into a store, the excitement of the clothes, jewelry and shoes intoxicates me. I am a compulsive spender.

Experts estimate that between 2 and 8 percent of the population are compulsive spenders like I am. Ninety percent are women. But isn't there a fine line between healthy and unhealthy spending?

Determining If You Have a Problem

"Unhealthy spending is spending that is prompted by some negative internal state," says April Benson, Ph.D., editor of the book, I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. She explains that it's not about a particular need or desire for that object, but for the high that comes from the shopping. This maladaptive preoccupation with shopping that a compulsive spender has, she says, leads to some significant impairment in their financial, family or work life. A husband threatening a divorce because of his wife's spending, debt that drives a person to financial ruin or even a job loss because a person shops online all day are some examples, she says.

My experience as a compulsive spender began as soon as I had my own money to spend. I was 19 and had my first job as a waitress. I knew the power of money: how it could buy nice things and make me feel better. I used shopping as a crutch for coping with life's ups and downs. When my family was going through tough times, when I felt insecure about things, when I had negative feelings, shopping was the solution. As the years went on I would continue to shop to fight depression, loneliness or anxiety, at night or on the weekends. These feelings would be triggered by a bad day at work, dating disappointments or not feeling good about myself that day.

Clothing was my biggest fix but anything would do: CDs, books, magazines and household and beauty products. Often I never used the things I bought. Clothes would hang in the closet for weeks, maybe months with the tags still on them. I thought I'd need to return them to pay a bill, plus it gave me a good reason to get back into the store. Sometimes, I felt too guilty to wear them.

Referred to as the "smiled-upon" addiction, compulsive spending may not be taken as seriously as other addictions such as alcohol, gambling, food or sex. Consumption fuels our economy, Benson says, and if people didn't spend, then what would happen to our country? Just like an alcoholic who has societal pressure to drink on special occasions and holidays, shopping is encouraged by the materialistic culture in which we live.

But compulsive spenders have the same motives as other addicts. "All compulsive behaviors are designed to counteract some kind of internal void," says Benson. She says that compulsive behavior usually occurs in people with low self-esteem and who have a propensity toward depression. Substances are used as an attempt to enliven oneself or soothe, comfort and anesthetize.

What Causes It?

Low self-esteem is a key motive behind compulsive spending. "Shopping can be, when it's done non-compulsively, an important activity for self-enhancement, self-fulfillment and creativity," says Benson. It's a way of defining and expressing ourselves. But if we are buying to enhance our sense of worth, she says, we are never going to get what we are looking for. "We are looking for things to fill in holes that things just cannot fill."

When I was 38, I was $18,000 in debt and decided to declare bankruptcy. Relentless creditors' calls and financial hardship caused me great stress and grief. I also decided to see a counselor, not for my financial difficulties, but because I knew something was wrong emotionally.

Once in therapy I discovered I was a compulsive spender. Not what I expected to find out. I never knew this addiction even existed. It became clear to me when the therapist asked me to make a list of all the items I had purchased and never used. I pulled them out to view in plain sight: pots and pans, dinnerware, jewelry, candles, appliances, shoes and clothing with the price tags. These things were spread all over my apartment and on the bed. I was startled at the amount of stuff I'd never used, years' worth, and started to cry at the thought of how sick I really was. That was the most pivotal moment of my life. Nothing could be the same. I was acutely aware of this problem now with every purchase.

Getting Help

Treatment options vary for compulsive spenders. Modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous is a 12-step program designed for compulsive spenders. Individual, group or couples therapy targeted for compulsive spending can help. For some people, a doctor may recommend drug therapies such as Paxil or Celexa, both anti-depressants.

Be it self-esteem, control, a distraction from pain or emptiness, loneliness or for excitement, whatever the underlying needs of the compulsion are, a person needs to find healthy ways of meeting these needs, says Benson. She cites some healthy ways such as going to the movies, calling a friend or taking a walk or a bath. Focusing energy in a more community-oriented direction and interacting with people, she says, goes even further. "Compulsive spenders are often really isolated," she says. "They hide who they really are from themselves and other people. Getting outside of ourselves is enormously gratifying and keeps us from being alone."

Changing their relationship to money is also important for recovering compulsive spenders, according to Olivia Mellan, psychotherapist and national speaker on money psychology and author of Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and Their Partners. She uses an assignment called the money dialogue where a conversation is generated (written or spoken) between the person and money, and then at least three voices comment on the dialogue, for example: a mother, ex-spouse, child or any other strong influences. The dialogue ends with a comment from a final voice, some higher power, and deeper wisdom. "You can do the money dialogue once a week or once a day to help you figure out the emotional piece of your relationship with money," says Mellan. She explains that your conversations with money, where you are, where you've been and where you need to go, evolve as your awareness evolves.

Karen McCall, founder of the Financial Recovery Counseling Institute and author of It's Your Money: Achieving Financial Well-Being, helps individuals develop a spending plan that focuses on the "whole" person. She teaches basic money-management skills, as well as addresses the emotional components of a person's relationship with money, which may be driving self-defeating money patterns.

She says that when a person is dysfunctional with money, they may be living in deprivation. Their basic needs (medical care, keeping a car safely maintained and taking regular time for relaxation) are not being taken care of. "We help to identify these areas of deprivation and how they spend money in those areas," says McCall. She says by taking care of basic needs along with building strong money management skills, self-esteem will result. "It gives people the opportunity to start making strong choices rather than going through life frittering away their money unconsciously," says McCall.

I am recovering from this addiction. Like a food addict, you just can't give up food forever. It's the same with spending. Somehow it has to be managed. But being aware that I have a spending problem and knowing that it doesn't support who and what I want to be gives me a new direction in life. Fighting off the compulsion to shop is ongoing, and I have to replace these urges with healthy activities such as writing, listening to music, walking, going out with friends or watching movies. I have gone on a budget which tracks every penny including a week-by-week spending plan so that I can save money, pay my bills on time and live comfortably.

I also focus on what brings me joy in life and what I am passionate about and consequently am much more fulfilled. But what I deeply understand now is what my shopping fixes cost me: my potential, my dreams and my true happiness. This is much too heavy a price to pay.

Symptoms of Compulsive Shopping

According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction, if an individual exhibits four or more of the following signs, they may have a problem with overspending:

  • Shopping as a result of being disappointed, angry or scared
  • Shopping or spending habits causing emotional distress or chaos in one's life
  • Having arguments with others regarding shopping or spending habits
  • Feeling lost without credit cards
  • Buying items on credit that would not be bought with cash
  • Spending money causing a rush of euphoria and anxiety at the same time
  • Spending or shopping feels like a reckless or forbidden act
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed or confused after shopping or spending money; many purchases are never used
  • Lying to others about what was bought or how much money was spent
  • Thinking excessively about money
  • Spending a lot of time juggling accounts and bills to accommodate spending

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