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Shopping Addiction & Compulsive Buying Disorder – Help for Shopaholics


Some people make light of shopping, seeing it as either a vapid hobby or a mere necessity. It follows then that some people make light of shopping addiction, believing it not to be a true affliction but merely a term used only in jest.

In reality, shopping addiction – or “compulsive buying disorder” – is no laughing matter. People who suffer from it may endure strained or permanently damaged relationships and can struggle with their personal finances for years. The first study to look into the prevalence of shopping addiction and compulsive buying in the U.S., published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that 5.8% of the surveyed population qualify as compulsive buyers.

If your credit card debt is mounting and yet you can’t stop spending, you could be a shopaholic. Fortunately, this is a very treatable affliction.

Understanding Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction isn’t a recognized medical condition. You won’t find it in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – the book used by the American Psychiatric Association to classify and diagnose mental illnesses. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a real problem. In fact, many psychologists consider shopping addiction and compulsive buying a sign of an impulse control disorder.

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Shopping addiction and compulsive buying are on a spectrum, meaning some people might have a worse problem than others. Signs of shopping addiction tend to resemble signs of other types of addiction, such as compulsive gambling or alcoholism. For example, people struggling with compulsive buying or shopping addiction might feel intense guilt after purchases, but feel unable to stop. And they tend to ignore mounting problems in the midst of a shopping high.

You might be a shopaholic if any of the following apply to you:

1. You Spend a Lot of Time Planning and Thinking About Shopping

In World Psychiatry, Donald Black outlines four phases of compulsive buying disorder: anticipation, preparation, shopping, and spending. During the first phase, anticipation, a person becomes preoccupied with a soon-to-be-made purchase or the idea of going shopping. During phase two, anticipation, the shopping addict may conduct research to find the best sales, determine which outfit to wear on shopping day, and decide which payment method to use.

This might sound like a normal way to plan a shopping trip – however, the key difference when shopping addiction or compulsive buying disorder comes into play is the amount of time spent anticipating and planning. For many, the planning process becomes all-consuming, making it impossible to focus on work or school – or even sleep or eat properly.

2. Shopping Interferes With Your Life

If you occasionally buy a lot of items at once, you don’t necessarily have a shopping disorder. Sometimes you need to spend more than usual, such as during the holiday shopping season, or when your child has a growth spurt and needs a new wardrobe.

However, if you regularly spend money on unneeded items and your shopping is interfering with the rest of your life, you are most likely facing a problem. For example, say you intend to help your younger sister with her homework, but instead you spend all evening browsing online retailers. Suddenly, you look at the clock and it’s midnight – you never got around to helping your sibling, and she has gone to bed mad at you. Or, instead of doing work at the office, you browse clothing websites for most of the day and miss a deadline. Both of these instances are red flags for a shopping addiction.

Shopping Interferes Life

3. You Go Over Budget Or Rely on Credit

When shopping is a problem, you tend to justify spending more than you planned to spend – or, you simply spend beyond your means regularly. You tell yourself the item was on sale, so you really got a great deal, even if you can’t afford it. For example, you might tell yourself you’ll spend $100 on clothing, but end up dropping $300 on a new dress. Or, you plan to purchase a single pair of shoes, but walk out of the store with the shoes plus an extra pair, a new bracelet and a new coat. You might buy multiples of the same item frequently or you buy lots of items just because they are on sale.

If this sounds like you, then you may have a shopping addiction. Often, this type of spending requires the use of a credit card, even if you are already in debt and are struggling to pay it off.

4. You Have a Lot of Debt and Complicated Finances

If you reach the point where you don’t even want to look at a credit card statement because the balance is so high, yet you can’t stop spending, your shopping habit has gotten out of hand. Unfortunately, shopaholics try to come up with ways to solve financial problems without giving up shopping.

For example, you may consider taking out a personal loan to pay off your immense credit card debt. Or, you may acquire more credit cards and transfer balances from one account to another in an attempt to take advantage of lower interest rates. Each month, you plot out which cards you’ll pay off and which ones you can make the minimum payments on. Like shopping, managing your debt becomes a complicated, time-consuming process.

5. Shopping Powerfully Affects Your Mood

People with a shopping addiction describe feeling very excited when they shop, often spending money so that the feeling of euphoria covers up any feelings of sadness or anger. Others shop as a way to cope with stress.

Unfortunately, once a purchase is complete, it’s not uncommon for a shopping addict to feel guilty. People cope with the guilt in a variety of ways. For example, some return the purchased items, almost immediately, only to go out and buy again soon afterward. Others try to forget about the items by shoving them into a closet or drawer, never to see the light of day. This wild swing in emotions is common among addicts of all types and a clear sign that you need help.

6. You Have Shopping-Related Secrets

There are many ways that shopoholics hide their shopping from others, or otherwise try to act as if a problem doesn’t exist. For example, a common sign of shopping addiction is to hide purchases entirely from partners or friends, or to open new credit cards in secret.

If you’re going shopping, but don’t want your partner to know, you might lie and say you are going to the movies with friends. You might keep new purchases in the car when you get home, and wait until your partner leaves to bring the items into the house. Unfortunately, this financial dishonesty can be detrimental not just to your budget, but to your most important interpersonal relationships.

Treating Shopping Addiction

Treating Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction can cause a range of problems in your life; therefore, it makes sense that an approach to treatment covers a range of concerns. Since the disorder isn’t officially recognized by the DSM-5, there isn’t an official, evidence-based treatment option for it. However, people struggling with compulsive buying disorder and shopping addiction tend to benefit the most from a multi-pronged treatment approach.

Here are several steps you can take if you face shopping addiction:

1. Get Professional Help

Finding a professional licensed therapist is the first step to tackling your shopping addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment method often used by therapists to help patients with a variety of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and addiction disorders. It also helps people with compulsive buying disorder or shopping addiction.

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that aims to change how a person reacts in a given situation. During CBT, you and your therapist examine your thought patterns and determine how your thoughts contribute to your behaviors, such as the uncontrolled urge to shop. One of the central components of the therapy is detecting negative thoughts and learning to restructure or alter them.

In addition to one-on-one help from a therapist, many with shopping addiction benefit from group therapy. In his review of compulsive buying disorder, Black notes that group therapy tends to be the most effective alternative to CBT. Group therapy sessions are led by a licensed therapist and give you a chance to practice coping skills and to connect with people who are facing similar problems.

2. Attend Meetings

Alcoholics have Alcoholics Anonymous, compulsive gamblers have Gamblers Anonymous, and compulsive shoppers with debt problems have Debtors Anonymous. Similar to AA, Debtors Anonymous offers a 12-step program. The first step is admitting you are powerless over debt, step two is admitting there is a higher power who can help you. While the goal of AA and similar programs is to help people avoid addictive substances, the goal of Debtors Anonymous is to help members achieve solvency, or freedom from unsecured debts, by working through its 12 steps.

Going to meetings let’s you know that you aren’t alone in your struggle, and seeing other’s successes can inspire you to overcome your disorder. You can share your story and hear the stories of others going through similar issues in a safe and confidential setting.

Since DA is committed to remaining a nonprofessional group, attending meetings and going through its 12-step program isn’t the same as attending group therapy with a therapist – while you’ll get support, you won’t get treatment, per se. Some people with a shopping addiction benefit from both attending DA meetings and working with a therapist.

3. Make a Plan to Reduce Debt

If you are faced with stacks of credit card bills and aren’t sure how to pay off your debt, working with a financial or credit counselor can help. One way to find a credit counselor is to check the list of agencies at The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). The NFCC certifies and accredits nonprofit counseling agencies across the U.S. You can also check with your bank or credit union for a recommendation, or check at a local college.

If you’re dealing with lots of debt, paying for credit counseling can be a concern. Often, credit counseling agencies use a sliding scale payment option, which means you might not have to pay if you can’t afford it. However, it pays to be cautious when choosing a debt counselor – the Federal Trade Commission advises against working with any agencies or counselors who aren’t upfront about their fees or who refuse to work with clients who can’t pay the fee.

A reputable credit counselor helps you figure out how to make a budget and gives you advice for paying down your debt. Depending on your specific case, a counselor might suggest a debt management plan. Other options might be to file for bankruptcy, to use the equity in your home to pay off your debt, to negotiate directly with your creditors, or a combination of these. Most importantly, a credit counselor can work with you to get your spending under control so that you stop creating more debt.

4. Limit Shopping and Only Use Cash

An alcoholic can swear off alcohol and a gambler can never step foot in a casino again. However, unless you can hand over all the shopping duties in your home to your partner, you can’t permanently stop purchasing groceries and clothing.

The trick to controlling yourself is to strictly limit where you go and how much you can spend. If you are making a grocery list, set a budget and bring that exact amount of cash to the store, nothing more. It may be best to get rid of your credit cards as well – cut up your cards and throw them away so you won’t be tempted to overspend. If you shop online, delete your accounts with retailers so that you can’t easily log on and make purchases at the click of a button.

5. Treat Coexisting Conditions

Compulsive shopping disorders can occur alongside other conditions. For example, depression, eating disorders, substance addiction, and anxiety are all common among shopoholics. A therapist may determine if you have another condition and recommend the most appropriate treatment for it, whether medication or additional therapy. Treating any comorbid conditions can improve the outlook for your shopping addiction, as well as your overall quality of life.

Avoiding Triggers Future

Avoiding Triggers in the Future

We live in a consumer culture, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cut shopping out of your life completely. Once you’ve received treatment for shopping addiction, avoiding activities or thoughts that can trigger a relapse becomes key.

Here are several way to avoid such triggers:

  • Find a Way to Cope When You Feel Down. Unpleasant emotions, whether anger or sadness, often compel people to buy. If you’ve used shopping as a balm in the past, you need to find another way to soothe yourself. Find something unrelated to shopping that you enjoy – it could be going for a run, dancing around your apartment, or calling a friend to chat.
  • Find Something to Do When Boredom Hits. Boredom can be a major shopping trigger. But instead of mindlessly wandering the mall or surfing Internet-based retailers, find a new way to use your time. For example, you can visit Meetup to find a book club or hobby group that meets in your area, take a free class on Coursera, or find a cause you believe in and donate your time.
  • Find New Friends or New Activities. If your main hobby with certain friends is shopping, find a new activity to do with those same friends. Otherwise, find a new friend group, stat. If your current friends refuse to avoid shopping or make fun of you for your problem, you’re better off parting ways. You need a group of people who will support you, and avoid those who enable addiction and allow you to fall back into old habits.
  • Find a New Way to Celebrate. Often, shopaholics use shopping as a way to celebrate. You landed a new job or got a job promotion – time to upgrade your wardrobe, right? Since shopping aimlessly and just for fun is off the table, come up with new ways to celebrate. Instead, take yourself out for coffee, see a movie in the theater, or book a quiet table for two at your favorite restaurant.

Keep Spending Under Control

You don’t have to be a full-fledged shopaholic for debt and excessive spending to negatively affect your life – no matter who you are, don’t ignore spending problems. These tips can help anyone maintain control over finances:

  • Limit Credit Card Use. Stick to using cash (consider using the envelope budgeting system), or use a credit card only when you have enough money to pay it off entirely at the end of the month.
  • Rethink Your Purchases. If your monthly spending exceeds your monthly earnings, reevaluate your purchases. Do you purchase expensive stuff because you think it is better quality or because you think you deserve it? Try to purchase lower-priced items and see if you can tell the difference. Sometimes, pricier items are better – but often, you’re just paying for the brand name.
  • Give Yourself a Cool-Down Period. When you see something you love but don’t need, don’t immediately purchase it. Instead, put it on a list and wait anywhere from 24 hours to a month (depending on your personal budget restrictions) to “cool down” before making the purchase. Often, within 24 hours, the urge to buy that item will have faded.
  • Take Stock of What You Have. During that cool-down period – or whenever you feel an itch to shop – review what you already own. Odds are, you already own everything you need and are just looking for something fresh (and unnecessary) to mix up your current wardrobe.
Keep Spending Under Control

Final Word

Shopping can be pleasant for some, but if it’s consuming your every waking hour or negatively affecting your relationships and bank balance, you need help. Admitting you have a problem is just the first step. Figuring out how to cope with your shopping addiction and learning ways to control it can help you get your life – and financial health – back on track.

What additional tips can you suggest to deal with shopping addiction?

Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.