Compulsive Buying Disorder: When Shopping Addiction Becomes a Problem

Whether it’s the latest gadget, a chic new piece of clothing, or even food, we’ve all felt the urge to splurge now and again. This comes as little surprise because we are constantly bombarded with online, print, and media ads that reinforce shopping mentality. Indulging in occasional spending isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it done in moderation and doesn’t disrupt family finances.

If your urge to shop becomes uncontrollable and if you are constantly spending beyond your means on things that you don’t need, a shopping addiction can be just as damaging as gambling or alcoholism. Fortunately, there are ways to break free from shopping addiction. If you have tried to quit spending with little or no luck, you may need the help of friends, family, or a supportive treatment program to kick the compulsion to shop.
 

What Is Shopping Addiction?

“Compulsive buying disorder” is the proposed diagnosis for shopping addiction. It’s a worldwide problem, and approximately 5.8% of the U.S. population will experience some type of compulsive buying disorder during their lives.1
 
Many people who suffer from shopping addiction also experience a co-occurring mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. Some people engage in addictive shopping to boost their self-esteem. While the term “shopaholic” is often used in jest, it is a serious condition as people who shop compulsively generally spend well beyond their means.

Shopping addiction is a process addiction. Process addictions are addictions to things other than physically addictive drugs or alcohol.

 

The Cycle of Shopping Addiction

People who struggle with compulsive shopping may experience ups and downs in their addiction. The urge to shop is usually strongest during moments of depression, sadness, or anger. Shopping addiction has also been associated with holidays that reinforce compulsive shopping, i.e. holiday shopping in December.

People who struggle with a shopping problem initially feel a “high” or “rush” from the act of shopping. However, any positive feelings they get from gratifying their compulsion are fleeting.

Many people feel deep regret, shame, or embarrassment in the aftermath of a shopping spree, which ultimately leads to more feelings of distress and more shopping.

Some people contain their shopping problem to online shopping. Sprees on sites like Amazon.com can also play into problem shopping patterns, and are often just as devastating as in-person shopping. The ability to quietly and quickly buy more through online merchants can lead to shopping sprees in the middle of the night, during work breaks, or from the comfort of the living room sofa. These sprees are often extremely financially devastating and can be hard to control.

Compulsive shopping often follows a distinct pattern:
 

  1. Anticipation. This includes ruminating on possible shopping trips or items
  2. Preparation for shopping. This may include making lists, compulsively looking online, researching items, or talking about shopping.
  3. Shopping. The act of shopping can take place in person or online. This includes adding items to online shopping carts or physically picking items up in the store.
  4. Spending. Spending is the final act when a financial transaction is made and the items are given to the shopper.1

Signs of Shopping Addiction

People who shop compulsively experience shopping differently from people who do not have this problem.

Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • The act of shopping causes feelings of euphoria, or a “high.”
  • The urge to buy is overwhelming, and must be gratified instantly.
  • Items bought during shopping sprees are often unnecessary.
  • Shopaholics often go shopping with the intention to buy only a few items and end up buying much more than they intended.
  • Purchased items may be hidden from family and friends out of guilt.
  • Shopaholics are often in debt, have maxed out credit cards and are in generally bad financial straits due to spending beyond their means.

 
If any of these signs apply to you, then you might have a shopping addiction. Acknowledging the problem is the first step toward resolving it. However, breaking free of shopping addiction may require the help of others.

Your compulsion to shop may be a way you cope with issues such emotional problems or may even stem from mental health issues. Help from a supportive team is key. Addictions and compulsions often mask other problems. Qualified help may be necessary to resolve other issues that are clustered with the problem shopping. A full recovery will be difficult without treatment and support.
 

Problems Associated with Compulsive Shopping

People with shopping addiction often spend beyond their means. Although it may appear less harmful than other forms of addiction, such as drug or alcohol abuse, shopping addiction can and does create serious problems. Financial problems are the most obvious problems associated with compulsive shopping.

Without anything to stop the issue, people with this issue often spend until they absolutely can no longer buy new things. This may mean they have run out of money, maxed out their credit cards, and are unable to borrow funds to continue to feed the addiction. Shopping addiction may cause financial and even legal problems if those who suffer are unable to fulfill their other financial obligations because of their addiction.

People with compulsive shopping disorder may resort to borrowing money from family and friends in order to fuel their addiction. Relationships with loved ones may grow strained over time because people with shopping addiction have a tendency to continually borrow even if they lack the capacity to pay back their debt.

The shame and desire to hide spending often strains marriages and relationships. This can lead to strained or broken relationships because even patient and loving partners eventually become unable to cope with the consequences of the addiction.

In some cases, compulsive shopping impacts the person’s credit score, which may prevent him or her from buying a home or a reliable vehicle. In some cases, low credit scores may impact the ability to be hired for a job. Severe cases of shopping addiction may also lower a person’s ability to work, and online shopping during work hours may lead to job termination.

Left unresolved, compulsive shopping can become just as problematic and self-destructive as almost any other form of addiction.
 

How to Recover from Shopping Addiction

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to manage your shopping addiction.
 
  • Destroy all credit cards and delete all digitally-stored credit card numbers. Instead, pay for needed items in cash or debit card. For big-ticket items, you can elect to pay by hand-written check.
  • Tell your loved ones about your problem and ask them to help you in your recovery.
  • Write a shopping list AND stick to it.
  • Avoid things like online stores or TV shopping channels. Ask a loved one to block these sites and channels on your computer, phone, and television, and then secure the password to unlock these items.
  • Whenever you feel the urge to shop, acknowledge it, and then do something constructive such as exercise, or take up a hobby that does not require you to spend.
  • Consider ways to make it more difficult for you to spend money impulsively, such as making your money harder to access.
  • Most importantly, seek treatment. Shopping addiction is a serious and complex problem. Once your brain has become accustomed to the high and instant gratification of compulsive shopping, you will need support to make lasting change. Support groups are waiting to help, and licensed mental health counselors can help make change easier with coaching and evidence-based plans.

True shopping addiction requires treatment if you want to make a full recovery. You will also need the help of friends and family to prevent yourself from sliding back into compulsive shopping after treatment or a counseling program.

Counseling and rehab can help you uncover and treat the real causes behind your shopping and problem spending. For example, if you generally shop as a means of dealing with stress, then you will want to treat the underlying emotional causes and build new skills to replace the shopping habit.

You may want to consider temporarily placing your finances under the control of a loved one so that person can help regulate your spending. Recognizing you have a problem shows more inner strength and also makes it easier to heal.

Compulsive shopping is about much more than a “bad habit”. Shopping addiction is a legitimate process addiction and it can be very devastating to relationships, finances, and well-being. You may want to begin by making it more difficult to spend, but challenging your own spending is only the beginning. Supportive groups, counseling, and the help and input from an experienced financial advisor are all important steps to get you back on track.

Intervention for Shopping Addiction

Two Women Sitting In Living Room TalkingAn intervention as a carefully planned process that involves the family, friends, and sometimes even colleagues of an addicted person. Although intervention styles may vary, they generally involve gathering loved ones and friends to confront the person who suffers from addiction, while getting them to accept treatment for their condition.

Successful interventions include offering a plan of treatment, along with its phases, objectives, and parameters. A follow-up treatment plan (that begins after treatment) is also necessary to ensure that the addicted person has a greater chance of recovery. Recovery from a shopping addiction requires ongoing support and encouragement from all family members.
 

Treatment for Shopping Addiction

Like other forms of addiction, compulsive shopping disorder is a disease. Further, people with shopping addiction may suffer from mental health concerns or other forms of addiction, such as alcohol use or compulsive gambling.

Uncovering the root of the problem will help lower the risk that it will return later in life. Counseling and a supportive group of people who have been there themselves and truly understand can make all the difference in the world.


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Sources

1 Black, D. A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder. World Psychiatry 6.1. 2007.

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