A closet stuffed with new clothes, many with the tags still on. Shopping bags loaded with items you’ve bought but never used. A wallet full of credit cards for every store under the sun. Secret trips to the mall and a growing mountain of debt. If any of the above sounds familiar, you might be a shopaholic.
Roughly 6% of adults in the United States suffer from compulsive buying disorder, better known as a shopping addiction. The stereotypical shopping addict looks like the Isla Fisher character in Confessions of a Shopaholic – a flighty fashion maven who’s mortgaging her future to buy the latest designer clothes. While it’s true that the vast majority of shopping addicts are women, not every compulsive shopper is buying designer dresses and shoes. They might be loading up their carts with toys for their kids, home décor items, kitchen gadgets, and books – whatever it takes to feel the rush they get from buying something new.
What’s behind the urge to splurge? Plain old materialism drives some shopping addicts, but others spend compulsively because they felt deprived in childhood, enjoy the thrill of shopping, are seeking approval, or have a problem with impulse control. Many are extroverts and score high on measure of neuroticism, research has found.
“[S]hopping addiction is related to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and shopping may function as an escape mechanism for, or coping with, unpleasant feelings — although shopping addiction may also lead to such symptoms,” said Cecilie Schou Andreassen, a psychologist who created a scale to measure shopping addiction.
For someone who isn’t a shopping addict, the cure seems obvious: Just stop shopping. But breaking a crippling shopping habit is rarely that simple.
“A shopping addiction is not a disease of intellect; it’s a disease of emotion,” financial planner Robert Pagliarini explained in an article for CBS Moneywatch. “Unfortunately, most family members, along with mental health and financial ‘experts’; make things worse by focusing on the two areas that usually lead to even more shopping: shame and logic. What’s wrong with you?! Don’t you know better? How can you be so self-centered and selfish? Trying to use logic — if you spend too much, you won’t have money to make the car payment — tends to be just as ineffective.”
Shopping addicts can try cutting up their credit cards or freezing them in a block of ice, but that move, while a helpful start, probably isn’t going to get to the heart of the problem. If you suspect you might be a shopaholic, these steps might help you kick the habit for good.
1. Avoid temptation
Most people can’t quit shopping cold turkey – you still need to buy groceries and toilet paper, after all. But if you’re struggling with a shopping addiction, you do want to avoid places where you’re likely to overspend. For some, that means taking a longer route home from work to avoid the mall. For others, it might mean unsubscribing from deal-of-the-day emails and removing shopping apps from your phone.
“Alcoholics don’t hang out in bars,” Lauren Bowling, a recovering shopping addict, wrote on The Financial Diet. “Those with shopping problems shouldn’t hang out in stores or malls, ‘just to kill time,’ or ‘pass an afternoon.’ I may indulge in a little ‘mindless’ shopping every now and again, mostly on vacation, but I rarely go to any store without having thought about what I need to buy first. I go in, I get out, and get on with my life.”
2. Cultivate other hobbies
Shopping addicts may indulge in “retail therapy” to fill a void in their lives. Others have let their spending addiction get so out of control they no longer have time to do the things they once loved, like spending time with family or engaging in other hobbies. Cultivating alternative pastimes or consciously making more room in life for things you used to enjoy means you have another outlet to focus on when you’re tempted to hit the stores.
“While I used to focus a highly disproportionate amount of energy on shopping and clothes, I have now cultivated some other interests, including my growing love for photography and cooking. Instead of running out to the mall to help manage stress, I’m now more likely to grab my camera and go for a walk by the water near where I live,” Debbie Roes wrote on her blog, Recovering Shopaholic.
3. Get help
Shame and guilt often accompany a shopping addiction. Support groups like Debtors Anonymous provide a safe space for you to talk about your struggles with money and shopping. April Benson, an expert in compulsive buying disorder who runs the Stopping Overshopping website, has a virtual 12-week group therapy program for shopping addicts, along with other resources, like a text message program that sends supportive messages to overspenders. Some shopping addicts benefit from one-on-one therapy, especially if their compulsive buying is linked to other mental health issues.
“In order to find a permanent fix, you need to uncover the reason behind your spending,” James Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University and author of Too Much of a Good Thing, told Time.