Conquer the Compulsive Shopping Blues

March 2004
By Sharon Durling
Copyright 2004

Are you a compulsive shopper? If so, here are some tips to help you conquer and overcome this hard-habit-to-break.

Living in a Material World

According to the experts, compulsive spending is a knee-jerk, often subconscious pattern of chronic purchasing that usually manifests itself as a way to deal with feelings of negativity or low self-esteem. While it's caused in part by mental anxiety and stress, rampant over-spending may also be a logical result of our consumer-driven society, where we're constantly fed messages through the media, commercials and other outlets that tell us we need to have the best to be the best.

We equate possessions with what we have, with our self-worth. It's about keeping up with the Joneses, and sometimes doing better than them, says Dr. Eileen Gallo, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and co-founder of The Gallo Institute, an organization that works with individuals, families and financial advisors to examine the psychology of money as it relates to family finance issues.

Dr. April Benson agrees. Our 'more is better' philosophy causes us to shop compulsively, says the New York-based psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorders and author of the book I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self (Jason Aronson, 2000, $55.00). It's the social cure for all ills. Happiness is just the next purchase away.

Many compulsive shoppers seek solace in their credit cards when they're feeling bad about themselves. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Florida found that the average compulsive spender is $23,000 in debt, usually in the form of credit cards or mortgages against their home. Moreover, 1.5 million Americans declared personal bankruptcy within the last year, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, and consumer credit card debt is largely to blame.

Beyond Debt Dependency

So how do you know that you might have a problem? Here are some symptoms:

  • You spend most of your time shopping or thinking about it
  • You run to the store or your computer to buy something whenever you're feeling bad
  • You're in over your head in debt due to your spendthrift ways
  • You work long hours or take on a second job to support your habit or pay off your debt
  • You find yourself arguing with your spouse or others about money and/or your out-of-control spending
  • You constantly obsess about having enough money to pay your bills or purchase additional items
  • You feel anxious, guilty or upset about over-spending
  • You hide your purchases from your spouse, children and others.

Stop the Spending Benders Once and For All

So how do you conquer compulsive spending? One way is to leave your credit cards at home. If you don't have the plastic on hand, you'll be less tempted to splurge. Alternatively, you could pay cash for everything. It's certainly a lot more difficult to stomach paying $500 for that pair of Jimmy Choos when you're forced to fork over cold hard cash.

Dr. James Roberts suggests at least a 24-hour cooling-off period before you buy something. If something's over $100, walk out of the store. If you still want it the next day, you probably really wanted it or needed it so it's okay to go back and get it, says Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who has studied chronic purchasing behavior for several years. Other experts recommend waiting three days before going back to purchase that coveted item.

If all else fails and you simply can't curb your urge to purchase, try buying something small and inexpensive, like a tube of lipstick or a blouse from the clearance rack (just one). Or become a bargain hunter and shop at discount or thrift stores. You just might find a few treasures and manage to save some money in the process.

If you haven't done so already, take our quiz Are You a Compulsive Shopper? The results can help you find out if your shopping habits could be considered excessive.

Answer True or False to find out if you're on the verge of a shopper's meltdown or standing squarely on solid ground.

1. I often return items -- at least one out of every four purchases.

2. I've lied to my spouse, friends, or colleagues about the cost of things.

3. I've had guilt, insomnia, fatigue, or a sense of hopelessness about my spending.

4. I can correlate my overspending with overeating.

5. My closet has over four unworn items with the tags still hanging from them.

6. I'm having trouble making ends meet.

7. I screen my calls so I don't have to talk to creditors.

8. Shopping is my antidote to feeling bored, lonely, angry, or frustrated.

9. When I shop, I can't return home empty-handed.

10. I've made false statements to creditors to get new lines of credit.

11. My shopping habits have interfered with my work.

12. My spending has caused problems in my marriage or my primary relationship.

13. I feel uneasy if I've not shopped in a week.

14. I spend over 30 percent of my income on non-mortgage debt.

15. I have considered illegal or questionable means to raise money to support my shopping habits.

16. I've had issues with eating disorders or sexual, drug, or alcohol addictions.

17. I repeatedly resolve not to spend, only to relapse and binge-shop.

18. I have to drink, drive, or wear status initials, i.e., Dom P, BMW, or DKNY.

Total your True responses. If your score is:

1 - 3: You've an indicator or two that trouble could be brewing around the corner, but you're hip to your issues and in a strong position to keep a check on things. Keep your good habits going!

4 - 6: Congratulations for admitting you're imperfect! However, you're within shouting distance of the slippery slope. Make note of any marked changes in your shopping habits. Cognizance of your behavior is your most effective tool for keeping your spending in check.

7 - 12: Uh oh! You're teetering on the edge of that slippery slope and could tip over with the next sale. Take a good look at the motivations driving your behavior. Know what money will buy for you, and get clear about what it won't. Don't rule out seeking advice from a credit counselor, or a therapist.

13 - 18: Red alert. Okay, well, there's some serious slippage, but now is not the time to berate yourself. Chin up. Deep breath. Got to kick in some action because your previous attempts at control aren't working! Don't lose hope -- thousands have been here before you and recovered from their shopping scourges. Check out Relief is only a meeting away.

Financial expert and veteran shopper Sharon Durling is a national speaker who teaches financial literacy to women from all walks of life -- from the basements of Chicago's housing projects to ladies who lunch in Southern California. Sharon is the author of A Girl and Her Money: How to Have a Great Relationship Without Falling in Love (W Publishing Group, 2003), which offers useful tips to help women find financial freedom through sensible spending and saving techniques. You can purchase Sharon's book at Sharon has shopped her way across Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Europe, and lives in Chicago.