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Compulsive Spending / Shopping

Many people search for just the right item to purchase, whether it is a new shirt or a new car, in order to ease distress. They may not know just what need they are trying to fill, only that the compulsion to do so is strong. Compulsive buying is common in our materialistic culture, and the behavior can be as difficult to stop as any other compulsion or addiction.

Common Symptoms and Related Conditions

The main symptom associated with compulsive spending is an overwhelming and irresistible urge to buy that persists despite subsequent adverse consequences. Like disordered eating and other compulsions, the impulse to buy stems from an emotional need, though the need is rarely filled by the act. Buying provides temporary relief, but most people feel a sense of remorse or disappointment once the purchase is made.

 

Compulsive buying is frequently associated with one or more of the following conditions and experiences:

A 2004 survey of U.S. adults showed an estimated prevalence of 5.8% among U.S. adults, and some studies show higher rates among online shoppers, perhaps because of the ease, accessibility, and anonymity associated with shopping online. People who make purchases compulsively may have difficulty making decisions and frequently spend far more time shopping than they intend. Negative repercussions resulting from compulsive spending include financial difficulties that may amount to overwhelming debt, personal distress, and social and relationship conflict.

What Causes Someone to Spend Compulsively?

Man enters credit card information on his laptop.In a culture that condones and even encourages materialism, many people believe, subconsciously or not, that buying the right car, the latest electronic gadget, or an item of clothing is the key to attaining happiness and success. They may make purchases in anticipation of greater social acceptance, or to boost their self-image, self-esteem, or sense of self-worth. Shopping purely for immediate personal gratification has been glorified and deemed “retail therapy,” and overspending is fairly easy to do in a world that provides easy access to credit. Although compulsive spending may have its roots in these cultural influences, the behavior is typically linked to more complex issues.

 

Compulsive buying is often used as an emotion-regulation strategy so that a person can avoid or alleviate negative feelings and enhance or prolong positive emotions, at least temporarily. The cycle of compulsive spending moves from apprehension or anxiety to a temporary feeling of euphoria during the search for and acquisition of an item, and the cycle typically culminates in guilt or remorse.

 

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The true psychological source of a person’s compulsive spending tendencies is difficult to pinpoint. The behavior itself is not a diagnosable mental health condition, but it has been linked to many other psychological conditions, from low self-esteem to addiction. Some researchers identify compulsive buying as an obsessive-compulsive tendency, and others see it as an impulse control problem, due to the short-term gratification and dismissal of long-term consequences associated with the behavior. Compulsive hoarding is particularly closely linked to compulsive spending in several ways, including the meaning and value that is placed on inanimate objects, the need to possess certain items, and the fear associated with losing an opportunity to acquire an item. Compulsive spending has also been linked to depression, although it is just as likely that the psychological distress resulting from overspending could lead to depression as it is that depression could lead to compulsive spending. 

Therapy for Compulsive Buying

Working with a therapist can help people gain greater emotional awareness and healthy emotion regulation strategies. The underlying need being served by overspending will be uncovered during therapy, and this will help clients identify the self-protective nature of their behavior, while acknowledging its negative consequences. Therapy also helps to identify healthy alternatives to the problematic behavior. According to therapist Angela R. Wurtzel, MA, MFT, “It is essential to validate both the destructive and the useful sides of compulsive shopping to help a person discover how the behavior serves the self. Ultimately, the goal is to incorporate more adaptive skills over time that lead to a more balanced and less self-destructive lifestyle.”

 

Despairing woman sprawled in a chair surrounded by shopping bags

There are many forms of therapy that are likely to help people address compulsive spending tendencies, though there is not any one technique designed for this purpose. The use of mindfulness techniques in therapy has demonstrated efficacy in helping people achieve control over their impulsive reactions and habits and acceptance of their emotions and moods. Positive outcomes have also been recorded in the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy, particularly when used in a group setting.

 

As a supplement to psychotherapy, people who buy compulsively may benefit from financial counseling, 12-step programs like Debtors Anonymous, self-help guides, and support groups. Relationship counseling can help couples who are impacted by the overspending of one or both partners. In-patient addiction recovery centers are also available to serve more severe cases of compulsive spending.   

Case Example 

Trinden, age 22, attends therapy at the pressure of his older sister, who offers to pay for his therapy. She and other family members have expressed concern with his excessive online purchases. Trinden spends between $200 and $800 on the Internet each week to expand his collection of movie memorabilia, and he has over $32,000 of credit card debt that he cannot afford to repay. It takes many sessions of therapy and an intervention meeting with family members before Trinden is ready to consider changing his spending habits. After Trinden is able to acknowledge the spending problem, he and the therapist brainstorm and implement behavior modification strategies to help Trinden control his compulsive shopping.

Resources Related to Compulsive Spending / Shopping

References:

  1. Black, Donald. (2007, February). A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder. World Psychiatry, 6(1). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1805733/
  2. Koran, L. M., Faber, R. J., Aboujaoude, E., Large, M. D., & Serpe, R. T. (2006). Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior in the United States. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(10), 1806-12. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/220500938?accountid=1229
  3. Kyrios, M., Frost, R. O., & Steketee, G. (2004). Cognitions in Compulsive Buying and Acquisition. Cognitive Therapy and Research,28(2), 241-258. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/B:COTR.0000021543.62799.32
  4. Williams, A. D., & Grisham, J. R. (2012). Impulsivity, Emotion Regulation, and Mindful Attentional Focus in Compulsive Buying. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(5), 451-457. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10608-011-9384-9

 

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Last updated: 06-05-2014

     

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