Recognizing the Signs of a Compulsive Buyer

april-benson-1220125Editor’s note: Dr. April Benson’s continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, The Stopping Overshopping Model: Therapy, Case Illustration, Preliminary Outcome Data, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PST on January 11, 2013. This event is available free with 1.5 CE credits for all GoodTherapy.org members. For details, or to register, please click here.

People come to therapy for all sorts of reasons. Their presenting issues may be depression, anxiety, or relationship struggles. But just as most couples don’t offer sex as a focus area in marriage counseling until they’re asked, spending and money issues are another area often cloaked by shame. The stress caused by this problem is pervasive. The results of being financially out of control—of living beyond one’s means—can and do exacerbate many emotional issues.

Let’s begin with some of the basics.

What Is Shopping Addiction?

A widespread issue with serious negative consequences, shopping addiction is “officially” defined as a maladaptive preoccupation with buying or shopping. It involves impulses or behaviors that are irresistible, invasive, and/or senseless, and typically results in buying more than can be afforded, frequent buying of items that are not needed, or shopping for longer periods than intended.

The buying preoccupations, impulses, or behaviors cause marked distress. They are time-consuming, often significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning, and can result in serious financial problems.

What Is a Compulsive Buyer?

A compulsive buyer is someone who shops and buys so much, or simply thinks about shopping and buying so much, that it drains his or her resources—time, energy, and/or money—and results in a significant impairment in some aspect of life. The problem deflects him or her from spending time, energy, and money in ways that are more truly satisfying.

Definition of a Shopaholic

A “shopaholic” is one who practices chronic, repetitive purchasing that provides immediate short-term gratification but ultimately causes harm to the individual or others.

Three cardinal features of the behavior are: irresistible impulses, the loss of control, and the carrying on of the behavior despite adverse consequences.

Common Signs of a Shopping Addiction

  • Shopping when lonely, anxious, depressed, angry, or disappointed
  • Feeling “high” or euphoric during a shopping episode
  • Feeling anxious, ashamed, or guilty after a shopping episode
  • Shopping or buying binges
  • Shopping for items you don’t need or can’t afford
  • Purchasing items without planning because you simply “must have it” on sight
  • Feeling irritable when unable to purchase an item
  • Failed attempts to curb or stop shopping
  • Spending large amounts of time/money shopping in stores, on the Internet, from catalogs, or on television shopping channels
  • Increased dependence upon credit (i.e., increasing your credit limit or the number of cards you use to shop)
  • Shopping or buying that results in financial or legal dilemmas
  • Shopping or buying that results in damage to your personal relationships and/or job performance
  • Hiding purchases or shopping activities from family or friends
  • Unopened shopping bags in your closet or other storage space

Who Needs Help?

Someone who answers “yes” to most of these questions needs help:

  • Do you use shopping as a quick fix for the blues?
  • Do you spend more than you can afford?
  • Are some of your purchases unused or hidden?
  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed about this behavior?
  • Would your life be richer if you were shopping less?
  • Have your attempts to change been unsuccessful?

Here’s a link to a free self-assessment that includes two valid and reliable compulsive buying instruments and provides information about what your clients’ scores indicate and what kind of help might be best to offer.

What Causes It?

A shopping addiction, like other addictions, usually stems from an individual’s attempt to address issues with which he or she is struggling, or to satisfy an unmet need. Every person with shopping addiction is different, and therefore each individual’s reasons for over-shopping differ as well.

However, here are some of the most common reasons:

  • To self-soothe or improve a negative mood
  • To improve negative feelings about one’s image
  • To project a desired image (for example, wealth or power) or fit into a group
  • In response to trauma (such as a loss) or anxiety
  • To engender feelings of control
  • As a form of revenge or expression of anger
  • To maintain a personal relationship (for example, compulsive gift-giving) or hold onto love
  • To avoid turning to another addictive behavior (such as drinking or smoking)
  • As a response to existential or spiritual concerns, to try to give meaning to life

How Common Are Shopping Addictions?

A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggested that 5.8% of the U.S. population may be compulsive buyers, and that males and females are almost equally likely to have the issue. A 2008 study on the prevalence of over-shopping, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that more than 25 million Americans (8.9% of the nation’s population) demonstrate symptoms of a shopping addiction. Beyond the United States, a growing body of research suggests that shopping addiction is becoming more prevalent worldwide.

Despite the fact this is a growing concern, there are still few therapists in the United States who have specific training in working with over-shoppers, and fewer still who specialize in working with this population.

What Can Be Done?

As with other addictive behaviors, treatments for shopping addiction are numerous and vary in scope. There has, however, been little research to date on the efficacy of most methods; thus, shopping addiction treatment is still very much in a formative stage.

Many elements of our culture, from advertising to society at large, promise us that happiness comes from material, quantifiable possessions. At the core of shopping addiction lies impoverishment—not material, but emotional and spiritual in nature. Treatments for shopping addiction must therefore promote the cultivation of true wealth, of those nonfinancial assets that invigorate and vitalize: self-esteem, family, friendships, a sense of community, health, education, creative pursuits, and communion with nature.

Treatment approaches include:

  • Psychotropic medications: These include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and opioid antagonists. The results of medication studies in ameliorating compulsive buying behavior are equivocal. More research is needed.
  • Group therapy: Empirical studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy and The Stopping Overshopping multimodal group therapy model are effective treatment approaches. Group therapy has many advantages: reducing shame and isolation, supporting each other in the struggle to succeed, and combating denial.
  • Couples therapy: This kind of treatment is indicated when the dynamics of the couple reinforce the compulsive buying cycle and need to be teased out and explored before the compulsive buyer can make significant progress.
  • Individual coaching and counseling: Successful coaching and counseling can help over-shoppers understand what they’re really shopping for, and can help them find life-enhancing rather than life-eroding ways to meet those needs. Creating an action plan, developing skills, and acquiring tools and strategies all specifically designed to help someone stop buying compulsively is the goal of the treatment.
  • Debtors Anonymous (DA): Ideal for people with shopping addiction who are struggling with debt, this approach places emphasis on the spiritual components of surrender and recovery. Individuals work through the steps of the program and formulate a spending plan with a pressure relief team.
  • Simplicity Circles: This is a forum in which shoppers can gather to discuss simplifying their lifestyles and the satisfaction these choices bring. While this approach does not directly address shopping addiction, the supportive, positive environment can address some of the needs that a person with shopping addiction attempts to meet by spending.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • blanca

    blanca

    December 20th, 2012 at 11:08 AM

    How do you feel about someone who shops compulsively but honestly has the resources to support the habist? Should that person seek help or do you think that it’s a non issue since they can afford to pay for what they buy and it causes no financial harm?

  • chasen

    chasen

    December 20th, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    shopping addiction can really take control over the addict’s life.I have a cousin who is addicted to shopping and even when her credit limit is nearing she just cant stop.it helps that her dad is rich enough to pay off all her bills but I serious doubt that can continue forever.

    from what I can deduce,she does it because she is a bit flashy and wants to show off to her friends.but whatever the reason,it is a degrading habit and one that needs to be put an end to.

    also,I was surprised to read that men and women are equally vulnerable to be addicted to shopping.I always thought more women would be shopping addicts.

  • Slater

    Slater

    December 21st, 2012 at 4:07 AM

    I am sure that these addicts can be just as sneaky and deceptive as other addicts
    you better know the truth about them and their habits before assuming that there is no problem there

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    December 21st, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    As you have mentioned, just like not having sex as a focus area or of having addictions like with regard to shopping can leave out an advantage in therapy.So some of these things could be included as a standard template, as a questionnaire that therapy clients could fill up before they see the therapist.It will better equip the therapist to help them,ultimately benefiting the client.Such information could be protected with privacy rights but it should really be taken up,it holds much promise.

  • Michelle h

    Michelle h

    December 22nd, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    Saddly, most addicts are also pretty good liars, so be wary of the storys that they tell.

    Most will say anything to lead you to believe one thing when in real life they are totally prascticing something else.

    I have experience with them, I know them, I have been one. Better just to remember that to get their way most will stop at nothing to get it.

  • Carmen

    Carmen

    December 23rd, 2012 at 12:49 PM

    As I read this, I didn’t want to believe that it was me, but I think that it is. I do all of these things: feel high almost when I find something that at the time I think I have to have. . . hide purchases. . . then have stuff hang in the closet with the tags still on because when it comes right down to it this is not what I was looking for. I think that I do it to fill some kind of void, but I am not really sure that I even understand where this stems from. I have never wanted for anything, I have a great marriage, great kids, but there always seems to be something missing but I am not sure how to fill it up.

  • April Benson

    April Benson

    December 24th, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    I very much agree with what you’ve said. I do think it’s important to remember that all addicts are suffering.

    Regards,
    April Benson

  • April Benson

    April Benson

    December 24th, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    You’re absolutely right that it can really take control over someone’s life. There are many reasons that people do it, one is to put forth an image of wealth and power, which is what you’ve suggested is your cousin’s motivation. But there is probably much more to it than that.

    More women acknowledge having the problem and more women report for the research studies, which is some of the reason that we’ve always thought that there were more female shopping addicts than men. Also, men tend to be called “collectors,” rather than compulsive shoppers, which gives the behavior a highbrow, slightly refined cast.

    Regards,
    April Benson

  • April Benson

    April Benson

    December 24th, 2012 at 8:51 PM

    Michelle,

    I think it’s also important to have compassion, which doesn’t mean that we don’t need to set limits and not enable addicts in any way.

    Warm regards,
    April Benson

  • April Benson

    April Benson

    December 24th, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    Dear Carmen,

    You might begin by reading my book, To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and HOw to Stop. I think it will help you to understand where this stems from. After that, look at my website for a variety of different ways to get help. Effective help is available!

    Warm regards,
    April Benson

  • Charlene Hein

    Charlene Hein

    January 16th, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    Yes i do

  • Con Nie

    Con Nie

    March 27th, 2014 at 9:36 PM

    I think I have a shopping habit, but I have the money, so no financial problem. I buy things that I don’t have a need for at that particular moment. My closest is stuffed with clothes that still have tags on them and I usually give away new items. Some days I feel I have a problem and some days I know I don’t have a problem. So my question is, Is there a balance or midpoint to spending and not spending?

  • April Benson

    April Benson

    March 28th, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    Dear Con,

    The important question to ask yourself is: What other ways is this habit costing me?
    Am I spending too much time and energy on it?
    Am I stressed when I look in my stuffed closet?
    Am I having any interpersonal or emotional problems as a result?
    Any occupation problems?

    You might want to take the self-assessment, which you can download on the homepage of my website and look at Chapter 2 of my book, To Buy or Not to Buy:
    Why We Overshop and How to Stop, which discussed the possible negative consequences or “aftershocks” of overshopping.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Warm regards,
    April Benson

  • Andreas

    Andreas

    July 20th, 2014 at 12:53 PM

    Hello, today I realized I have compulsive buying disorder. It’s ruining my life and marriage. I need help. I also suffer from depression and a psychotic illness, which I take medication for and are largely under control. I live in England in Lancashire. I feel that this disorder isn’t taken seriously and is just a lack of self control and trustfullness. I hope I may gain some insight, advice, help and support, but I don’t know yet. Andreas

  • GoodTherapy.org Support

    GoodTherapy.org Support

    July 20th, 2014 at 6:55 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Andreas. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • April B

    April B

    July 20th, 2014 at 7:19 PM

    Dear Andreas,

    I’m sorry to hear about your compulsive buying disorder. Please know that effective help is available.

    The resources section at shopaholicnomore.com may be useful to you.

    I wish you much success in stopping overshopping.

    Warm regards,
    April

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