It started off innocently enough. A pair of shoes here, a handbag there. Not big purchases, by any means. Before she knew it, however, Susan* was out shopping on her lunch break everyday. She’d hit the mall and come out with three of four bags full of clothing, and oftentimes not remember what she’d bought. Shopping made her happy, gave her a “high”, but in order to keep her husband from knowing how much she spent she often kept her purchases at the office and bring them home one at a time. Soon she started circumventing the mail in order to grab her credit card statements so he wouldn’t see how much she’d been spending. Her closets will filled to the brim with clothes she’d never even worn. She knew she was out of control, but didn’t know how to stop.
With shopping often touted as America’s Favorite Pastime, the number of people with problems just like Susan’s is on the rise. Compulsive shopping is a growing epidemic thanks in large part to the easy access to credit cards we have, as well as the wide variety of television shopping channels and e-commerce sites. While there is little research on the problem, many university studies estimate that between 2 and 8 percent of us are afflicted with compulsive shopping disorder, 90% of them women. Many experts argue the number may be much higher.
While many people may laugh at the idea, the consequences, if left unchecked, can be dire. Imagine coming home and finding out your spouse had racked up over $25,000 in credit card debt? That number may seem high, but it’s the average amount of debt carried by a compulsive shopper. Children are neglected, jobs lost, and marriages destroyed by this disorder. Retail Therapy, as many jokingly call it, is no laughing matter.
So how does idly hitting the mall on the weekend differ from compulsive buying? How do you know if you have a problem?
Fortunately, there are a lot of indicators that raise a red flag.
- Heading out to shop when you’re sad, angry, or scared, or shopping to reward yourself
- Feeling a rush, or a “high”, when you shop and spend money
- Thinking about shopping excessively, especially when you’re not doing it
- Feeling ashamed and guilty when you’re done shopping, knowing your purchases put you even deeper in debt
- Lying to your spouse, family members, or friends about your spending
- Buying multiples of an item, such as the same shoes in 5 different colors
- Juggling bills in order to handle spending habits
- Buying items you know you can’t afford
- Having closets filled to the brim with items, many with the price tags still attached
Compulsive shopping can affect anyone, regardless of race or income. But why? What causes so many of us to empty savings accounts and take out dozens of credit cards, just to hit the shops day after day?
The answer is a broad one. Therapists are quick to point out the problem does not lie with income, as so many people think. The root cause is impulse control. No matter how they much make, compulsive shoppers will spend it, overriding the inner voice telling them to stop. From welfare cases to millionaires, compulsive shopping can affect anyone.
Depression also plays a key role. Initial feelings of sadness or low self-esteem are fueled by endless advertisements in our country, all with the same message of “Buy this and you’ll be beautiful, cool, and successful!” Family and friends can also play an influential role. Surrounded by all this, the compulsive shopper goes out and buys, buys, buys, to fill that void. For a while, they feel happy. They have control. But the crash comes quickly once the shopping is over. They know they spent too much, and the void is still there, only now it’s worse. So before they know it they’re out shopping again, feeling that this time they’ll find just the right thing to make their negative feelings or problems disappear. Again, once the shopping is over the crash comes, and so starts the endless cycle of shopping to alleviate the pain of the last crash and day-to-day depression.
So what can be done about compulsive shopping? It’s important to realize that the longer the shopper has been compulsively buying, the harder it will be for them to quit on their own. Getting therapy from a professional or joining a support group will go a long way towards ensuring success.
There are also many ways that shoppers, family and friends can help curb buying habits.
- Pay cash for items, and cut up credit cards.
- Let family members shop for you.
- Get your name taken off mailing lists buy contacting the Direct Marketing Association (www.dmaconsumers.org) and register with their Mail Preference Service. This will drastically cut down on the amount of catalogs and credit card offers you’ll receive.
- Get rid of the items you’ve bought in the past and don’t need. Ask a friend for help, or hire a professional organizer if you have difficulty letting go.
- Don’t go out shopping when you’re feeling depressed.
- Shop late at night, walking in 20 minutes before the store closes to limit your shopping time.
- Shop in smaller stores to limit your options.
- Stay away from your favorite stores.
Spend some time thinking about the money you spent compulsively shopping. Set a savings goal, and keep that in mind when you go out. Remember why you are working so hard to not overspend.
Keep in mind that learning about this disorder is key to understanding the problem. Whether it’s yourself you’re worried about, or a friend or family member, placing blame and judging might only exacerbate the problem. Patience, love, and understanding will go a long way, and support groups such as Spenders Anonymous (www.spenders.org) and Debtors Anonymous (www.debtorsanonymous.org) exist to offer help and guidance.