Maxed Out

Maxed Out

When shopping becomes an addiction

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about shopping? Do you hide purchases from loved ones? Compulsively buy and then return items you never use? Do you continue to accumulate consumer debt from your shopping habits?

If so, you may have a shopping addiction.

About 20 million Americans have a shopping addiction, according to American Addiction Centers. That number includes a 70-year-old husband and father of three in Chicago. He tells about patterns of depriving himself of things, getting frustrated, and then buying “anything I [could] lay my hands on,” says C.E., who did not want to share his full name.

The behavior led to a mountain of unsecured credit card debt (he maxed out more than 10 credit cards), a divorce, higher student loan debt for his children, and the inability to qualify for an apartment or jobs that involved credit checks. At his lowest, C.E. pawned a bicycle to pay for food.

The consequences can affect many aspects of a person’s life. Yet, shopping addiction is not categorized in the DSM-5Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – fifth edition, which the American Psychiatric Association uses as a diagnosis guide. However, aspects of shopping addiction, referred to as “unrestrained buying sprees” or “spending sprees”, do appear as a symptom of at least two diagnoses: bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.

What causes shopping addiction?

An executive and artist who once worked in finance, C.E.’s money issues started in childhood. His mom was averse to spending, while his dad spent lavishly. The two fought about it constantly. Yet, they always provided for C.E. financially. On his own at college, he wasn’t prepared to handle his finances. He vividly recalls getting his first credit card at 18, knowing the credit limit and running it up within a month. He says he made purchases based on status and a desire to feel important — motivations that carried into adulthood.

Shopping addiction, like gambling, is categorized as a process addiction because it doesn’t involve substances. Still, it shares many traits with substance use addiction, according to Sara Rose Danesi, Psy.D, who practices in Elk Grove Village.

Danesi manages the blog Life Beyond Shopping. She looks for these signs of shopping addiction in patients:

  • Abstinence issues: They cannot stop shopping for a sustained period of time.
  • Behavioral control impairment: They cannot control their shopping behavior.
  • Craving: They hunger for the reward experience that shopping provides to them.
  • Diminished insight: They don’t realize the impact their behavior has on others or the problems it causes.
  • Emotional responses: They respond ineffectively to emotions such as irritability, frustration, anger, or anxiety by shopping.

People with shopping addiction shop to regulate emotions they’d rather not feel, Danesi says. “Someone might try to boost their self-esteem or sense of self-worth through material possessions. Maybe it’s a bad day, and the default is a trip to the mall for a little pick-me-up.”

But the relief they find from shopping is only temporary, Danesi says, so it becomes this continuous loop of trying to escape that emotion. For example, when they realize shopping has created a problem, they might shut down in shame, not learning from it and perpetuating the cycle. If a loved one expresses concern about their out-of-control spending and they react with anger or defensiveness, it’s another ineffective response that blocks learning and healing.

And people don’t always spend on themselves, Danesi says. Sometimes they compulsively purchase gifts for others to ease fears of losing them.

Online shopping makes the addiction easier than ever, bringing the mall to you. “You don’t have to get dressed, drive to the mall, find parking, [and] deal with crowds,” Danesi says.

Danesi, 37, understands shopping addiction firsthand: She has one. About three years ago, she read the book Bright Line Eating by Susan Peirce Thompson, PhD, to help treat patients with food addictions, but through it she had an epiphany. Danesi recognized a lot of herself in the book, only her addiction was shopping, not food. She developed a treatment plan for herself based on Thompson’s methods in the book, and has expanded that plan to help others.

Shopping addiction treatment

During her childhood, Danesi remembers going without the brand name clothes and accessories she desired in order to fit in. Once old enough, she began compulsively shopping to compensate for those feelings. She would then return her purchases to undo the monetary damage.

Shopping was interfering with Danesi’s efforts to gain Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE) — a popular movement she and her husband now follow. She needed more discipline.

So, Danesi developed a treatment plan for managing shopping addiction:

  • Keep a log of what you’re buying and how much you’re spending. This creates greater awareness and accountability to yourself.
  • Pay attention to what you were thinking, feeling, and doing before you shopped. Look for patterns: Did you feel overburdened by others’ needs and seek an escape? Were you rewarding yourself for something?
  • If shopping is part of your routine, especially if you default to online shopping at the end of the day, intentionally pivot to something else, such as reading, exercising, or working on a hobby.
  • Seek out new tools, such as therapy or a support group to help cope with thoughts, feelings, and situations that contribute to over-shopping.

After 30 years of struggling with a shopping addiction, C.E. eventually found his way to Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. When his own strategies for conquering his addiction — working with a credit counselor and earning more money in an effort to pay off his debt — failed, he committed to the Debtors Anonymous program and worked toward becoming debt-free.

C.E. has been a member of Debtors Anonymous for 15 years now — a journey that transformed his negative net worth to a positive one. He credits the organization with teaching him to call his sponsor before and after shopping, a strategy referred to as bookending that lifts the compulsion to shop. He also keeps a journal and takes outreach calls from other members, because, he says, hearing his own advice is a helpful reminder.

With his second wife, who’s also in recovery from shopping addiction, C.E. reviews their finances weekly, creates a spending plan, and tries to stick to it.

“Being unaware of your finances is among the 12 signs of compulsive debting,” C.E. says. His addiction, he adds, will likely always be a struggle. He still attends at least two meetings weekly and mentors other members.

The Debtors Anonymous fellowship stresses that the point is not to live in deprivation.

“The point is to live within your means and to really deal with the underlying issues that cause the behavior,” C.E. says. “The people who tend to do the best and live a really balanced life, regardless of how much income they have, are the people who pay attention to it.”

Danesi encourages her clients to pay attention to their behaviors, too. She asks them to answer these questions before shopping:

  • What: What do you intend to purchase? Be specific.
  • When: How often you will shop?
  • Where: Online or in person?
  • Time: How much time will you spend obtaining the items?
  • Funds: How much do you plan to spend on an item or per shopping period?

Overall, Danesi says, “Take a deep breath, and be compassionate toward yourself. Shame has a way of perpetuating addiction. If you are struggling, you are not alone. Reach out to people you trust, such as family, friends, or a recovery group who can be a support network as you learn new ways to live beyond shopping addiction.”

And next time you have the urge to shop, consider why. The answer might save you more than money.