Every day we see advertising for great deals, new products and services that will improve our lives. While we all give in to these temptations and buy more than we should sometimes, there are some whose shopping goes beyond the occasional impulse buy. Their shopping habits, left unchecked, morph into a shopping addiction.
When shopping becomes an addiction, the buyer can’t resist the temptation to shop and shops compulsively. Labeling someone as a shopaholic may be done in jest, but for more than 16 million Americans, a compulsive buying disorder wreaks havoc on their finances and relationships. It’s essential to recognize the signs of a shopping addiction and find the help available to recover.
What Is a Shopping Addiction?
With TV shows and movies making light of “shopaholics,” it’s essential to know the facts between enjoying shopping and having a shopping addiction.
Oniomania is the medical name for the obsessive or uncontrollable urge to buy things. Psychiatrists refer to it as compulsive buying disorder (CBD), and it’s also known as compulsive spending and pathological buying. While it is not listed as an addiction within the Manual of Mental Disorders, according to researchers, compulsive buying is similar to other behavioral addictions. It has direct and related links to impulse-control or obsessive-compulsive disorders. With these behavioral disorders, there are severe consequences to addictive behavior, similar to gambling addiction.
Unlike consumers who engage in everyday shopping to acquire needed items, compulsive shoppers buy things to feel better. Shopping releases endorphins, which give us a high. Shopping addicts are continually looking for this high. Researchers have found lower levels of self-esteem among shopping addicts, and they report that compulsive buyers have an “irrational belief such as ‘buying a product will make life better’ and ‘shopping for this item will enhance my self-image.’”
What Are the Signs of a Shopping Addiction?
While many of us enjoy shopping, the experience is much more intense for compulsive buyers. They are unable to pass up a “good deal.” Many of the items purchased are never used and are instead collected as memories of a shopping “high.”
Many compulsive shoppers have severe anxiety and can only find relief with a purchase. This compulsive buying avoids the underlying causes of the anxiety, and the relief is temporary. Over time, shopping takes up a significant part of their time as they search for comfort in the shopping experience with higher frequency. This habit can rack up debt quickly as compulsive buyers look for ways to hide their shopping habits.
Other compulsive shopping symptoms include:
- Spending more money than you can afford.
- Using one credit card to pay another.
- Shopping when angry, stressed or depressed.
- Unable to follow limits or lists when shopping.
- Living on the edge of financial stability (barely paying rent or utilities, etc.).
- Writing checks without the necessary funds.
- Hiding purchases from friends and family.
- Feelings of guilt a day after impulse purchases.
What are the Effects of a Shopping Addiction?
A shopping addiction is likely to impact your financial stability. We all must adhere to a budget and live within our means. However, many compulsive buyers are unclear about their financial situation and will continue to shop without thinking of the consequences.
The average American household carries more than $8,000 in credit card debt. For compulsive buyers, this debt can increase exponentially. As the bills pile up, the added stress of falling behind can lead to increased anxiety and depression.
In a search to pay off bills and expenses, compulsive buyers may “borrow” money from friends and family. However, if the cycle of compulsive buying is not stopped, these loans may never be paid off. In extreme cases, borrowing from friends and families turns to stealing. These negative behaviors are detrimental to our relationships with those we love.
Holding debt will weigh on your mind and eventually impact your health. The stress that comes with new bills or calls from a collection agency can wear down your body, both physically and mentally. It’s then harder for your body to fight off illness and takes longer to recover.
The Cycle of Compulsive Shopping
The goal for stopping compulsive buying is to stop the cycle. For many shopping addicts, the experience is a roller coast of highs and lows that then repeats itself. Once in this cycle, it’s hard to stop.
Compulsive Spending: Online vs. In-Person Shopping
With the advent of technology and online shopping, there were concerns about an increase in compulsive spending. However, studies have not shown a clear correlation between the two so far. The percentage of Americans with a compulsive buying disorder remains around 8%.
Researchers found some compulsive buyers prefer online shopping. They still get the “buyers high” while finding added enjoyment online because it allows for:
- Avoiding social interaction: Buying online allows someone to buy anonymously with fewer people to witness their purchase. This lessens the guilt a compulsive buyer feels later.
- Buying availability: Online shopping provides greater product variety and options, giving shopping addicts a greater sense of accomplishment when they purchase.
Recognizing a Compulsive Spending and Shopping Addiction
It’s important to recognize a shopping addiction early to prevent the severity of the consequences. Seeking treatment early for a shopping addiction enables those affected to address underlying emotional distress and create new opportunities for healing. If you are struggling to resist the impulse to buy or spend money to get a sense of pleasure or gratification, it’s essential to seek expert advice.
Is Your Spending a Problem? Take the Quiz
If you think your spending could be a problem, here are questions to ask yourself to determine if you might have a spending addiction.
For each “Yes” answer, give yourself one point.
- Do you shop when you feel angry or disappointed?
- Has overspending created financial problems in your life?
- Do you have conflicts with loved ones about your need to shop?
- While shopping, do you feel euphoric rushes or anxiety?
- After shopping, do you feel like you did something wild or dangerous?
- Do you feel guilty or embarrassed about your purchases?
- Do you frequently buy things that you never use or wear?
- Do you think about money a lot of the time?
- Have you lied about your finances to friends, family or creditors?
- Do you hide your purchases and bills from friends or family?
- Do you think about shopping while you’re doing something else?
- Do you frequently borrow money from friends and family without repayment?
- While shopping, do you tend to buy more items or spend more money than you planned on?
- Have you vowed to shop less but failed to do so?
- Have you shopped in order to forget about a personal problem?
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about or planning shopping trips?
Proceed to Purchase (0–3 points)
While you like your bargains, you probably know when to stop shopping. Work on limiting your impulse buys, but you’re at a low risk of being labeled a shopaholic.
Budget Buster (4–7 points)
You may have busted your budget one too many times, or maybe you’re not following a budget at all. Time to make a budget and then stick to it. You may shop without planning your purchases, but you probably don’t have a spending addiction.
Credit Card Chop (8–11 points)
Living on credit is tough and will eventually catch up to you. It might be time to cut up the credit cards, stop your spending cycle and reduce your debt. Take steps to start paying off that debt. Consider talking to a qualified mental health professional about your shopping habits.
Seek Spending Help (12–plus points)
It’s time to ask for help. Your shopping habit is taking a toll on your life, but there is support available. With help, you can stop your spending addiction and improve your financial well-being. Start with your doctor to find a counselor to help you address your buying habits and the emotions associated with spending.
Note: This is not a scientific quiz and should not replace medical advice. If you are concerned about your shopping and spending habits, please seek help from a certified mental health care professional.
How Is a Spending Addiction Related to Other Addictions and Compulsive Behaviors?
Compulsive buying disorder is considered a behavioral addiction, and researchers have found several links between behavioral addictions and substance use. They show similar behavior, including repeating actions despite adverse consequences and the sense of craving before engaging in the behavior.
Like most addictions, there is a link between compulsive buying and mental health. Studies found 70% of patients reported experiencing depression before they became compulsive buyers. There are similar figures for reported anxiety. These mental health concerns lead people to look for pleasure, and many find that relief in addictive behaviors like gambling, substance use or shopping. Therefore anxiety, depression and shopping addiction go hand in hand.
Compulsive buying also has similar characteristics to impulse-control disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Key traits of impulse-control disorders include:
- The conscious desire to resist an impulse but the failure to do so.
- Heightened arousal before the “forbidden” act.
- Gratification after completing the impulsive act.
This is similar to compulsive shoppers who feel a rush before shopping and then intense joy when buying.
Because of the similarities between compulsive spending and other addictive habits, it’s important to recognize a shopping addiction as a serious health concern and to ask for help to recover.
What Help Is Available for a Spending Addiction?
Beating a spending addiction will likely require help from a medical professional or support group. There are multiple ways to approach addiction recovery, depending on your needs and resources.
- Support Groups. Finding those who have also struggled with addiction could make a significant difference in your recovery. There are support groups that meet locally, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, where those battling addiction and in recovery meet to share support and their stories on what works for them.
- Individual Therapy. Counseling services are available for all varieties of addiction and mental health disorders. One-on-one services offer personalized treatment to help you get on the right track.
- Treatment Centers. Like many addictions, there are treatment centers available to break your spending habits in a controlled environment. These centers treat behavioral addictions with inpatient rehab and outpatient counseling.
Where Can You Find Help and Treatment Options?
With several options of treatment available, picking the right one for you may depend on your resources and if you have health insurance.
Most insurance companies cover some counseling and therapy services. This is a great place to start your search for help. Call the number on your insurance card and ask for an in-network mental health professional. A therapist, psychologist or other recommended mental health professional can treat your addiction with in-person visits and recommend additional resources.
If you do not have insurance, there are still opportunities to get help. Debtors Anonymous is similar to AA and follows a 12-step program. It can help you find a local support group and will provide you with guidance and hope for recovery.
You can also reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA). This government agency offers a helpline for information on local treatment and community-based organizations to help you overcome your shopping habit.
Advice From an Expert on Beating a Spending Addiction
If you believe you have a spending addiction, it’s important to get personalized help. We reached out to Terrence Shulman, the founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding.
About the Expert: Terrence Shulman is a Metro-Detroit area addictions therapist and founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding. He counsels clients in-person and remotely. He authored the book “Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending.”
Q: What are the signs of a compulsive buying disorder?
A: I like to compare it to compulsive eating in that we need to eat to live, and we need to spend and manage money. Most people overeat and overshop on occasion, but when it becomes more chronic, progressive and out of control, that's when it becomes a problem and, often, an addiction.
There are many signs of trouble and some of the more common ones include:
- Having debt with the inability to get out of debt
- Getting out of debt but getting back into debt
- Relationship problems (arguments, lying about one’s shopping or hiding it)
- Lost time, energy and focus
- Using shopping/spending as a primary stress/life coping strategy, which just leads to more problems
Q: Are people battling compulsive buying disorder more likely to have other mental health disorders? If so, which disorders tend to coincide with CBD?
A: Some research is being conducted, and more needs to be done, but yes, I believe this is true. Most of my clients are what we call “dual diagnosis,” meaning they have an addictive-compulsive disorder (such as compulsive stealing, buying, hoarding or other addictions) and either depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD or OCD. These are some of the more common diagnoses with CBD.
Q: Are women more likely to suffer from CBD? If so, why?
A: I think we need a bit more research into questions around demographics. I am aware that the 2006 Stanford study on CBD estimated that 6.5% of American women met the criteria for CBD, and 5.5% of American men did as well (about 6% of the U.S. population total). I’d say the numbers are likely close to equal as more people are getting addicted to online shopping (including most men with this problem).
I do think that women, in general, may be more interested in and doing a bit more shopping due to both biological and social influences. The stereotype of most women as “shopaholics” is false, as is the stereotype that most “shopaholics” are women. Some other false stereotypes about “shopaholics” is that:
- They’re just shallow, superficial or materialistic
- They’re selfish and immature
- They’re simply poor money managers
- They should just be able to stop
Q: What should people do if they think they have a compulsive buying disorder?
A: I always suggest to people who think they or their loved ones may have this problem that they get educated about this problem as a real common, insidious and powerful one. Here are some steps to take:
- Read books on this topic
- Work with a therapist who at least specializes in addiction treatment but, preferably, one who specializes in working with this disorder
- Attend support groups (in person, phone or by email) such as Debtors Anonymous or Spenders Anonymous
- Come clean with family and friends and educate them about this disorder
- Get a psychiatric evaluation for medication
Learning to Keep Spending Under Control
For compulsive buyers, the cycle of spending is hard to break. While most recognize they have a problem and try to resist spending, their compulsion wins. Because of the challenges of an addiction, it’s important to ask for help.
There are immediate steps you can take to improve your finances. Make a budget, and spend time learning and understanding your finances. Having a better understanding of money and budgets will help you begin to control your spending and pay off debts.
While so much of society runs on credit cards, many compulsive buyers need to limit their purchases to cash. This direct money transaction prevents spending more than you have.
When you control your spending, you can then begin the process of paying off your debts. As you work to pay off your debts, know your rights and responsibilities to help you navigate the process.
With treatment, you can recover from your shopping addiction and discover new emotional and financial stability.
There are numerous resources available to help you begin your compulsive shopping recovery. It’s important to stop the cycle of compulsive buying as soon as possible before it destroys relationships or leaves you in bankruptcy.
- ABCD: Compulsive spending is a behavioral disorder and is best treated with therapy. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies can help you find you a local therapist.
- Debtors Anonymous: This support group uses a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. It offers local meetings and resources to offer hope for people whose debt is causing problems in their lives and those around them.
- NFCC The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is a nonprofit organization that offers free credit counseling. They can help create a strategy for reducing your debt and controlling your spending.
- SAMHSA: The Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration offers a hotline for those facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The hotline will provide referrals to local treatment centers and support groups. It can also offer guidance on options if you do not have health insurance.
- ShopaholicNoMore: Dr. April Benson is a psychologist who specializes in compulsive spending. She offers multiple online therapy programs to help stop the cycle of overspending.
- Shopaholics Anonymous: Run by Terry Shulman, this website provides information and resources for those looking for treatment for compulsive theft, spending and hoarding.
- Spenders Anonymous: This community is based on a 12-step program and offers meetings and phone calls for support for all those battling a spending addiction.
About the Author
Danielle Kiser is a freelance writer, storyteller and news junkie. She is passionate about informing and inspiring audiences to improve their lives and their communities. As a former TV news producer, she focuses on sharing relevant and factual stories that stimulate personal growth and knowledge. Danielle lives in Michigan with her husband as well as her sidekick, a greyhound named Oreo.
- Cambridge. "Shopping Addiction." Accessed April 6, 2020.
- Debtors Anonymous. “12 Signs of Compulsive Debting.” Accessed April 6, 2020.
- Dr. Donald Black. “A review of compulsive buying disorder.” Accessed April 5, 2020.
- Frontiers in Psychology. “The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale.” Accessed April 5, 2020.
- NCBI. "Pathological Buying Online as a Specific Form of Internet Addiction." Accessed April 6, 2020.