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The Shopaholic Syndrome

When Money Comes In An Emotional Wrapper

Oprah’s TV show once featured Felice, a real-life California mom who spent hundreds of dollars monthly on Starbucks, tanning and manicures, but didn’t have health insurance for her six children. Her family went broke because of her excessive spending. She said that when she shopped, she experienced an adrenaline rush, but got depressed afterward.

Possibly the best-known compulsive spender in pop culture is Rebecca Bloomwood, the protagonist in the movie, Confessions of A Shopaholic. As a child, she was prevented from owning trendy clothes and accessories by her thrifty mom. She envied women who could buy whatever they wanted: “They didn’t even need money; they had ‘magic cards’. I wanted one. Little did I know I would end up with 12.” When asked why she shopped excessively, she replied: “When I shop, the world gets better.” Rebecca likened shopping to the feeling she got when meeting a new guy. “Your heart’s like warm butter sliding down hot toast. That’s what it’s like when I’m in a store. Only better. A man will never love or treat you as well as a store. If a man doesn’t fit, you can’t exchange him for a cashmere sweater. A store can awaken a lust for things you never knew you needed.”

Felice’s and Rebecca’s sentiments are common among people who suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD). Or informally, ‘shopping addiction’.

What is CBD?

Definitions from experts assign the condition into different tags. Lejoyeux and Weinstein say it is “chronic, repetitive spending in response to negative emotions and events (bad days) with symptoms similar to cravings and withdrawal [1].” Soares et al claim it is “a maladaptive preoccupation with purchasing or buying behaviours that result in significant negative social, personal, or financial consequences [2].” The first definition designates it as an impulse control disorder. The second focuses on the consequences of the behaviour.

Clinicians haven’t studied compulsive spending as extensively as other addictions, because it isn’t viewed as serious unless it coexists with other issues like substance abuse or ‘established’ mental health disorders. But to many shopaholics—and their families—it is a serious condition. It’s a universal problem with far-reaching social, financial, and emotional consequences, such as ruined relationships, debt, severe depression and anxiety, and suicide.

According to psychologist and CBD specialist Dr. April Benson, this condition is called the ‘smiled-upon addiction’ because consumption fuels capitalist economies. The credit card industry is the most profitable sector in the banking industry. In 2005, it brought in $30 billion in profit, indirectly contributing to the disorder. In 2008, though, a study reported that 28 million Americans became compulsive shoppers due to many reasons besides credit card debt. Shopping is encouraged in societies that greatly value appearance and material wealth.

The colloquial term for a compulsive spender is ‘shopaholic’. It first appeared in print in 1977, according to Merriam-Webster. It piggybacked on the word alcoholic, created by combining alcohol and -ic, meaning ‘of, or relating to’. The clinical term for shopping addiction is ‘oniomania’. It comes from the Greek onios: ‘for sale’, and mania: ‘insanity’.

Impulsive versus compulsive shopping

Impulse buying is a sudden and powerful urge to buy immediately, brought on when desire for an item overshadows the willpower to resist. Compulsive buying is an uncontrollable urge to buy that, if not acted on, will create tension that can only be resolved by spending spurges. This inwardly motivated psychological disorder is often triggered by negative events or emotions [3]. A compulsive shopper spends to avoid or relieve upsetting feelings.

How does shopping addiction compare with other disorders?

Compulsive shopping, along with other behavioural addictions, was almost included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM 5), but it’s neither listed as an addictive disorder nor a stand-alone impulse control disorder. Some experts suggest that over-shopping is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or a type of bipolar disorder.

Mental health issues that accompany compulsive spending include depressive or anxiety disorders, impulse control disorders, OCD, substance abuse, personality disorders, or binge eating. Conversely, obsessive shopping can be an externalization of mania in bipolar disorder. So for some, it’s a bigger source of guilt and shame compared to alcoholism or drug addiction. But psychotherapy combined with medication (and sometimes, with integrative medicine) has proven effective in treating it.

CBD characteristics

Shopping provides a mood lift equivalent to the ‘high’ sought by people suffering from other types of addiction. Being unable to shop gives rise to emotions similar to withdrawal. Shoppers focus on the act of purchasing, not on using or keeping the items bought. They lose interest in their purchases, and they may dispose of them or hide them. Most shopaholics’ finances are adversely affected.

Demographics

CBD affects an estimated 6% of the US population and 8-16% of UK adults [4]. Research shows that women are nine times more likely to be affected than men… unless electronics and sports equipment are considered. Compulsive spending usually starts in the late teens or early adulthood.

People more prone to impulsive/compulsive behaviour are men, those with a history of addictive behaviour, those with a family history of gambling or alcohol abuse, young people with Parkinson’s, and singles who live alone.

Owen Kelly, in his article, Understanding Compulsive Shopping Disorder, cited a study on compulsive buying that showed “9% were more likely to be young, less-educated females who had used alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. They also had more symptoms of OCD, mental distress, impulsive behaviour, and lower self-esteem. These same compulsive buyers were five times more likely to fit the criteria for borderline personality disorder (BPD) than the rest of the shoppers.”

Types of shopaholics [5]

  • Big spenders—lack self-esteem; need to prove their worth through materialism
  • Compulsive shoppers—prompted by emotional distress
  • Collectors—need to own all categories and varieties of each set
  • Trophy shopaholics—driven by status and perfection
  • Bargain hunters—buy items because they’re on sale, not because they’re necessary
  • Bulimic shoppers—compulsively return items they buy, possibly out of remorse

Are ‘money disorders’ real problems?

Yes, according to financial psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz, author of Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health. Compulsive spending is one of them. He defines money disorders as self-destructive and self-limiting habitual money-related behaviour. He believes they are a result of distorted beliefs about money from ‘financial flashpoint’ experiences. These are “painful, distressing, and/or dramatic life events associated with money so emotionally powerful, they leave a lasting imprint.” Examples are a poverty-ridden childhood or subconscious absorption of parental behaviour toward money.

What drives people to shop compulsively?

Heredity plays an important role. Employment, family, or health stressors may affect the duration and extent of the addiction, though they don’t necessarily initiate the condition.

Shopping addiction is often a symptom of depression and low self-esteem. According to Donald Black from the University of Iowa, nearly two-thirds of all shopaholics struggle with depression or anxiety.

Obstacles to recovery include denial and unclear criteria for what counts as addiction. In some cases, compulsive spending can be related to substance abuse issues. Many shopaholics experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by drug or alcohol addicts. Behavioural psychotherapists can help address underlying causes and concurrent mental health issues (like mood disorders) or substance abuse disorders.

CBD and the brain

Clinicians confirm that shopping addiction is a sign of deeper emotional issues. Klontz says, “When we are emotionally charged, we become rationally challenged. Neuroscience has shown that when our emotions run high, our logical, rational brain shuts down. When it comes back online, we typically rationalize our behaviours. When we are anxious or excited, we can’t trust our instincts.” Thus, when we let our primal brain make our financial decisions, it creates turmoil in our lives.

How do dopamine agonists affect impulse control?

Impulsive and compulsive behaviours are related to dopamine, the brain’s chemical messenger affected in Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine helps control movement, balance and walking, as well as reward and motivation. Dopamine agonists are medications that imitate dopamine to stimulate brain cells.

Some medications for Parkinson’s disease, such as levodopa, have been linked to impulsive/compulsive behavioural patterns. About 17% of Parkinson’s patients who take dopamine agonists experience impulsive/compulsive behaviour. Clinicians haven’t yet determined how medications cause behaviour changes.

How to know if you’re a shopaholic

Do you…

  • buy stuff you don’t need even if you can’t afford it?
  • often go binge-shopping?
  • constantly think about shopping?
  • shop alone or only with others who also shop to excess?
  • spend to make yourself feel better?
  • hawk possessions like jewellery to support your shopping habit?
  • juggle accounts or avoid paying necessary bills in order to buy more?
  • find yourself buying more items to feel the same ‘high’ as you felt in past shopping trips?
  • forego important (or other pleasurable) activities just to shop?
  • spend so much money that it has impacted your daily life?
  • feel depressed, angry, or anxious when unable to shop?
  • feel guilty, stressed out, or mad at yourself after a shopping spree?
  • want to minimize splurges, but can’t stop despite negative consequences?
  • lie to family/husbands/wives/partners about spending or hide purchases from them to avoid conflict?
  • spend most of your online time on shopping sites or offline time accepting direct mail offers?
  • experience work/school/domestic/financial problems because of shopping obsession?

If you answered yes to most of the above, you may have oniomania. But fear not. As with other types of addiction, it can be treated.

Understand what doesn’t work

Convention maintains that financial difficulties arise from a fundamental defect in character—that self-destructive money behaviours result from “being lazy, stupid, greedy, irresponsible, or defective.” Klontz calls this ‘The Big Lie’.

Still, despite the simplicity of the basics of personal finance (save money and live within your means) and the abundance of material on financial literacy, Klontz says most of us are “unable to make the most basic (positive) changes in our financial lives.” Applying this to shopaholics, he claims that for people who “continue to overspend and fail to save money, further financial education is useless.”

Addiction psychologist Dr. Drew Pinsky says that shopping addiction is not a disease of intellect, but one of emotion. He warns family members, spouses, and interventionists of shopping addicts that resorting to shame and logic will make things worse and may even lead to more shopping [6].

Here is an example of berating with shame: “How can you think only of yourself when you have mouths to feed?” Surprisingly, even admonishing with logic doesn’t work: “If you buy that second car, you won’t have enough to cover mortgage payments.”

Interventionists must understand that shopaholics already feel bad about themselves. They’re aware that they can’t afford their habit and they have already told themselves off. Criticism from others causes them to withdraw, which they remedy by shopping more.

Can shopping addiction be cured?

Presently, addiction in any form can’t be 100% cured because it isn’t a purely physiological illness that can be resolved solely with, say, antibiotics or surgery. It can be treated and managed, however, with these options:

  • Psychotherapy, especially behaviour modification, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The approach is non-invasive and non drug-based.
  • Support groups, such as Shopaholics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous. The latter offers face-to-face, phone, internet, and group meetings.
  • Financial counselling
  • Residential or inpatient shopping addiction treatment centres. The objective is to physically isolate the addict from temptation and outside influences in a clinical setting. Topics addressed include aspects and consequences of the addiction, underlying mental health conditions, impairments in relationships, and financial difficulties.
  • Upscale shopping addiction centres. The non-clinical approach gives the feeling of checking into a hotel instead of a hospital. Facilities include recreational activities like golf.
  • Executive programs—for those who need close attention and monitoring but who aren’t suited to traditional programs. Treatment may be done in the patient’s home. Programs may be condensed or reformatted to fit the patient’s schedule and circumstances.
  • Outpatient rehabilitation and treatment programs—offer therapeutic visits, regular sessions, or medication dispensation.
  • Private medical clinics. Some provide telephone coaching.
  • Couples or family therapy. Accountability is an important component, so a plan for managing behaviour is helpful.
  • Complementary therapies, like mindfulness, meditation and yoga.
  • Medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, sedatives and tranquilizers, can help manage withdrawal symptoms, secondary psychological issues, or side effects of other medications.

4 Rs for curbing the shopping impulse

1) Recognize it. What triggers the uncontrollable urge: anger, guilt, boredom? What psychological need does shopping fill: pleasure, euphoria, avoidance of sadness/pain/fear/anxiety? What part of shopping provides this need? Is it the social aspect, the thrill of the bargain search, or the sense of belonging? When this need is identified, it will explain the shopaholic’s lack of control.

2) Resist the impulse. Avoid catalogues, malls, TV/online shopping channels. Record shows to avoid commercials. Turn off online ads. Carry cash only; cut up credit cards.

Joshua Fields Millburn, host of online chatroom Living Room Conversations, suggests, “Buy only the items on your shopping list. Don’t include items you forgot to write.” He imposes the ‘30/30 rule’ on himself. If an item costs more than $30, he gives himself 30 hours to decide whether to buy it or not. “When the cost goes beyond my usual price tag, I pause the impulse to buy. I ask myself, ‘Will my life be better without it?’ That pause allows me to come back to it later (and make a better decision).”

Ryan Nicodemus, Millburn’s co-host, recommends, “Before you complain about money, have a budget first. One reason for impulse spending is to achieve instant gratification. The compulsive buyer believes, ‘I deserve top… whatever.’ But we don’t deserve all things every day. Find other ways to reward yourself without killing your budget.”

3) Relaxation. Wait for the impulse to subside. It will either disappear or become background noise. See our post on mind-body therapies for mindfulness techniques.

4) Resolution. To combat the shopping urge, find a healthier alternative, not a new addiction to replace the old one. What’s important to you? Tell yourself that excessive shopping will negatively affect what you value most, like family. Get support from friends, family, the community, or a professional [7].

Parting words

The basics of financial health are simple. We’re all capable of mastering them. Recognizing financial flash points is the first step to shopping addiction recovery. We can change distorted money beliefs into healthier, more productive ones, and practice healthy financial behaviours, such as maintaining reasonable debt, having an active savings plan, and following a spending strategy.

Money is an emotional issue. Just like addiction to substances and other compulsive behaviours, spending money can be a way to numb out. But as the information and suggested solutions presented here show, it is possible to curb compulsive spending… or at least put CBD sufferers on the right path to getting there. Through therapy, rehabilitation, support, and financial education, any shopaholic can make smarter, more mindful spending decisions that contribute to sustainable happiness and financial wellbeing.

Sources

[1] Lejoyeux, M and Weinstein, A. “Compulsive Buying”. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 248-53. 2010.
[2] Soares, C, Fernandes, N, and Morgado, P. A review of pharmacologic treatment for compulsive buying disorder. CNS Drugs, 30(4), 281-91. 2016.
[3] Faber, Ronald J. “Impulsive and Compulsive Buying”. Wiley Online Library. 2010.
[4] Armstrong, Alison. “How to Cure Shopping Addiction”. The Guardian. 2011. And the American Psychiatric Association.
[5] Shopaholics Anonymous
[6] Pagliarini, Robert. “5 Ways to Beat Your Shopping Addiction”. MoneyWatch. 2012.
[7] The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery offers treatment and counselling for shopping addiction.

Photo credit: Annie Mole. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.