Charging out of control: How to recognize and battle shopping addiction

By Marianne Curphey

The term "shopaholic" often gets flippantly applied to those who enjoy the occasional shopping spree. But when does spending cross the line into truly addictive behaviour?

Here are some ways that credit cards can fuel shopping addictions -- and some tips for breaking the cycle.

Shopping addiction defined
Shopping addiction, as defined by online addiction support service, Addiction Helper, is an impulse-control disorder that causes an individual to get a "high" or a "buzz" from buying things.

Roughly one-fourth of Britons show addictive shopping behaviours, according to numbers provided by Kensington Financial Management from a recent survey it commissioned to uncover people's spending habits. Yet, if you exhibit several of the following symptoms, your relationship with shopping may be dysfunctional: shopping-addiction

  • You shop to escape the difficulties of life, avoid responsibilities or give yourself a boost, but feel guilty later. In Kensington's survey, about half of shoppers say shopping makes them happy, one-third say it makes them excited and nearly one in five say it makes them feel more confident. Unfortunately, that buzz doesn't last long. Kensington found that 38% of respondents confessed to feeling guilty about shopping

    "Overspending means a lack of control and a momentary release of feelings," says life counsellor Becky Wright of New Leaf Life Design Counselling and Coaching. "It can elevate your mood to a temporary, more positive state.Low self-esteem is a trigger for overspending. People tend to buy things they cannot afford or do not need in an effort to make themselves feel better."
  • You buy things you don't really want or need or can't afford, just for the sake of buying something. The mostexpensive or extravagant purchases survey participants confessed to Kensington included: Jimmy Choo shoes for £800, a wedding dress for £250, fishing tackle for £6,000, a parrot for £1,000, a Rolex for £50,000, a Chloe handbag for £1,000, a collection of crystal Disney figures for£250 and a bottle of perfume for £40. Sixty-seven per cent admitted to buying items they've never worn or used.
  • You are secretive about your shopping, hiding your debts and purchases from those close to you. Half of those surveyed by Kensington admitted to this.
  • A single purchase leads to many unplanned purchases in the same shopping trip.

Plastic, online shopping help addiction take hold
Being a "shopaholic" is now easier than ever, thanks to the availability of credit and online shopping. The problem with using debit or credit cards to fund purchases is that your spending may not feel "real."

"For many years psychologists have known about what is called the 'pain of payment,' by which consumers are less likely to impulse buy when using cash rather than plastic," says Dr. Jane McCartney, a psychologist and behavioural expert.

Although not all cardholders are shopping addicts, by numbing the pain that comes from paying with cash, credit cards can help feed a shopping addiction that's already taken root. So it may come as no surprise that shopping addicts often have several credit cards they use to juggle their debts.

 "We find that people often have three or four credit cards on which they owe money, plus they might also have a number of additional debts," says Paul Crayston, spokesman for National Debtline. "These might be a car loan, personal loan, payday loan and overdraft, which is why their debt becomes increasingly hard to manage and to service."

Although shopping addiction can afflict those from all walks of life, the expenses related to debt and late payments can make it particularly crippling for those with low incomes.

"People who have a large income may not struggle as a result of overspending, but for most people it is very difficult to feed a shopping addiction," Crayston says.

Then, once those debts spiral out of control, shopping addicts might find themselves dumped by the vehicle that feed their addiction in the first place. Credit card companies in recent years have been tightening up their rules on who they will lend to -- and those who fall behind on their payments or spend up to their credit limits are not attractive candidates for the additional credit needed to sustain a shopping addiction. And that could leave shopaholics using more predatory and expensive forms of lending (like payday loans).

Beating your shopping addiction
Seeking help might not happen until the weight of the debt becomes too much -- and the shopping addict hits rock bottom. That often happens after a life-changing event (such as a sudden loss of income, an illness or the breakdown of a relationship), according to Crayston.

When you do start to pick up the pieces, "Our advice is to be realistic about what you can afford to spend," Crayston says.

Crayston recommends doing a thorough budget breakdown of everything that comes into your household and all the outgoings, and then working out what surplus you have left.

"This will give you a clear idea of what you can and can't spend," he says.

If you are still struggling to cope, ask for advice from a non-profit debt counselling service, such as National Debtline, that offers free help to anyone who needs it.

While it is important to look at the money side of overspending, Wright adds that becoming a shopaholic can be a warning sign that something else in your life needs fixing. If you look at your pattern of spending -- where, when and why -- you can often find the underlying problem, whether it's low self-esteem, job-related stress or family problems. A professional counsellor can help you explore those issues and can offer a space to explore the guilt and shame often associated with overspending, Wright says.

In addition to seeking out counselling, Wright offers these tips for overcoming a shopping addiction.

  • Plan for the future instead of living for today. Having a goal or a vision for your money (a vacation, for example, or early retirement) might keep you from squandering it on material things.
  • Change your relationship to money so it's seen more as an aspect of yourself, the way you may like to represent yourself in the world. You might, for example, consider putting your money toward a charitable cause.

See related: How to track your spending without going mad, Debt payoff strategy: Selling your stuff


Published: 4 October 2012