Survival strategies for shopaholics at Christmas

By Marianne Curphey

For many, it's easy to pass up December sales and stick to a budget. For those with a spending addiction, however, those glitzy displays could lead to a pile of unintentional debt.

Jane Cox, wealth psychologist and human behavioural specialist, says one of the problems with shopping addiction is that becomes a pattern that is difficult to break.

"It often happens when people look for external gratification because they feel empty in some way -- they hit an emotional low or feel worthless or broke," she says. "Shopping gives them the instant gratification, but then, like drug addiction, the initial high is followed by an even lower low."shopaholic-tips

"If you find that you are spending £50 on yourself while you are in the middle of shopping for presents for others, or you are hiding purchases and not being honest with your partner, then it could be that you have a problem," says Cox. "If you are paying by card and worried that it might be not accepted because it is maxed out ... then it is time to face up to your behaviour."

Another warning that your "Christmas shopping" is turning into something more serious is feeling nauseated, stressed or guilty when you are queuing to pay. When shopping becomes more about guilt than pleasure, it's a sign that you might be turning into a "shopaholic", Cox says.

Wilma Allan, founder of personal finance blog The Money Midwife, says having several unused items or lots of unworn clothing in your wardrobe are further signs of a problem.

"How well do you think through purchases before you buy them? Impulse spending can be the symptom of a deep-seated emotional need," Allan says.

Shopping addicts and the holidays
If you are already depressed or lonely, the winter holidays can intensify those feelings. The extra pressure to be jolly during December can be suffocating, and having to entertain many guests can be overwhelming. If you are already attempting to "buy happiness" when you are sad, lonely or overwhelmed, the extra pressure and the tempting sales in the winter can lead you to overspend even more.

Even if you are not depressed, Allan says that the pressure at Christmas to keep up with other people and to spend huge amounts on presents for family and friends means it can be a great time of temptation. Social spending is dangerous for anyone, but to a spending addict, the holidays can seem like an excuse to go overboard.

Often, Christmas and other December holidays mean seeing friends or family that don't come around very often. You may want entertain your out-of-town relatives every night they are visiting, showing them the sights in your hometown. Whether you're the host or the visitor, though, it's vital to know when to say, "Sorry, I can't afford to go out tonight" or "Let's all split the cheque."

Parents that are separated may feel extra pressure during the holidays as well. "Sometimes one parent feels outdone by the other who lavishes gifts on the children in order to ‘buy' their affection," says Allan. "I am always surprised by the amount parents say they are planning to spend on their children's gifts."

If either parent (or both) is a shopping addict, it can mean extra trouble. Whether you're a shopaholic going overboard on gifts for your children, or the other parent trying to keep up, such competition mixed with addiction can lead to piles of debt that you'll both be paying off for months if not years.

Resisting temptation
Allan says it can difficult to change your behaviour, but if it is getting out of control, you need to face up the problem and seek professional help.

Money advice services such as National Debtline and Stepchange can help get your finances back on track.

Here are some other suggestions on how to resist temptation and curb spending during Christmastime in particular:

  1. Set an overall Christmas spending budget. Be sure you have enough to cover all regular expenses (such as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, etc.), plus all holiday expenses (such as food, travel and gifts). Then make a list of people you would like to purchase gifts for, and determine how much you can afford to spend on each.

  2. If you tend to "swipe now, pay later" and rack up credit card debt, try using only cash for your entire holiday budget in cash. Leaving your cards at home when you go out to shop will prevent you from spending more than you budgeted for.

  3. Do not buy anything for yourself. Try to remember that Christmas and other winter holidays are a time of giving to others, and that you will likely receive many new items from friends and family, so you do not need to spend money on yourself. Try other tactics to please yourself -- perhaps a bubble bath, watching your favourite TV programme or taking a walk. Action on Depression's survival guide to depression at Christmas gives other suggestions as well.

  4. Understand the emotions involved when you feel the need to spend. Keep a spending journal and write down how you're feeling, where you shop and how much you spend. Look for patterns and work to avoid shopping when you are most vulnerable, whether it's when you're bored, stressed, sad or some other emotion.

  5. If entertaining during the holidays adds too much stress (and debt), ask someone else to host events. If the pressure to find "perfect" gifts or "keep up" with others is the root of your problems, try making your gifts personal rather than pricey, even if that means a heartfelt card and cookies rather than an expensive gadget.
See related: Are you a candidate for Debtors Anonymous?, 'Retail therapy' not a myth -- we spend when emotional

Published: 17 December 2014