Shopping addiction, once a punch line about the affluent, is no laughing matter. According to research from Stanford University School of Medicine, more than one in 20 American adults—and, surprisingly, that includes nearly as many men as women—suffer from compulsive buying disorder.
Experts see shopping addiction as a growing public health problem affecting people across the economic spectrum, often with ruinous financial consequences. Editors of American Journal of Psychiatry, which published the Stanford “shopaholic” study in its October 2006 issue, called for adding compulsive buying to the profession’s bible, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
“For some people, this is an addiction as serious as alcohol and drug abuse,” notes April Lane Benson, an expert in shopping disorders and editor of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying & The Search For Self. “This long smiled-upon addiction is at last being recognized as a genuine, destructive, and treatable illness.”
- Is shopping a quick fix when you’re lonely, angry, depressed, bored, hurt, anxious, sad, or feeling inadequate?
- Do you spend more than you can afford?
- Are some purchases unused or hidden?
- Do you feel “high” when you go on a buying binge and ashamed afterward?
- Have attempts to change failed?
Compulsive or healthy? Shopping can be an important means of self-definition, self-expression, creativity, and even healing, according to Benson. Done to excess, however, it can compromise your quality of life. How do you know if you are a compulsive buyer? Benson, a psychologist, suggests taking a self-inventory:
Shopping is an issue only if it impairs your life, according to Benson, who has developed a “Stopping Over-shopping” treatment program. But there can be costs to compulsive buying, a condition marked by frequent binge shopping, the stockpiling of unneeded, unwanted items, and, as a result, financial hardship.
Out-of-control credit card debt is the most obvious consequence. Marriages can dissolve over money issues, kids may be neglected, and jobs could be jeopardized. The condition has also been linked to suicide and criminal behavior.
A sex-blind addiction. The least expected finding to emerge from the Stanford study, the first large nationwide effort to gauge the prevalence of compulsive buying, was that nearly as many men as women suffer from the disorder. Contrary to earlier estimates, which held that most victims are female, this research found that shopping compulsion afflicted 6% of the women surveyed and 5.5% of the men.
Yet the lack of a gender gap doesn’t mean men and women are affected the same ways, according to Benson. Women, for example, tend to shop as if it were leisure or recreation, while men shop under the guise of work. “Men shop a lot on the internet,” Benson says, “and they tend to call themselves collectors; it gives the activity a highbrow and slightly refined cast. Men also tend to be ‘image’ spenders, picking up the tab when they can ill afford it and buying fancy cars or cameras.”
Treatment strategies. Compulsive buying can be treated through therapy, self-help programs, and financial counseling. Benson’s program to help addicted shoppers includes these strategies:
Figure out why you shop compulsively and how it began.
What are triggers—inadequacy, guilt, sadness, fear?
Explore your ambivalence about changing your habits.
Track the expense of every purchase.
What are you really shopping for? Identify underlying needs you are trying to meet such as comfort, belonging, revenge, companionship.
Identify life-enhancing ways to meet those needs. If you are feeling guilty, for instance, you might need to give yourself latitude, atone for a wrong, or seek forgiveness.
Shop mindfully. Design ways to build strength, develop awareness, and tolerate your impulses without acting on them.
Create alternatives to shopping. If you overshop out of a craving for the personal attention of salespeople, call someone you feel close to and meet for dinner, a movie, or conversation. Or connect with someone by volunteering your help or expertise. The urge to shop is likely to dissipate, and you’ll have addressed what Benson calls your authentic need.
“There is an inverse relationship between materialism and subjective well-being,” says Benson. “But when you use your money to take care of education, to provide an enriching experience for your family, that relationship doesn't hold. When people use money for experience as opposed to goods, they feel more satisfied. The acquisition of true wealth has to do with the cultivation of activities and interests that enrich you as a person.”