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Senior Correspondent

What a perfect time for a review, now that credit card statements are in from the holidays. So, to help us figure out how well we did, I’ve asked Kim Shorr to “guest write” an article for us.

A Guide to Managing Compulsive Shopping Habits or Addiction

By Kim Shorr

It’s all about rewards.

I’m not talking about credit cards, I’m talking addiction. And it’s no longer limited to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. In today’s world, you can be addicted to just about anything — food, gambling, sex, the Internet, exercise — you name it, you can abuse it!

What is compulsive shopping or spending? How can something like spending money be an addiction? What is so appealing about spending money and acquirement that makes some of us do it over and over until there is nothing left to spend?

Although compulsive shopping is not yet an official condition according to the American Psychiatric Association (although it is likely to be included as “Compulsive Buying Disorder” in the DSM-V), its existence is clinically acknowledged and professional treatment is available for it. Compulsive spending is generally characterized by a preoccupation with shopping or spending, spending that causes or increases significant debt, devoting significant time to shopping, negatively affecting relationships.  It tends to be more problematic around Christmas time (Black, 2007) but, unfortunately, external buying triggers exist around virtually every other holiday and event throughout the year.

Compulsive shopper or not, you probably dove a little deeper into the Christmas spirit after perusing the holiday section at Target or humming along to Christmas tunes at Starbucks.

Shopping can be a thrill, that’s for sure. And Valentine’s Day will be no different. All of the senses are bombarded with colors, music, scents, and displays all carefully selected and arranged to get the buyer in a specific state of mind. That alone can make a buyer feel euphoric before any money is spent, and adds to the anticipation of the purchase. This physical shopping experience is also, for the compulsive spender, an escape. And like any other addiction, if the escape becomes a habit, that can lead to the neglect of other aspects of life.

How can one be addicted to spending money? The answer lies in rewards and reinforcement. Research tells us that positive reinforcement is much more effective at guiding long-term behavior than negative reinforcement. You are spending money, but instantly receiving a reward for it at the cash register! Unfortunately, immediate gratification is also a cornerstone of addiction. When you mix instant gratification with positive reinforcement, a guilty pleasure indulged once in a while may become a chronic habit that can unravel one’s life.

A common misconception regarding addiction is that it is solely pleasure-seeking. In reality, the long-term abuse of anything, be it substances or shopping, is a mechanism to avoid pain rather than seek pleasure. The root of any addiction is to numb, avoid, or ignore that in one’s life that cannot be faced or handled appropriately.

Like any other habit or addiction, there are varying degrees of severity, or significant impact on one’s life. Listed below are a few ways to gauge your spending habits as well as ways to overcome a compulsive shopping addiction.

1) Reflect on the times you choose to shop and spend.

  • Are they usually after a stressful day at work, on the weekends, or every day?
  • Are you spending within your means?
  • Do you spend more than you plan to?

2) What are you spending on?

  • Do you find yourself buying things you do not need?
  • Do a lot of your material items still have price tags on them?

3) Invite others to help you reflect. We are often not the most accurate judges of our own behavior.

  • Ask someone close to you on his/her opinion of your shopping addiction.
  • Have you been honest with others about your spending habits, or do you find yourself stretching the truth about how much or how often you spend?

4) Check your budget. Check your budget again.

  • It is easy to rationalize purchases in your head. Get the numbers down on paper so that you will see exactly how much you spend.
  • Creating and updating a budget also holds you accountable for your spending decisions.

5) Evaluate your state of mind when you are not shopping or spending.

  • Do you find yourself thinking about shopping when you are not?
  • Monitor your feelings and thoughts using a journal.

6) Contact a professional.

  • If your spending habits have caused you significant financial, legal, professional, or personal problems, you probably have a compulsive shopping problem. The good news is that like any other addiction, it is very treatable with the help of a trained professional and support from your loved ones.


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