By Dr. Jim Dahle, WCI Founder
It's easy to say “spend less;” it's much harder to do it. However, for a select group of people, it is dramatically harder to do it. Consider an email I recently received:
“My spouse is a big fan of yours and sometimes sends me some of your articles to try to help me with my shopping addiction. My spouse recently finished residency, and we are now in our second decade of marriage (for all of which we've been renting) and have purchased a property and are planning to upgrade our beater to a 5- or 6-year-old car.
My spouse is very conscious about money. He invests a lot in retirement and is trying to pay all our credit cards, and we're trying to gradually fix up the house. However, I have this urgent feeling to go buy things. After I buy something, I feel really badly, but I have trouble controlling it. Usually I buy from cheap stores like T. J. Maxx or Marshalls. I try to keep each purchase inexpensive, but I buy so many little things that it piles up to a lot of money. I have tried many things to stop doing this, including asking my spouse to block my credit cards, but I always find a way to keep spending.
I really want to stop that and help my spouse save money. It seems so easy for you to say to not spend money or ‘just save it,' but I really struggle with that. If you know any other way to help people in my situation or a help group I would appreciate it because ‘just making a budget' is not working.”
Wow! That took a lot of bravery to send that email. I've anonymized it, of course, but I'm positive this is not the only couple struggling with this problem to some degree or another, so I thought I would turn it into a blog post.
Almost every couple has a “frugality gap,” where one spouse is more frugal than the other. One is a bit more of a saver, and one is a bit more of a spender. That's normal and every couple has to deal with the consequences of it. Typically, the spender helps the saver to healthily spend a little bit more money and enjoy today while the saver helps the spender to save a little bit more and think a little more about the future. That's all very healthy. However, that's not what we're discussing here.
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Let's be honest here. For lack of a better term, you have shopaholicism or a spending disorder. There are actually experts who study this, and they don't all necessarily agree with each other. Some think this disorder is related to other addictions like drugs, alcohol, gaming, pornography, sex, gambling, exercising, dieting, shoplifting, social media, eating, and more. That makes sense. Each of these activities provides a little “dopamine rush” in our brains and makes us momentarily happy. Basically, addictions hijack our mental reward systems. However, beyond moderate amounts and sometimes even with minimal amounts, each of these activities leads to long-term unhappiness. It's really quite a conundrum there for someone seeking to maximize their happiness.
Other experts think shopaholicism is more related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or even mood disorders. Whatever turns out to be the case, you probably need some professional help. The wonderful thing, however, is that you've already done the hardest part. You've recognized that you have a problem and need help. Some cognitive behavioral therapy and perhaps some marital therapy would do you both a lot of good.
Sometimes, this particular compulsion/addiction results from one or more of the following:
- Emotional trauma or deprivation in childhood
- Need for approval
- Need for control
- Need to fill an inner void
- A painful loss or grief
Maybe consider if there's something in your past that has led you to be this way. Some shopaholics note that they were not allowed to spend by their parents or by a controlling partner, and when they were finally free of that influence, they went hog wild and couldn't rein it in. If there is something, you need to address that in therapy and not just treat the symptoms (the shopaholic behavior).
Certainly, shopping addiction is common. Studies of the general population suggest rates of 8%-16% of the population. Even clinical studies suggest a rate of 3%-5%. Depression is also often a trigger, so if you have other symptoms of depression (feeling sad, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, feeling worthless, suicidality, multiple physical symptoms without other explanation), consider seeing if you should be treated for depression.
For those who aren't yet sure if they have a problem, consider the following. Do you ever
- Shop to avoid painful feelings?
- Buy many things you don't need?
- Prefer to shop alone, online, or off TV shopping channels?
- Hide what you buy from others?
- Feel high when shopping and guilty after shopping?
- Are in financial difficulty because of shopping?
- Are having emotional problems in your life because of shopping?
- Do you go shopping when you are bored, lonely, or angry?
You can even categorize shopping addicts.
- Compulsive shoppers buy on impulse and run to the store when any strong emotion occurs to buy anything to relieve the compulsion to shop.
- Trophy shoppers are seeking that perfect item to make them feel better. They keep shopping until they find it.
- Bargain hunters buy stuff on sale, whether or not it is needed. The thrill is from the deal. Visiting garage sales every Saturday morning may be a sign.
- Collectors buy any sort of collectible, but they are really trying to find the whole collection.
- Codependent shoppers buy for others, seeking their attention.
- Bulimic shoppers, like bulimics, just enjoy buying the item. They don't actually keep it. They return the items. At least that helps with the financial consequences of the addiction.
There can be a seasonality to it as well. Black Friday sales can push a borderline shopaholic into a full-blown episode. This disorder can also lead to hoarding since all that stuff that gets purchased has to go somewhere. Maybe this explains why self-storage businesses can be so profitable.
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Once you've recognized there is a problem and have sought out professional help from a mental health professional or perhaps even a physician, there are some other things you can do.
#1 Enlist the Assistance of Others
While emotionally painful and embarrassing to admit you have a weakness, recognize that there are many people around you who not only love and care about you very much but are very much already aware of your weakness. Trust me when I say they would do nearly anything to help you. Talk to them. Ask them to help you. Recognize that many addicts “fall off the wagon” occasionally. It is said that the average smoker tries seven times to quit before successfully doing it. Don't be surprised if you relapse a bit.
#2 Join a Support Group and Seek Out Resources
While there is no Shopaholics Anonymous, there is Spenders Anonymous, based on a similar 12-step program to Alcoholics Anonymous. The organization has phone and in-person meetings all over the country. You can also try Debtor's Anonymous or Stopping Overshopping. These people have been there and done that. If nobody in your regular life understands shopping addiction, you can find support from these groups.
There are Facebook Groups and subreddits too:
- Shopping Addiction Recovery & Support
- Shopping Addiction Support
- Shopaholics Anonymous
If you just need a laugh, you can subscribe to Stop Buying Stuff magazine.
#3 Shop with a Friend or Family Member AND a List
The purpose of the list is to make sure you only buy what's on it. No adding things to the list once you arrive at the store. The purpose of the friend is to help you stay honest with yourself.
#4 Get Rid of Credit Cards
Studies are quite clear that we spend more when we use credit cards instead of debit cards, debit instead of checks, and checks instead of cash. Force yourself to shop only with cash by using an “envelope system” type budget.
#5 Put Obstacles in Place
Still need a credit card sometimes? Consider freezing it into a block of ice. That requires you to wait for the ice to melt before making a purchase, and hopefully, that gives you enough time to get back under control. Freeze your credit; that puts one more barrier in place before you can open a new line of credit. Maybe your credit card should only have a $500 limit. Delete shopping apps from your phone. Block shopping sites from your computer. If something really needs to be purchased, take it to your spouse whose password-protected computer can then be used to access Amazon, eBay, or whatever.
#6 Implement the 24-Hour Rule
This rule basically says you can't buy anything (maybe groceries and gasoline can be exceptions) without thinking about it for 24 hours first.
#7 Give a Large Amount of Your Stuff to Goodwill
There's something about giving stuff away that you paid good money for and never really used much that trains your brain to think before you buy stuff again. Chances are if you have a shopping addiction, you've got a lot of stuff you're not really using. You might even get a significant tax break for this, too.
#8 Go Marie Kondo on your Belongings
Same principle as giving stuff away to Goodwill. By the time you're done, you'll only have stuff that sparks joy.
#9 Set an Allowance as Part of Your Budget
If you're in a physician family, you should have quite a bit of discretionary income. Some of that can certainly be set aside each month to allow for some “retail therapy.” So what if you blow $400 a month of a $25,000 income? No big deal. If it is designated for that purpose, then you can spend it without feeling guilty. The key, of course, is to stop when the money is gone.
#10 Window Shop
You can always just browse without buying. While it still wastes lots of time, it doesn't waste much money. Maybe you can get the same dopamine rush just looking at it in the store and thinking about buying it. Heck, put it in your cart and walk around with it for a while. Then, just leave the cart and walk out of the store at the end. This tip may not work for everyone. I mean, liquor stores probably aren't great places for alcoholics to hang out so maybe avoiding the mall is a good idea.
#11 Take Action Steps When You Feel Like Shopping
Action steps can include distractions like engaging in other activities you enjoy. It can also be talking to friends or family or spending time with a pet. It can also be a tension reliever like exercise or yoga. Maybe you can get in shape at the same time you deal with your addiction!
#12 Meditate and Pray
When the urge to shop occurs, meditate. Try to fight it. Recognize what it is. Recognize that shopping doesn't actually solve the problem that is causing you to feel stressed or sad. Try to address the underlying problem. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you to do this. If you're a spiritual person, ask God to help you overcome this.
#13 Retrain Your Brain
Use positive affirmations: “I make the right choices for my life every day”, “I am in control of my urges.” You can change your mindset and retrain your brain.
# 14 Beware Other Addictions
Some people have addictive personalities. You certainly don't want to replace your shopping addiction with a gaming or alcohol addiction.
#15 Focus on What You Really Want Financially
When you have financial goals, you can take a long-term perspective and then consider every little daily financial decision with regard to its impact on those goals.
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Some Financial Advice
Now, some financial advice for this couple. Financial plans really only ever work when both spouses get on the same page. This may require a therapist, a marital counselor, and even a financial advisor, but the cost must be paid and the effort must be invested or you will never be financially successful. Financial problems are a leading cause of divorce too, imperiling not just your financial situation but the relationship itself.
If you have credit card debt being carried month to month, that's a good sign you shouldn't have a credit card at all. They're for convenience, not for credit. But paying off credit card debt is probably your best investment. It really doesn't make mathematical sense to be putting money in retirement accounts with 15%-30% credit card debt sitting there. Paying that off is a guaranteed 15%+ investment, and you're not going to find that anywhere else. From a behavioral standpoint, I get what your spouse is trying to do. Money that goes into retirement accounts is harder for you to spend, putting a barrier between you and spending, but it's not enough.
The shopping addiction still must be treated, and a comprehensive financial plan must be put into place.
What do you think? Have you dealt with a shopping addiction in yourself, your family, or friends? What have you found that helped? Comment below!