Bill S.* was 50 years old when he filed for bankruptcy for the second time,
driven by $300,000 in credit card debt. He was also on his second marriage,
which was near collapse. "It occurred to me I had a problem," he says
ruefully. After years of spending lavishly on designer clothes, rented yachts,
the best restaurants, and expensive alcohol "to make me feel good,"
Bill, who is now 66, hit bottom.
Susan B.,* 55, spent differently. She "binged" at discount stores
such as Target and Goodwill when her emotions felt out of control. "I
shopped to avoid feeling," she explains. At her worst, she rang up $7,000
in debt, but it was the intense guilt, shame, and secrecy of her spending --
"it was like I was in another zone, and I would hide my purchases from my
husband in the trunk of my car" -- that led her to seek help.
Many Americans hit the mall on Saturday afternoons or during the holidays,
and it means nothing more than new clothes for work or a gift for a friend. But
for people like Bill and Susan, shopping is a real and destructive addiction
that can turn into a financial disaster.
"Compulsive shopping and spending are defined as inappropriate,
excessive, and out of control," says Donald Black, MD, professor of
psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City.
"Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack
of control over one's impulses. In America, shopping is embedded in our
culture; so often, the impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping."
A shopping addiction can wreak havoc on a person's life, family, and
finances. When a friend or family member recognizes a shopping addiction, start
by getting professional help. "Help can occur at different levels,"
says Rick Zehr, vice president of addiction and behavioral sciences at Proctor
Hospital at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery in Peoria. "For
the spouse, family member, or friend who is concerned, an intervention is
always a good idea. Also, find the closest Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program
important for ongoing maintenance and support. And get credit counseling, as
many of the people who seek treatment at our facility have an average debt as a
result of their addiction of around $70,000."
Recognize, as well, that treating a shopping addiction requires a
"There are no standard treatments for shopping addiction," Black
says. "Medications have been used, generally antidepressants that treat, in
some cases, the underlying issue of depression in someone with an addiction,
but with mixed results. Therapists also focus on cognitive behavioral treatment
programs, and credit or debt counseling can be very helpful to some people, as
Most of us blow too much cash from time to time. But if any of these
behaviors describe your consistent spending habits, you may have crossed the
line into a full-blown shopping addiction.
- Spending over budget
- Shopping as a result of feeling angry, depressed, or lonely
- Feeling a rush or a feeling of euphoria with spending
- Feeling guilty, embarrassed, or trying to hide the problem
- Negative impact on relationships
- Juggling bills to accommodate the problem
* Names have been changed.
Published July 2005.