Shopping Spree, or Addiction?
What happens when shopping spirals out of control, and in some cases, becomes an addiction?
From hitting the mall with your girlfriends on a Saturday afternoon, to
holiday spending on gifts that go under the tree, shopping could be called one
of America's favorite pastimes.
For most people, it means some new clothes for work or a small trinket for a
friend. For others, however, shopping is much more than an enjoyable pastime,
and in some cases, it is a real and destructive addiction that can turn into a
"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. "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."
Sometimes referred to as "shopoholism," shopping addiction can wreak havoc
on a person's life, family, and finances. Experts explain to WebMD why shopping
can be so addictive, what the warning signs are, and how to stop the cycle of
"No one knows what causes addictive behaviors, like shopping, alcoholism, drug abuse, and
gambling," says Ruth Engs, EdD, a professor of applied health science at
Indiana University. "Some of the new evidence suggests that some people, maybe
10%-15%, may have a genetic predisposition to an addictive behavior, coupled
with an environment in which the particular behavior is triggered, but no one
really knows why."
While the origin of addictions remains uncertain, why addicts continue their
destructive behaviors is better understood.
"Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like
shopping," says Engs. "Meaning that endorphins and dopamine, naturally
occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on, and the person
feels good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it -- it's
So what are the telltale signs that shopping has crossed the line and become
"There are certainly a lot of commonalities among shopoholics and other
addicts," says Engs. "For instance, while alcoholics will hide their bottles,
shopoholics will hide their purchases."
What else should a concerned family member or friend look out for when they
think shopping has become a problem?
- Spending over budget. "Often times a person will spend
over their budget and get into deep financial trouble, spending well above
their income," says Engs. "The normal person will say, 'Oops, I can't afford to
buy this or that.' But not someone who has an addiction," explains Engs -- he
or she will not recognize the boundaries of a budget.
- Compulsive buying. "When a person with a shopping
addiction goes shopping, they often compulsively buy, meaning they go for one
pair of shoes and come out with 10."
- It's a chronic problem. "A shopping addiction is a
continuous problem," says Engs. "It's more than two or three months of the
year, and more than a once-a-year Christmas spree."
- Hiding the problem. "Shopoholics will hide their purchases
because they don't want their significant other to know they bought it because
they'll be criticized," says Engs. "They may have secret credit card accounts,
too. Because this problem affects mostly women, as alcoholism affects mostly
men, husbands will all of sudden be told their wife is $20,000-$30,000 in debt
and they are responsible, and many times, this comes out in divorce."
- A vicious circle. "Some people will take their purchases
back because they feel guilty," says Engs. "That guilt can trigger another
shopping spree, so it's a vicious circle." And in these people, debt may not be
an issue because they're consistently returning clothes out of guilt -- but a
problem still exists.
- Impaired relationships. "It is not
uncommon for us to see impairments in relationships from excessive spending or
shopping," says Rick Zehr, vice president of addiction and behavioral services
at Proctor Hospital at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.
"Impairment can occur because the person spends time away from home to shop,
covers up debt with deception, and emotionally and physically starts to isolate
themselves from others as they become preoccupied with their behavior."
- Clear consequences. "It's just like any other addiction --
it has nothing to do with how much a person shops or spends, and everything to
do with consequences," says Zehr. "We often get the question around the
holidays that because a person spent more money than she intended, does this
make her an addict? The answer is no. However, if there is a pattern or a trend
or consequences that occur with excessive shopping then the person may be a
problem spender -- the hallmark is still loss of control. If they are no longer
in control of their shopping but their shopping is in control of them, they've
crossed the line."