Buyer, Be Aware

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 01, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

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 multifaceted approach.

"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 well."

Addiction Prediction

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.

  1. Spending over budget
  2. Shopping as a result of feeling angry, depressed, or lonely
  3. Feeling a rush or a feeling of euphoria with spending
  4. Feeling guilty, embarrassed, or trying to hide the problem
  5. Negative impact on relationships
  6. Juggling bills to accommodate the problem

* Names have been changed.

Published July 2005.