Shopping Addiction: Causes, Risks & Treatment Options

What is Shopping Addiction & How to Treat It

We all know that one person who has a closet full of clothes, and tags is still affixed but continues shopping just for a little pick-me-up. Maybe it’s a gadget hound in your life who must have just one more video game, computer toy, or new software package.

In today’s consumer-driven world, where “shop ‘til you drop” seems to be the mantra of everyone you meet, shopping addiction can often remain hidden behind overt consumerism or simply excessive shopping. Shopping addiction, however, is a genuine problem, similar to compulsive gambling or stealing addiction.

Experts estimate that around five percent of the population may be true “shopaholics” or shopping addicts. We don’t know the exact total. Many people with a shopping addiction continue their sprees without admitting that they have a problem. Some people suffer from what experts have dubbed seasonal shopping addiction or shopping to excess only during the holidays when depression and anxiety peak. Considering those with seasonal shopping addictions, the number of shopaholics could be higher.

A shopping addiction, like a gambling addiction, is an addictive behavior rather than an addictive substance. Shopaholics crave the rush they get from finding and acquiring new items, even if they don’t need them. Unlike kleptomaniacs who get a rush of pleasure from compulsive stealing, shopping addicts get a high from buying new things.

What distinguishes a shopping addict from someone who loves to shop is similar to what distinguishes a wine lover from an alcoholic. A wine lover may seek that special vintage, visit wineries for tastings, purchase exquisite bar items and amass quite a collection of fine wines. A wine lover may be obsessed with his hobby but knows when to stop — they can have just one glass of wine, savor it and quit.

For an alcoholic, one glass is never enough, and one drink is too many. An alcoholic cannot moderate drinking and cannot stop even though they may want to. The body and mind compel to continue drinking despite health, psychological and other problems.

A true shopping addict is like an alcoholic in that they can’t stop buying things. Even though the credit cards are maxed out, the bank account is at a negative balance, and they don’t need one more thing, there is still the strong compulsion to buy more with no ability to stop. A shopaholic may go to the mall to buy a present for their daughter’s birthday and end up with sixteen shopping bags packed with items no one needs.

Despite best efforts, shopaholics can’t just put their credit cards down and wait until there is money to buy things. They feel compelled to keep shopping and may even suffer blackouts similar to an alcoholic’s when going on a spree.

Your friends joke that you could open up your own shoe store because you have so many unworn pairs in your closet. Do you simply love to shop for shoes, or do you have a shopping addiction?

You May Have a Shopping Addiction if:

Most items in your closet still have their tags or aren’t opened yet. True shopaholic amasses new things faster than they can wear or use them. It doesn’t matter if it’s clothes, kitchen gadgets, or technology. If they’re still sitting around in the box unopened or unworn, you could be a shopaholic.

You’re easily tempted to buy new things. You know you won’t be able to stop yourself if you walk into a store. You may have just shopped yesterday, but you can’t leave a store without buying something. Saying no to a new item is impossible.

You depend on shopping to make yourself feel better. Bored? Lonely? Angry? It’s time to shop. Any strong emotional state triggers an even stronger urge to shop. Whether you’ve just had an argument with your spouse or you’re bored at work, you can only think about shopping to relieve that intense feeling.

You’re hiding your habit. You hide your purchases from your partner or children. You go to great lengths to hide extra credit cards, so your partner won’t discover you’ve opened another charge account. You may even hide the bills, so others won’t know how much you spend on your habit. Like alcoholics hiding bottles of booze in toilet tanks, you’re hiding your addiction from others to ensure you can still access it when you want.

You can’t stop. A bad habit is just that: a habit. Habits can be broken, even if it takes considerable effort. Addiction is much more difficult to break, and it may be impossible to stop on your own. Despite the past-due notices, your partner’s threats of walking out, and never having enough money to pay for necessities, you’re still heading out to the mall.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of a shopping addiction here.

What Do Shopaholics Buy?

There’s no rhyme or reason to what shopaholics buy. Most have a favorite “fix,” whether it’s jewelry, watches, or clothing. Others randomly choose objects to purchase. The key differentiator between someone with a shopping addiction and someone who loves to shop is the ability to stop at will. When the will is lost, addiction has set in.

Types of Shopaholics

Shopaholics Anonymous, a self-help group for compulsive shoppers, lists several types of shopaholics. These include:

  • Compulsive shoppers: These shoppers buy on impulse. Any strong emotion sends them to the store for relief. The action of buying something relieves the compulsion to shop.
  • Trophy shoppers: Trophy shoppers seek just the right item to make themselves feel better. They keep shopping to find the “perfect” thing to complete themselves.
  • Bargain hunters: These compulsive shoppers keep buying “bargains,” whether they need the item or not. Huge sale on diapers? They buy a carton even though their youngest child is in college. Bargain hunters get a thrill from chasing down the ultimate bargain.
  • Collectors: These shopaholics compulsively buy trinkets, collectibles, or other items, but they must have a complete set of whatever they love. They won’t stop until their collection is complete, but the definition of “complete” keeps changing and expanding.
  • Codependent shoppers: Codependence means seeking love, attention, or affection from others without regard to oneself or one’s boundaries. These buy presents to seek the attention of others.
  • Bulimic shoppers: Like people with eating disorders who vomit excess food after a binge, bulimic shoppers binge shop, then return the items later. It’s the act of shopping that turns them on rather than keeping the items they’ve purchased.

Someone can be more than one type of shopaholic, and others may be one type during the year but shift to another type around the holidays. The holidays seem to trigger shopping binges in many people. The loneliness, constant advertising, and hype over shopping can force some borderline shopaholics into full addiction during this brief season.

The Causes of Shopping Addiction

We don’t know the exact causes of a shopping addiction. Experts speculate there are physical as well as psychological causes of shopping addiction.

Physical causes: Anxiety usually triggers the cycle of obsession and compulsion in any compulsive activity. Anxiety causes uneasy feelings, which can only be relieved with a compulsion. It’s why germ-phobic people wash their hands compulsively — the anxiety over germs causes them to wash in an attempt to relieve their anxious feelings. Shopaholics feel anxiety about life situations, which is only relieved when they buy things and act on their compulsions. In both cases, dopamine, a brain chemical related to pleasurable feelings, may be out of sync with other neurotransmitters.

Psychological causes: Some shopaholics grew up with little love and plenty of material things. These people equate gifts with love. When they feel down, they buy themselves something. They may not have good self-care skills or understand the difference between love and material objects. For others, intense deprivation during childhood results in spree shopping now. These people are battling the ghosts of their childhood in different ways. They’re trying to shore up plenty of resources in case the time of deprivation returns, even though now they may have good jobs and enough to share.

In many instances, compulsive shoppers — especially those who amass items based on a sense of deprivation — become compulsive hoarders. Their desperate attempt to ward off all needs turns them into classic hoarders who obsess over every object in their household and can’t bring themselves to discard anything, even if it’s garbage or outdated newspapers.

The Link Between Compulsive Overeating and Shopping Disorders

Experts have noted an unexpected link between compulsive overeating and shopping disorders. Many binge eaters are also binge shoppers. The root cause of both, experts believe, is the difficulty managing and handling intense emotions. Both good and bad feelings can cause compulsive overeaters to binge and shopaholics to binge shop. Learning how to express healthy emotions and handle them when they happen can help both types of addicts heal and recover.

It can be challenging to break through a loved one’s denial about a shopping addiction problem and help get the treatment they need. If someone you love seems to have a shopping addiction, it’s time to talk to them about the behavior and how it affects you and your relationship.

  • Talk to your loved one about how the shopping addiction affects your relationship.
  • Urge your loved one to get professional help.
  • Offer to be a “shopping buddy” to avoid impulsive purchases.
  • Encourage your loved one to shop with a list and buy only items on the list.
  • Avoid triggering situations, such as going to the mall to window shop. Instead, find alternative activities you can both enjoy away from temptations.

How to Get Help for Shopping Addiction

Many shopping addicts only seek help when they’ve reached a shopaholic’s rock bottom: bankruptcy. This poses significant challenges for those who want support for shopping addiction after they’ve been hit with the brutal truth that they’re addicts. They now want help but lack the resources to pay for it.

Groups such as Debtors’ Anonymous follow the 12-step model of recovery that’s been effective for many. Because self-help groups are free and self-supporting, shopaholics may be able to get help with shopping addiction from a group such as Debtors’ Anonymous.

Most health insurance plans cover some form of talk therapy. Psychotherapy is very effective at helping shopaholics understand their addictive behavior, especially the moods, feelings, and circumstances that trigger the compulsion to shop. Therapy sessions help uncover the personal triggers that lead to shopping binges. Once triggers are understood, shopaholics can learn new behaviors that stop a binge before it starts.

Unfortunately, there are no medications that can help shopaholics. Sometimes shopaholics are also depressed or suffer from anxiety disorders, in which case medication can help. A psychiatrist can diagnose any underlying mental health conditions and prescribe the appropriate medication.

Self-Help for Shopping Addictions

  • If you’re desperate to halt your shopping addiction, try the following to stop yourself from going on a spree.
  • Pay for all purchases using cash, checks, or debit cards. This way, you are limited to the amount you have in your possession, not a credit card. Give your credit cards to your spouse or cut them up so you can’t use them.
  • Make a shopping list and stick precisely to the list.
  • Stop window shopping, browsing through catalogs, or watching television shopping channels. Each of these activities can trigger a binge.
  • Take a non-addicted companion with you shopping or shop only with your partner for necessities and gifts if they aren’t a shopping addict.
  • Gather a list of activities you can do to help yourself feel better when the urge to shop strikes. Because so many people shop when they feel bored or lonely, you may want to come up with a list of things to do when you feel bored. You can read a book, take a walk or start a new hobby. If you’re lonely, get out of the house and be around people. Take a class or volunteer with your favorite charity — you’ll be around others and helping people, a great combination to offset loneliness. Keep your list handy so that when you’re feeling vulnerable, you can easily remember other things to do rather than shop.

Seek Help For Shopping Addiction

A shopping addiction is just as serious as a drug addiction. No matter the substance or behavior, addictions can lead to heartbreak, broken homes, and lost dreams. Recovery is possible for addicts of all types, including shopping addicts. Although it may seem silly to call your impulsive purchases an addiction, you should be confident knowing that no addiction is silly. If you think you have a problem, you can get help for shopping addiction from compassionate professionals who will help you rediscover your favorite hobbies.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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