The Problem of Compulsive Shopping and what to Do about It

About 28 million Americans are addicted to shopping. Like gambling addicts, they experience a “rush” whenever they give in to their passion, but when it comes time to pay the bills, they feel remorseful and depressed.

Let’s compare shopaholics with overeaters for a moment. Overeating encompasses a broad range. At one end of the scale we have the morbidly obese, some of which are so huge, they cannot stand and are therefore confined to their bed. At the other end of the scale we have people who are just 10 pounds overweight. Shopaholics are similar. Some have serious problems, others small But large or small, a problem is still a problem. And small problems that are not nipped in the bud can slowly develop into major ones.

Some of us have a serious problem with overspending, and most of us have a small problem because we occasionally overindulge. So, before our small problem escalates into a bigger one, let’s consider overshopping, which when serious is called shopaholism, compulsive shopping, compulsive buying, or compulsive spending. The most popular term used by psychologists is now Oniomania or Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD). And those who have it are said to be suffering from a spending or shopping addiction.

Like drug addicts and alcoholics, compulsive shoppers realize their actions are self-destructive, but they feel powerless to stop. And unless they do, they may suffer severe consequences, such as bankruptcy, divorce, job loss, and depression.

There are three major factors that lead to overshopping. The first factor is TV. Imagine for a moment that someone is perfectly happy, but a hypnotist intrudes into his home and convinces him of two things: a) that he is now unhappy and b) that he needs many things that he does not have in order to regain his happiness.

Your TV is that hypnotist. Its purpose isn’t to entertain, inform, and educate you. No, its sole purpose is to make you consume more, spend more, and shop more. Congratulate yourself if you aren’t already overspending, because if you’re not, it’s a testament to your strong character.

TV exploits our natural desire to be happy by muddling our thinking and confusing our understanding of happiness. What is happiness? It simply is feeling good. Through its incessant brainwashing, TV convinces us we need things to make us feel good. For example, we need cake and ice cream to feel good, so we go out and buy some.

But we can see through the deception of TV once we have a clearer understanding of happiness. You see, it’s not merely about feeling good, but about feeling good ABOUT OURSELVES. So, eating sweets and shopping appears logical if one wants to feel good, but not if one wants to feel good about oneself; after all, we don’t want to grow obese or get into debt.

The second factor leading to overspending is the Internet. It greatly exacerbates the problem because the ‘shopping center’ is now open 24 hours a day. Also, stores that you could never shop at because of their remoteness are now conveniently sitting on your desktop.

The third factor is shopping has become a recreational activity. In the distant past, we went shopping only when we needed something, such as food, clothing, or tools. But now, thanks to TV and the rest of the media, we go shopping to ‘have fun.’

Behavioral Patterns of Shopaholics

Here is a list of the behavioral patterns of shopaholics. If it seems to describe you, carefully review the tips on overcoming compulsive shopping.

1. Do you have stacks of books you never read, piles of clothing you haven’t worn, or heaps of music CDs you haven’t played?

2. Do you go shopping whenever you are feeling bad, angry, or frustrated?

3. Has your shopping habits created problems in your life, such as causing you to worry about how you will pay your bills?

4. Do you hide from your friends and family how much you spend?

5. When you are shopping, do you feel like you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing?

6. Has your shopping habits caused conflicts between you and your spouse, a relative or a friend?

7. Do you make purchases with your credit card that you can’t pay for with cash?

8. When you shop, do you have mixed feelings of euphoria and anxiety?

9. After returning from shopping, do you feel guilty, regretful, or embarrassed?

10. Do you feel “lost” without credit cards?

11. Are you always thinking about money, how much or little you have, and go shopping again?

12. Have you tried to change and found you couldn’t?

13. Do you hide some of your purchases from others?

14. Do you have to spend a lot of time figuring out how you will pay your shopping bills?

15. Do you buy things you don’t need and can’t afford?

16. Would you be better off if you shopped less?

17. Do you buy several books, blouses, or pairs of shoes at a time?

18. Do you spend money you expect to receive before you receive it?

19. Do you spend a lot of time juggling bills to accommodate spending?

20. Are your spending habits causing emotional distress and chaos in your life?

Tips on Overcoming Compulsive Shopping

1. The first step to solving personal problems is to admit something’s wrong. When we are engaged in self-defeating behavior, we are very good at denial and hiding the facts from ourselves. That’s why I’ve included a list of the behavioral patterns of shopaholics. When we come face to face with the facts, it may awaken us to the problem and spark a desire to do something about it. The remaining tips are actions you can take to rein in your spending and take control of your life.

2. It is important to monitor and keep track of your spending. Each time we make a purchase, we conveniently forget about the amount we spent before going on to the next purchase. By the end of the month, when the bills come in, we are surprised by how much we spent. To prevent this from happening, carry a small notebook with you and record every purchase and the monthly total, and review your notes every day. You will be surprised to see how much you’re spending, and this information will increase the likelihood that you will cut back on your shopping.

3. Step 2 is taken after shopping with the hope it will cut back on future spending, but Step 3 is more powerful, for it is preemptive. In this case, you carry a small notebook with you and when you see something you wish to buy, rather than buying it, you add it to your list of “What I Wish to Buy Two Weeks from Now.” Write the date, what you wish to buy, and why you wish to buy it. This powerful step has two benefits. First, it cuts back on impulsive shopping. Often, merely by waiting, the desire will fade. Second, answering the question why we want it forces us to analyze our behavior and may cause us to decide to skip the purchase.

4. Use the power of questions to alter your behavior. This is an expansion of Step 3. When you wish to buy something, first ask yourself some questions and write down the answers in a little notebook. Ask yourself questions such as, “Do I need it? Can I afford it? In the long run, will buying it improve my life or will it add to my problems? Do I have the space to keep it? Will I be using it regularly or will I quickly tire of it. What are the pros and cons of buying it?” Taking the time to think before you act is often enough to get your life back on track. And, of course, this step is unnecessary whenever you are buying necessities.

5. Avoid temptation. Malls and shopping centers are not made for “hanging out,” they are made for shopping, so avoid them. When you want to “hang out,” go to the park or someplace where you will spend little or no money.

6. When you need to shop, first make a shopping list and only buy what is on your list.

7. Watch less or, better yet, stop watching TV.

8. If compulsive shopping is a serious problem for you, do not carry credit cards. They should be used for emergencies only. The advantage of only carrying cash is everytime you spend money you see what you are doing; there is a direct connection with what you are doing now. On the other hand, when you use a credit card, the illusion is created that you are not spending money now but some day in the future.

If your problem is really serious, you may want to cut up your credit cards. After all, better to destroy them before they destroy you.

9. Don’t be a robot, automatically directed by your emotions. Rather, be aware of your feelings, and think before you act. For example, if you suddenly feel the urge to splurge, rather than allowing it to fester and grow overwhelming, divert it by doing something else, such as taking a walk.

10. Identify your motives. Do you wish to shop to feel good or to feel good about yourself? If shopping won’t make you feel good about yourself, why do you wish to do it? What need is it filling, and how can you fill that need in a positive manner. For example, a student not doing very well at school feels bad and goes shopping to feel better. But shopping is just a temporary fix that does nothing to help the problem of poor school grades, and overshopping only adds to the problem. Instead of trying to cover up the pain of poor school grades with the pleasure of shopping, far better to face the problem head on; admit there’s a problem; talk to teachers and friends to get help, and work on improving school grades. When this is done, the student will feel good about him or herself and no longer have a need to shop.

11. When we overspend, we later regret wasting money, but we seldom think about the time we wasted. Think about this for a moment. What is life? It is not money; it is time. How much time is needlessly wasted thinking about shopping, looking for things to buy, and travelling to and fro? How could that same amount of time been used to improve your life? Perhaps you could have been practicing the piano, studying another language, doing homework, improving your skills with a computer program that you use at work, jogging, taking a walk or working out at the gym.

12. Shopping isn’t necessarily bad; it’s overshopping that is. After all, we need to shop for necessities. And rewarding ourselves for a job well done can be very motivating. But the trick is to live within our means. One way to help us do so is to buy used or secondhand goods. For example, one of the reasons I can afford to have so many books is because I buy a lot of used or donated books at the library for just $1 a piece. There are often great deals on merchandise and clothing in thrift shops, garage sales, and flea markets. If we are going to buy something, why not take advantage of the bargains that are available? Also, instead of buying a new watch, perhaps you can just repair the one you have. Similarly, perhaps you can upgrade your computer instead of buying a new one. Speaking of computers and computing, the Internet will show you where you can get many things for free. Try visiting the following:


13. Buy for durability. This is my wife’s favorite tip. She’d rather spend 30% more on an item of clothing that will last twice as long, or longer, than cheaper clothing. Some of our high quality Japanese clothing is ten years old and look like we just purchased them.

14. For serious problems seek help; join a support group. Debtors Anonymous provides free support groups for shopping addiction and credit card overspending, which they call “compulsive debting.” For a chapter near you, see: Debtors Anonymous.

Additional Resources:

Spenders Anonymous

Money Harmony

MSNBC: How to escape a shopping addiction

wikiHow: How to buy nothing?

15. Finally, if you need professional help, see a therapist. Some form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is probably best to correct your faulty thinking habits and emotional responses. Psychiatrists tend to dispense pills. They may prescribe Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, or something similar. These drugs are technically referred to as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and in tests with compulsive shoppers, their efficacy, or effectiveness, has been shown to be no better than a placebo. In other words, for compulsive shoppers, the odds that an SSRI will lead to recovery are no better than that of taking a sugar pill.

The good news is we have the inner resources to improve our lives. It may take a little work, but it is well worth the effort to free ourselves from the danger of crushing debt. The more difficult it is to turn ourselves around, the better and prouder we will feel after success, so for those in a tough situation, don’t get discouraged or give up. Rather than giving in to the urge to splurge, let’s purge our bad habits, and surge forward into an exciting an meaningful life.



To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop by April Lane Benson

Bought Out and Spent! Recovery from Compulsive Shopping & Spending By Terrence Daryl Shulman

Spent: Break the Buying Obsession and Discover Your True Worth by Sally Palaian

The No-Spend Challenge Guide: How to Stop Spending Money Impulsively, Pay off Debt Fast, & Make Your Finances Fit Your Dreams by Jen Smith

Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions by Russell Brand

The Shopping Addiction & Living With OCD by Jeffrey Powell


Shopping Addiction − 7 Signs & 7 Solutions

Britain’s Compulsive Shoppers (Mental Health Documentary)

The Psychology of Shopping Addiction: What is Compulsive Buying Disorder?