No one can argue that we live, work and play in a highly consumerised world where over-utilised consumer messages such as ‘born to shop’, ‘dress to kill’, ‘shop til you drop’ and ‘the last of the big spenders’ are considered common-place phrases for an overrated (and over-priced) pastime. I, personally, find it appalling that shopping has become an accepted, formalised ‘hobby’ for millions of people….a dismally depressing substitute for jogging, pottery, golf or the more respectable art of flower arranging. While spending hard-earned disposable (and in many cases non-so-disposable) income can hardly be considered a healthy pastime, the real problem lies in the fact that an estimated 9% of adults suffer from what is now a generally accepted psychological problem – compulsive buying. Like any other form of addiction, compulsive spending can leave a trail of both emotional and financial destruction in its wake. And, although there are successful ways to treat the addiction, the reality is that the compulsive spender will continue to shop – regardless of the consequences – until she realises and accepts the need to stop.
Compulsive spending is usually driven by a desperate need to fill some form of void in ones life, and is generally associated with feelings of loneliness, depression, anger or a need to feel special. While the majority of compulsive spenders tend to be women, it appears that the problem is increasing amongst the male population as retailers target more aggressively the largely untapped market of the ‘male shopper’. With the shopping mentality so embedded in our culture, society has become largely immune to the difference between people who enjoy the occasional splurge on the one hand, and the hardcore compulsive shopper on the other. If you think that either you or a loved one has a spending problem, have a look at the common characteristics of the shopaholic:
- Blowing the budget: Compulsive shoppers give new meaning to the phrase ‘blowing the budget’. Whereas the occasional splurger may purchase a high-ticket item which delves into next month’s budget allocation for luxuries, the compulsive shopper either demonstrates outright disdain for the budget or doesn’t know the meaning of the term. If ignorance is bliss, then there is none so deliriously happy as the shopaholic who chases the shopping high with her budget blinkers firmly in place.
- Obsessive compulsive: Many shopaholics have described the desire to spend as almost compulsive. In fact, research shows that many compulsive shoppers simply cannot resist the pull of a shop – any shop – as long as they know they can purchase something, sometimes regardless of the trophy. Many compulsive shoppers have reported purchasing items that they didn’t need, convincing themselves that they needed (sometimes bizarre) items or not being able to remember the next day what it is that they purchased. The behaviour borders on obsessive-compulsive behaviour that is triggered by emotions in an attempt to fill a psychological void.
- Chronic condition: A significant difference between the occasional ‘splurger’ and the compulsive shopper is that the latter has a severe condition which, if left untreated, could result in financial, emotional and/or relational ruin. If a person’s shopping habits are causing debt problems, tension with their loved ones or triggering feelings of severe guilt or remorse, then it’s likely the condition needs to be dealt with. Compulsive shopping is generally defined as chronic, destructive and obsessive behaviour.
- Secret shopper: A common trait of the compulsive shopper is that he or she tends to shop in secret – largely as a ploy to avoid financial arguments with their partner or spouse who suspects that a spending problem exists. Much like the gambling addict who sneaks off to the casino, the compulsive shopper tends to shop alone and in secret.
- Hiding the goods: Naturally, shopping in secret necessitates the hiding of the goods purchased – common behaviour of the compulsive shopper. Obviously purchased goods can’t be hidden forever and the result is that when the goods are ‘discovered’, the compulsive shopper tends to lie about where they came from and/or how much they cost. Behaviour that, by its very nature leads a person to hide, deceive or lie to loved ones, is generally accepted as abnormal or problematic and should be treated. Alcoholics hide bottles, shopaholics hide purchases.
- Vicious circle: Compulsive buying results in the shopper entering (and being trapped within) a vicious circle that begins with feelings of depression or loneliness followed closely by the uncontrolled (obsessive) desire to shop. After having literally blown the budget, the shopper is then riddled with feelings of guilt and remorse. (In fact, psychologists have even identified a sub-type of the compulsive shopper known as the ‘bulimic shopper’ – a person who shops uncontrollably and then returns the goods under an irrepressible cloud of remorse and despair). Once caught in the vicious circle of (a) an emotional trigger followed by (b) obsessive spending followed by (c) feelings of euphoria and then (d) guilt and depression, it’s easy see how the compulsive shopper literally lives within an embattled cycle of despair.
- Relationship wrecker: It goes without saying that compulsive spending can be ruinous for any marriage or relationship. Any partnership that is underpinned by addictive, deceptive and dishonest behaviour – and further compounded by financial difficulties – is destined to experience hard times.
- Lost without you: Many compulsive shoppers lock away their credit cards in a desperate attempt to curb expenditure, and the result is generally that he or she is left feeling lost and helpless without access to the enabler of the shopping highs – credit.
- Shopper’s high: As with the alcoholics or drug addicts, research shows that compulsive spenders are, quite literally, chasing their very own form of a high. Compulsive shoppers attest to their behaviour being driven by a powerful form of impulsiveness or urge which, when satisfied, provides them with an endorphin-fuelled high. Studies show that their endorphins and dopamines (naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain) get switched on by the act of shopping and makes them feel good.
- Juggling act: The experienced compulsive shopper is not only adept at spending, she’s also a master of juggling bank accounts, credit cards and retail accounts to ensure her favourite pastime remains adequately funded. Compulsive shoppers spend almost as much time shopping as they do checking balances, transferring money, accessing accounts, obtaining more credit and dreaming up innovative methods of funding their compulsions – almost to the point of obsession.
As with any addiction, treatment for a compulsive shopping disorder begins with acceptance by the afflicted individual that a problem exists in the first place. Overcoming this disorder is undoubtedly exacerbated by the barrage of visual advertising media that we are burdened with almost every waking minute of every day. If compulsive shopping is considered an addiction on a par with alcoholism and gambling, then treatment for the obsessive spender in our consumer-driven world is much like shoving a hardened alcoholic into a Mediterranean Tupper’s bar and asking him to quit drinking. Far from being able to avoid her drug of choice, the compulsive shopper is the (oh-so-intended) target of mass media whether she’s on the phone, in front of the television, listening to the radio, passing billboards, reading e-mails, surfing the net, standing in a queue, stopping at a traffic light or reading a magazine.
Yes, compulsive spending is a psychological disorder that can wreak havoc with your bank balance, your emotions and your relationships, but it’s also a treatable one that starts with a simple acknowledgement that behavioural change is necessary. As far as severity goes, the effects of compulsive spending are relatively mild when compared to addictions such as alcoholism, drug abuse and gambling – which is probably one of the many excuses used by compulsive shoppers to justify their ‘relatively harmless’ pastime. The truth, however, is that compulsive spending tends to reach a tipping point – a point at which everything (debt, guilt, relationships) eventually spins out of control towards a final, obsession-fuelled meltdown. While the adage ‘shop til you drop’ may be considered mildly funny, the bleak reality is that the only things a compulsive shopper is likely to drop are her parcels, her car keys or her credit rating. Shop now, or stop now.
Have a fabulous Monday!