Confessions of Real Shopaholics

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For 6% of the U.S. population, America’s favorite pastime is a risky compulsion.

Compulsive shopping, or shopping addiction, has gained mainstream acceptance as a legitimate and serious psychiatric disorder among behavioral experts in recent years. Like alcoholism or drug addiction, an addiction to shopping can mask underlying problems like depression or anxiety disorder, and the negative impact on relationships and finances can be devastating.

Despite its widening acceptance though, not enough experts are ready to take shopping addiction seriously, says Terrence Shulman, the founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending in Detroit. “I think we’re still in the early ages of treating this,” he says. “Because everybody shops, and it’s legal and greatly encouraged, it’s often referred to as a soft addiction.”

Here, MainStreet offers some cautionary tales and tips for avoiding this problem. Perhaps they’ll make you think twice before going on your next shopping spree.

If you or someone you know is dealing with this problem, don’t be afraid to get help. To find support, visit Shopaholics Anonymous online.

In 2008, Claudia F. began using a shopping as a way to adjust to her new life in the “real world.”

“I had lost my grandma, just graduated college, and I felt a sense of lost identity,” says the mother of three, who now runs an online maternity store. “I was trying to fill something inside and I was lost.”

But what started out as a weekend pastime quickly evolved into an obsession when “after about six or eight months, I had racked up $30,000 in credit card debt,” Claudia says. “I would hide things in my husband’s car trunk, or put them in a closet downstairs. Months would pass by, and I realized I hadn’t even looked at the stuff.”

Things came to a head when Claudia and her husband were rejected for a home loan modification. Claudia was forced to confront her addiction, and her husband threatened her with divorce. “They ran a final credit report, so that was a really big wakeup call to realize I’d put my family in jeopardy.”  Today, Claudia says she has recovered and calls herself “a conservative spender.” But the lessons she learned that year have stayed with her. “It took me realizing that I am enough, or do have enough to finally stop.”

Shopping addiction can come about for a variety of reasons, says Shulman. “We all have money issues to varying degrees,” he says, “but typically something traumatic happens and then they start.” Shulman lists several triggers, from an unhappy marriage to losing one’s income to having unwanted children.

Often, he says, these addicts turn to shopping because it’s “the only thing they can control in their life. For the shopaholic, they distract themselves for a moment, they zero in on something and find something, and for a moment, everything is blacked out. All they’re thinking about is getting what they want. And when they get it, they feel an accomplishment.”

To identify the root of one’s problem most people need specialized help, says Shulman. “With shopping addiction, sex addiction, and eating addiction, the goal is never complete abstinence, but it’s to figure out what’s driving compulsive eating disorder, sexual disorder and shopping addiction.”

For some compulsive spenders, the problem stems from external factors.

“Acquiring things always felt good,” says fashion writer Avis Cardella, whose new memoir, Spent, chronicles her 15-year shopping addiction and the harrowing toll it took on her personal life. “My being in New York’s fashion industry added fuel to the fire, and there was a desire to be perfect and be well-dressed … It was a bit of that ‘Sex and The City’ lifestyle, keeping up with the appearance, being up at the bars.”

But as Cardella’s spending spiraled out of control, so too did her emotions. “Ten years ago, I was really confused by my behavior,” she says. “When I was shopping and not wearing what I bought, and shopping in this way where I would get this physical feeling about the idea of buying something, then afterwards, I would feel disappointed in myself because I knew I had purchased something that I didn’t even need, or sometimes didn’t even want."

It took spending her last $19 on a pair of red corduroy pants at Zara for Cardella to realize she had a problem. “I asked myself, ‘how can a woman with a closet so full feel so empty inside?’ There was this emptiness that I felt despite the fact that I had all these things.”

Looking back, Cardella says she sees herself “as someone who perhaps became obsessed with appearances and fashion.”

Her advice (to young girls especially) is to find inner peace … and keep your hobbies.

“I would recommend they don’t give up other aspects of themselves,” Cardella says, “just for the sake of appearance driven things.” The big thing to ask yourself when shopping is what you’re really shopping for, she adds. “Are you buying emotions? A way to feel better about yourself? Or a way out of depression, or sadness, or fear?” If so, take a look at the problem.

The drive to spend often stems from boredom too, Shulman says. He recalls one client, a recovering alcoholic, who “had a lot of downtime and not much structure or purpose” to his life. After leaving work on disability, the middle-aged client “began buying a lot of computer equipment, about $200,000 worth,” to fill his time, Shulman explains. “He was buying things and hoarding them,” then would replace the equipment as it became outdated. After depleting his family’s savings, today the man and his wife have trouble supporting their special needs child.

Shopping is not a hobby. We repeat: Shopping is not a hobby. If spending money is the only way you know to pass the time, “you need to focus on other activities,” says Carrie Coghill, director of consumer education for “All too often the shopaholics I encounter don’t have anything else going on in their lives.”

Here’s an idea: Volunteer. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone in need, and the value of their gratitude far exceeds that of a Prada handbag.

The Obama administration even issued a call to community service open to all Americans. You can research online to find opportunities near you.

“Often the people who are really almost barely making ends meet feel like they need to keep up with the Joneses the most,” says Schulman. “They’re more driven to go over budget, partly because they don’t have enough.”

This problem tends to affect young people in particular, who in addition to lacking spending power, also fall prey to marketing tactics and pressure from peers. “For younger people, culturally, they’ve experienced a fairly recent shift in consumerism,” says Shulman. “The peer pressure is part of that, and young people are more into fashion.”

Coghill recalls one 20-something client who was earning $50,000 a year and spending “nearly half that,” she says. “She was spending $2,000 a month, and all it was doing was going toward clothes. Everything else in her budget was normal, but that one problem ate away at her credit.”

Obviously, the solution is to live within your budget, though for many, that’s hard to do. If you’re truly hard-pressed for advice, sit down with a credit counselor who can help you develop a financial roadmap.

Another option is to ask your employer for a raise. With year-end reviews on the horizon, now’s the time to start reviewing your accomplishments. Be prepared to play up your strengths and discuss what value you bring to your company.

Finally, realize the days of leisurely spending are over. Americans today are being more cautious than ever. Maybe it’s time you were, too.