How the Recession Is Hurting Compulsive Shoppers

Most of us like to shop, but how many of us know when to stop? According to a 2006 survey by the Stanford University School of Medicine, 5.8 percent of the U.S. population—about 17 million people—are compulsive shoppers, a label psychologist April Lane Benson applies to those who "spend so much time, energy or money on shopping that it's impacting [their] life in a negative way." But during a recession, does a compulsive shopper learn to curb his behavior, or does it just make spending habits worse? NEWSWEEK's Christina Gillham asked Benson, author of "To Buy or Not To Buy," what makes someone a shopping addict and how compulsive shoppers can survive a recession. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Many of us think of ourselves as compulsive shoppers. When does an infatuation with buy ing shoes, f or example, turn in to something m or e serious?
April Lane Benson: When it impairs your life. When it's costing you significantly—not necessarily financially, but if you wreak havoc with your interpersonal relationships. A lot of marriages break up over overspending; children can get neglected, people can get fired from jobs for browsing for shoes on the Internet all day long.

Does the typical compulsive shopper fall in to a particular socioeconomic class?
No. One survey found that a greater proportion of compulsive shoppers had incomes below $50,000, but other surveys suggest that compulsive buying occurs all along the income spectrum. It's an equal-opportunity, all-purpose mood changer.

We think of shopping addicts as primarily women, but your book dispels this not ion.
Yes, according to one study, it is almost equally distributed between the two genders.

How do men and women differ in their shopping habits?
There is a difference in what they shop for and how they shop. Women shop as recreation. They like to go and browse and do it socially. For men, they shop in the same way they work: they know what they want and they go and get it. But I really think that that's changing. The men I've worked with, some of them browse a lot on the Internet; they do a lot of comparison shopping, so it's not always a straight shot. But the compulsive buyers I have worked with tend to shop alone because they are often ashamed about what they're doing. They don't want anybody judging them.

How might the recession affect overshoppers ' spending habits does it improve them or merely exacerbate them?
If I had to say one thing, it would be that, because all of us are tightening our belts, the compulsive buyers I know feel less isolated. And the fact that they're one of millions of people that are having these concerns has been allowing them to let go a little more, because they feel more a part of a community. One of my clients said, "I feel really, really guilty. I feel so lucky I have my house paid for, I have a steady income, and I really feel bad for people who are losing everything. I'd feel really horrible making a big jewelry expenditure with the way the economy is. It would be like kicking dirt in somebody's face."

But couldn ' t the recession also have the opposite effect because st or es are reducing their prices? Isn ' t the prospect of acquiring cheap goods even m or e likely to drive compulsive shoppers to the mall?
Yes, absolutely. I'm finding [that] with one or two of my clients. But more often, I'm finding that they have gotten to the point where they realize that they can never get enough of what they don't really need. It's costly to keep buying things that can't solve those issues.

And what are those issues?
There are many. People overshop because they're lonely, bored, angry, they're trying to deal with a loss or they want to belong to an appearance-obsessed culture. They want to put forth an image of wealth and power. They want to feel better about themselves. Some people do it out of excitement and as a way to calm themselves. It's not always negative emotions.

And does it calm them?
Maybe for the moment. But we have a mood study that compares normal buyers and compulsive buyers. For normal buyers, the purchase mood goes up and the postpurchase mood is even higher, but it's not a very steep curve. For compulsive buyers, the mood is lower when they start, it goes way up when they purchase and [then] comes down even lower than it was before the purchase.

What would you tell someone who wants to spend m or e during a recession because of the sales?
I would say that they've got to realize that they will never get enough of what they really need. They have to tease out what it is they're really shopping for. How does this function in their life? What's the underlying reason, how did it all start? What triggers it in the present? What are the consequences? There's a whole host of things they've got to explore. What I would also say is leave your credit cards at home, figure out what your danger zones are and don't go near them. But if somebody is so bent on buying something because it's so cheap, [they're] not going to think about that.

Can a shopping addiction lead to crime, especially at a time like this?
Yes. It happens sometimes. People who get desperate will open up credit cards in somebody else's name, they'll steal from their parents, they'll embezzle from their companies and use company credit cards for their personal purchases.

How does an addict s to p himself or herself from getting to that point?
You've really got to nip it in the bud. I have people carry around a shopping journal, and the minute the urge strikes, they need to write about the urge. How does their body know they want to shop? What thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas, impulses go along with this, and what do they think is triggering them? And then they need to ask: What's their heart saying? What will be good about shopping? What's their head saying? And then they make a decision. If they decide to shop, they've got to plan their purchases and do it in a mindful way.

You write that we are conditioned to want. Where does that stem from?
We are conditioned to want by our culture, which sells us the idea that happiness is only as far away as the next purchase, and that what you purchase will change your life.

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