Shopping addiction, also called compulsive buying disorder, can turn lives upside and send families into debt. Although most people imagine addiction involving a substance of some kind, behavioral addictions can be just as devastating.
A trip to the mall or an online shopping session to reward a bad day may be innocent enough. However, for some people, it could evolve into addictive behavior and a serious mental health disorder. Identifying shopping addiction in yourself or a loved one can be difficult, but avoiding financial problems is possible when catching the problem early.
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How Behavioral Addictions Work
Certain behaviors can produce short-term reward responses in the brain, like sex, hitting the jackpot at the casino, or bungee jumping. The “high” individuals can experience when doing their behavior of choice develops when the brain’s pleasure center gets overwhelmed.
Just as drugs or alcohol can stimulate the release of dopamine, a chemical that causes feelings of satisfaction, certain behaviors can be just as effective. When the desire to feel a “high” becomes strong enough to become compulsive, the addict loses control and seeks that activity despite any negative consequences.
Shopping addiction is a type of behavioral addiction. People who suffer from shopping addiction experience highs during the buying process. Whether it’s the joy of finding an item they’ve been searching for or purchasing something and bringing it home, these actions stimulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
How Shopping Addiction is Defined
Gambling addiction is the only medically recognized behavioral addiction in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual, 5th Edition). Research on shopping addiction or compulsive buying disorder is ongoing, and doctors still debate whether it should have a dedicated diagnosis in the DSM-5. However, for people suffering from shopping addiction, its symptoms are genuine, and the consequences can be extreme.
It’s essential to remember that shopping addiction can be just as devastating as addiction to substances. Not all shopping addicts are materialistic or fixated on status. Some addicts may focus on designer brands, while others are more fixated on finding deals.
Advertisements saturate our daily lives, and we are constantly manipulated into believing our happiness comes from the ownership of products. Messages like these can be a nightmare for someone struggling with compulsive buying disorder, so having compassion is critical if your loved one is struggling with compulsive spending.
What is a Shopping Addiction?
Shopping addiction is a chronic disorder where, like with addiction to substances, individuals have very little control over their fixation and compulsive behavior related to shopping. Addicts are often preoccupied with thoughts about shopping and spending money but keep these thoughts private.
The behavior usually happens when the person is alone, as many people experience shame or embarrassment when shopping in front of others who do not share their level of interest. People with a shopping addiction will often hide their shopping sprees and make excuses for where their money is going.
Common warning signs of shopping addiction include:
- Shopping or spending money as a result of negative emotions like anger or sadness
- Thinking obsessively about money
- Buying certain items to improve low self-esteem
- Feeling a rush or euphoria when spending
- Buying items on credit, rather than with cash
- Feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed after a spending spree
- Lying about or hiding how much money you spent
- Spending a lot of time juggling accounts or bills to accommodate spending habits
- Arguing with others about one’s shopping habits
Types of Shopping Addictions
Not all shopping addictions form for the same reasons or manifest in the same ways. Many people may have a picture in their mind of what a shopping addict looks like, but often individuals will find themselves struggling with different types of shopping addiction.
The following list is not exhaustive or universally agreed upon but can offer insights into the types of shopping addicts and their motivations.
Addicts of this type of shopping often use it to escape negative feelings. A compulsive shopper may go on a planned shopping spree after a bad day or to combat feelings of anxiety or depression.
While they may plan their trip to the mall or online shopping session, very little of the experience is actually within their control. For instance, an addict may feel upset after a difficult day and resort to excessive shopping to forget those negative emotions.
Impulsive buying typically occurs as a spur-of-the-moment reaction to seeing something you want in a shop. These instances usually aren’t planned, and the desire to buy the item can come on suddenly.
The fear of missing out or never seeing the item again can often be the driving force behind buying it. Price means nothing to impulsive shoppers; the decision to buy happens instantly, regardless of the financial consequences.
“Shopping bulimia” has recently begun making the rounds to describe this type of shopping. Bulimic shopping occurs when someone becomes overwhelmed by the desire to buy something, but once the initial high wears off, they quickly return their purchases.
Sometimes people engaging in bulimic shopping will lie or intentionally damage products to get retailers to accept these returns. The constant binging and purging of buying and returning can create financial problems for businesses. It can also create issues for shopping addicts if a retailer refuses to accept the return.
Shopping addicts who are bargain hunters will frequently buy products they don’t need just because they’re on sale. Sometimes it’s less about the act of buying and more about the rush associated with finding the deal. This behavior can be hazardous, as it may seem the person is saving money, but they are ultimately wasting money by amassing items they’ll never use.
When it comes to collecting compulsions, there can be a fair amount of overlap with other known issues like hoarding. However, collecting can bleed into a shopping addiction when the desire for every piece of a set or a rare item overrides financial concerns. Often collectors will want to purchase multiple versions of the same thing, whether it be every color, size, or style.
For example, a collector of limited edition dishware may spend excessive money and time buying every color and size to complete their set. This desire to complete a collection can be compelling and hard to resist.
Online Shopping Addiction
With so many online stores, shopping addicts can be tempted to overspend from the privacy of their homes. Between the convenience of just clicking or tapping “Complete Purchase” and the saturation of ad-targeting across social media platforms, online shopping addiction can be challenging to treat.
Ever notice that, after visiting a website, you begin seeing ads while scrolling on Facebook or checking the news? Websites track who visits, and if users fail to make a purchase, the business will target you with ads hoping to tempt you repeatedly. These remarketing techniques can turn an addict’s successful resistance to buying into failure when they’re followed around the internet by these targeted ads.
Shopping Addiction Signs and Risk Factors
Some people don’t think shopping addiction is a serious issue, especially comparing it to substance abuse that can pose a real danger to someone’s health (e.g., alcohol, opioids, etc.) But shopping addiction can easily ruin someone’s life, putting their finances and relationships in peril. Identifying the difference between a fun shopping trip and a real problem can be crucial.
Causes of Shopping Addiction
Several factors can affect the likelihood of someone developing a shopping addiction. These factors can include:
- Co-occurring illnesses
- Societal pressures
Research has shown that some people may be predisposed to addictive behaviors, so being aware of addiction within your family can be very helpful.
According to research from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University Medical Center, people with shopping addiction often meet the criteria for:
- Mood disorders (21%-100%)
- Anxiety disorders (41-80%)
- Substance use disorders (21-46%)
- Eating disorders (8-35%)
- Co-occurring disorders that feature issues with impulse control (e.g., Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) are also relatively common in these individuals (21-40%)
Often, these individuals suffer from low self-esteem or feel they don’t fit in. Buying the same expensive items owned by peers they admire may be another element in shopping behaviors that eventually turn addictive.
Is It a Shopping Addiction or Just Shopping?
Shopping is frequently considered a relaxing social outing or can cheer someone up. With common terms like “retail therapy” and “treat yourself,” it can be tough to know the difference between everyday shopping and shopping addiction.
People with shopping addiction often aren’t casual shoppers that wander the mall for fun. When behavior becomes addictive, individuals become preoccupied or even distressed with thoughts surrounding shopping and money. They may become emotional during the experience, causing many addicts to shop alone or in secret.
Consequences of Shopping Addiction
Like addiction to substances, shopping addiction can cause a ripple effect on many parts of the addict’s life, from their bank accounts to personal relationships. The short-term effects may feel primarily positive, but long-term effects can become devastating.
Consequences of a shopping addiction may include:
- Spending over budget: By spending more than the allotted amount for shopping, you could endanger funds for bills and food.
- Drowning in debt: Racking up credit card debt can put you so far in financial debt that paying it off or qualifying for loans in the future becomes almost impossible.
- Struggling to break the cycle: It’s common for compulsive buyers to overshop, feel immense guilt afterward, and use more shopping to bury those guilty feelings.
- Destroying relationships: When finances are shared with a partner or if the addict constantly borrows money, it can cause a severe strain on a marriage or friendship.
- Opening the door for other issues: Continuous and unchecked compulsive buying can lead to other mental health issues like hoarding, anxiety, and depression.
Shopping Addiction Treatment Options
Unlike addiction to substances, inpatient or outpatient treatment centers typically aren’t applicable or equipped to handle cases of shopping addiction. However, there are still many options if you or a family member is struggling with compulsive buying.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is frequently the first-line treatment for behavioral addictions like shopping addiction. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common therapy used for addiction because it helps patients identify unhealthy thought patterns and develop strategies to avoid addictive behavior in the future.
Family therapy can be another great option, especially if the shopping addiction has hurt the whole family. This therapy allows the addict and their family to heal and create systems to ensure destructive behavior no longer happens. Family support and open communication can provide a life free of shopping addiction or compulsive buying.
Treatment of Comorbidities
Some addicts may shop to cope with symptoms of co-occurring mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, or mood disorders. During the treatment process, your doctor may diagnose you or a loved one with a mental illness. Sometimes the treatment of the comorbid condition can lessen or help with the negative feelings that worsen shopping addiction.
As shopping addiction is often closely tied to financial problems, seeking a financial counselor can significantly help treat shopping addiction. While shopping addiction is usually not under the control of the addict, a financial advisor can help you create systems of managing your money and even create roadblocks to make it harder for you to spend money.
Support groups are a fantastic option for long-term support and empathy. Organizations can provide a communal support system for people going through similar situations.
Common support groups include:
You can also ask your doctor about local resources for in-person support groups.
Get Help for Shopping Addiction
If you or a loved one is dealing with shopping addiction or compulsive buying disorder, you have a few options for getting help. Support groups (online and in-person), books, therapists, and even loved ones can help you get your spending habits back on track. You can even speak with your doctor about possible options and referrals for support groups and other resources.