By Jackie Dolan, Maria Brooks, Diana Harintho, and Jackie Doherty
Do you feel a thrill when you swipe your card at the register? Come home from the store with things you didn’t plan on buying? Buy things you never use? Run your credits cards up to the limit? If your answers to these questions are yes, you may be a shopaholic.
Shopping and Other Addictions
Newsflash: Shopping addictions are not as glamorous and humorous as the media often portrays them to be. In fact, shopping compulsions are similar to other serious drug addictions that our culture faces today. Donald Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, College of Medicine states:
“Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control over one’s impulses. In America, shopping is embedded in our culture; so often, the impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping.”
As is seen with all other addictions, compulsive shopping can destroy a person’s life, family, and finances. Take a look at this clip from the show Intervention, which starts with Heidi on a shopping spree.
As you can see, what helps makes shopping addictive is the high experienced while spending. Heidi herself says she feels like someone who just snorted a few lines of cocaine!
Individuals can get a “high” from shopping because endorphins and dopamine get switched on. This can makes the shopper feel good and engaged in what she or he is doing. Note in the video that it wasn’t the actual product that made Heidi feel all giddy and excited. She hastily pointed at which make-up she wanted with little consideration for the products. What really triggered her was the attention from the sales woman, swiping her credit card, being in the store – in other words, the whole experience.
The euphoria itself – that hit of feeling good – can reinforce the overall behavior, making the person more likely to shop again (see this good reflection from 3-Penny Princess on getting hooked on shopping). Given the way stores and credit cards work together, shoppers can spend an enormous amount of money on things they don’t need, as MTV’s True Life: I’m A Compulsive Shopper attests to. So if ever see someone’s closet filled to the brim with items with the tags still on, you may have a shopaholic on your hands!
When the high starts to fade, these individuals can be left with feelings of guilt and shame. It is a bit of a Catch 22 because this emotional distress ultimately leads to a need to alleviate the bad feelings through another shopping binge. Some shopaholics “black out” and claim they do not recall purchasing items at all! Others will hide their purchases, or even pick up a second job to pay off all of their debt.
American Consumer Culture
In American culture, this type of excessive spending is not only acceptable; it is encouraged and even celebrated! For this reason, it is fair to say that this culture actually encourages different parts of the viscous shopping addiction cycle. The U.S. is famous for having holidays centered around shopping. The “Christmas” shopping season begins as early as Halloween.
Thanksgiving holiday has become synonymous with the “Black Friday” sales (see these photos). Black Friday is infamous for having massive crowds camping out or standing in line for hours the day before, only to literally trample each other once store doors open. These holidays and events provide addicts with a rationalization of their behavior. I’m sure you’ve heard many people say, Oh! I should buy this, it’s okay, it’s on sale! It’s clear that this type of culture is only fueling a shopaholic’s addiction.
The Experience of Consumption
Taking a step back, let’s look at the entire experience of consumption. In Forces of Habit, David Courtwright explains that often mass consumption derives its popularity not from the product itself but from the experience that surrounds it.
We saw this in Heidi’s intervention. Another good example from history is coffee. Students today often feel compelled to drink coffee because their friends like to gather at coffeehouses and socialize, or their coworkers or professors utilize coffee shops as a meeting space.
This idea of experience applies to shopping as well. Shopping in contemporary times isn’t just about the procurement of goods. Many women go shopping simply because going to the mall is fun, a social experience with their girlfriends. Many of you reading are shaking your heads yes because you too have been a victim of this engaging yet budget pressing experience. Often times, you aren’t going shopping because you have specific items you need to buy. Bonding between mothers and daughters can also revolve around shopping trips.
Corporations, very aware that shopping has become an experience, exploit this fact to their advantage. In Forces of Habit David Courtwright asserts that there are always industries that profit from addictions. Today, for example, the healthcare industry, drug manufacturers and exercise equipment companies all profit from obesity. Similarly, credit card companies derive enormous profits from addictive shopping. Credit card companies make it extremely easy to obtain credit, and allow people to run up to thousands of dollars in debt even when they have a history of inability to pay it back. Heidi’s credit card company allowed her to register for multiple cards and run up debt on each one, further exacerbating the problem.
Retail companies in general make enormous profits from compulsive shopping. Companies often manipulate consumers by luring them with sales that give people the false impression they are getting a good deal, encouraging them to purchase more.
Another example of manipulation is when grocery stores place necessity items in the back so that shoppers have to go through other aisles to get to them, increasing the chances they will buy extra goods. Retail constantly think of ways to make shopping more convenient. Catalogs, online shopping and TV infomercials allow people to shop 24 hours a day if they wanted. While living in an economic and cultural environment like ours may not directly cause compulsive shopping, it certainly creates multiple opportunities for someone to become compulsive. Additionally, it makes it extremely difficult for someone in recovery.
Consumer culture and company profit are part and parcel of the whole phenomenon of shopping addiction and the difficult road to recovery. Shopaholics Anonymous, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, helps individuals, families, and groups conquer their compulsive spending. They even offer a Compulsive Shopping Checklist.
The Shulman Center offers professional treatment for “all types of theft and spending addictions.” The path to recovery can be difficult one due to the prevalence of shopping in our society. With high availability, there can be opportunities on every street corner, rather like anorexics or bulimics learning to deal with their compulsive behavior even as they need to continue to eat. Shoppers cannot get away from the need to negotiate buying basic things for life. The Shulman Center offers up this testimonial of success:
“Thanks to Terry Shulman, our lives and especially our financial picture has greatly improved. He helped both my husband and me to deal with my husband’s compulsive overshopping and overspending problem.”
— Mary, Florida
Like many other treatments for addiction, the Shulman Center offers individual and family counseling; recommends attending a version of Alcoholics Anonymous (Shopaholics Anonymous) or other support group; and offers specific interventions aimed at dealing with activity/substance-specific aspects of the person’s problem (e.g., addressing financial and legal issues). Rather than complete abstinence, however, the programs aims to help individuals and their families keep their spending and finances in balance.
Shopaholics Anonymous is not the only rehab that is offered for compulsive shoppers. Debtors Anonymous is a debt support group offered to help break the cycle of unsecure debt and gain financial recovery through a 12-step program. Stopping Overshopping is another recovery program that focuses on educating compulsive shoppers through books, exercises, new material introduced in each meeting, and having the individuals set personal goals. These meetings are held in person or on the phone for 12 weeks.
Like alcoholics and drug addicts, recovering shopaholics need certain principles in their lives that will help them with recovery. One of the most important principles is stability. As a recovering shopaholic you need stability in your life, not just therapy. For those looking for more information and insights, the book To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop is a good place to start.
So as you can see, shopping addiction is a multifaceted problem and doesn’t always have a fairytale ending. Unlike the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic, a girl’s problems won’t be whisked away with romance and Daddy won’t be coming to the rescue to unfreeze the credit card.
Shopaholics cannot just be thrown back into the same contexts or lifestyles that they used to live. Like with other addictions, both a person’s own behavior and his or her life situation need to change to move to a path of recovery.
Donald Black, A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder (pdf)
Hollander & Allen, Is Compulsive Buying a Real Disorder, and Is It Really Compulsive? (pdf)
Kellett & Bolton, Compulsive Buying: A Cognitive-Behavioral Model