Shopping Addiction: How to Identify & Stop Compulsive Spending
Information About Shopaholism & Where to Get Help
Start overcoming your shopping addiction so that you can gain control of your life and create a better future for yourself and those you love.
With professional support, many compulsive spenders are able to reign in their problematic buying habits. You can too. Your day-to-day experiences can become much more positive and fulfilling. And you can repair your finances, your relationships, and the other aspects of your life that are most important to you.
Begin with this in-depth article about compulsive shopping. You'll learn what this condition is really all about and discover that you're not alone in dealing with it. You'll start to gain helpful insights into your own behavior. And you'll learn essential tips that can lead to the end of your obsession once and for all.
What Is Shopping Addiction?
Shopping addiction is a chronic, uncontrollable habit of spending money on items, services, or experiences that you don't really need, regardless of negative consequences. The condition is often characterized by unmet emotional needs that get temporarily filled by the "high" of buying things. Shopping addicts, much like substance addicts, develop an increasing sensitivity to the rewards of their behavior (e.g., the feeling of euphoria or the numbing of their pain). As time goes on, they often need more frequent shopping sprees in order to experience the same rewards. And they lose control of their behavior.
Psychologists and psychiatric professionals are still debating whether this condition should technically be classified as an addiction. In fact, it isn't currently included as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating that the patterns and symptoms of compulsive shopping tend to be very similar to other bona fide addictions. Plus, this condition has been mentioned and studied in the psychiatric literature for more than 100 years.
The condition known as shopping addiction is also known by many other terms, including:
- Compulsive buying disorder (CBD)
- Compulsive buying behavior (CBB)
- Compulsive consumption
- Compulsive spending
- Compulsive shopping
- Compulsive debting
- Pathological buying
- Impulse buying
Estimates vary greatly since this condition often goes unrecognized and unreported, but up to eight percent of Americans may be compulsive shoppers.1 Some researchers believe that this behavioral addiction may be on the rise because online shopping feeds into our consumer-driven society and makes it easier to act on our impulses.
All kinds of people can be affected by shopping addiction. Rich, poor, or in between, it doesn't matter; a shopaholic can come from any background. And the condition can take a variety of different forms. For example, in addition to shopping compulsively in response to emotional stimuli, some people go on shopping sprees in order to:
- Grow or complete their collections of specific kinds of items
- Feel the rush of buying things that are on sale or that represent "great bargains"
- Show off, maintain a certain image, or seek higher social status
- Find and bring home their so-called "perfect" objects of desire
Some shopping addicts even display patterns of behavior that are similar to bulimia, a common eating disorder. They go on shopping binges, but then they purge the items they've bought by going back to the store and returning them. Thus, they get trapped in a repeating cycle of short-lived highs followed by periods of deep shame or regret.
Normal Shopping vs. Compulsive Shopping
People who love to shop sometimes wonder if shopping, in and of itself, is an addiction. The answer is no. Shopping is not an addiction unless it becomes a destructive behavior that you can't control. After all, the society we live in requires us to buy food, clothing, and other necessities. And much of the entertainment we enjoy requires us to spend money. So shopping—in moderation and within reason—is normal behavior. Engaging in a slightly over-budget shopping spree once in a while is also no cause for alarm.
That said, our modern way of life does tend to encourage over-consumption. Many people talk playfully of "retail therapy" as a way to alleviate stress. For many adults and young people alike, shopping is also a major social activity. And a lot of us are eager to partake in the yearly ritual of buying holiday gifts for friends and loved ones, frequently over-spending in the process.
That's why, when shopping becomes an addiction, it is often ignored or unnoticed until a lot of damage has already been done. Frequent shoppers and big spenders tend to be socially accepted. Many of us will turn a blind eye to a compulsive shopper's habits unless we are directly impacted by them in a negative way.
A compulsive shopper is someone who has a psychological dependence on shopping. He or she doesn't just indulge in the occasional impulse buy. Rather, his or her impulse buying becomes a regular occurrence, often resulting in ongoing damage to personal finances and relationships. Compulsive shoppers tend to be characterized by the following:
- Senseless, uncontrollable urges to buy things that aren't needed
- Frequent, excessive shopping sprees
- A stronger focus on the act of buying things than on using what's been purchased
- Temporary, shopping-induced feelings of elation or emotional relief
- Symptoms of withdrawal (such as irritability, fatigue, or restlessness) in between shopping sprees
Potential Causes and Risk Factors
People can become addicted to shopping for all kinds of reasons. Researchers have not been able to isolate just one cause. However, many compulsive spenders have other psychological conditions or mental health disorders that make them more susceptible to shopping addiction than the average person. And external factors such as pervasive advertising, social pressures, and easy-to-obtain credit can increase the risk of developing a shopping addiction even more.
Some of the most common risk factors that have been cited by researchers who study the issue of compulsive buying include:
- Poor self-esteem
- Anxiety disorders
- A family history of psychological disorders
- Alcoholism or other types of substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Past psychotic episodes
- Past or current problems with gambling
- Emotional abuse during childhood
- A feeling of having a deep inner void
- A strong need for external approval
- Materialistic personal values
- Loneliness, social anonymity, or emotional isolation
- An inability to regulate negative emotions
- Impulsive tendencies or poor self-discipline
- A powerful drive to seek fresh excitement
- Childhood conditioning in which parents used shopping as a reward for good behavior or as a distraction from negative emotions
Common Signs of a Compulsive Spender
Many compulsive spenders try to hide their behavior in order to avoid criticism. And people are often in denial about their own addictive behaviors or those of close friends or loved ones. So it isn't always easy to spot someone with a shopping addiction. However, some of the most common things to watch for include:
- A strong preoccupation with shopping and thoughts of shopping
- Frequent strategizing about how and where to shop next
- Regular over-spending, usually on items that aren't needed
- Attempts to rationalize over-spending or unnecessary shopping trips and purchases
- An accumulation of items that have never been used or opened
- Attempts to hide purchases, receipts, and credit card statements
- Feelings of panic when objects of desire haven't been obtained yet
- An inability to just "window shop" (i.e., browse without buying anything)
- Intense feelings of euphoria when making purchases, even mundane ones
- A lack of excitement about items after they've been purchased
- Feelings of shame, embarrassment, remorse, guilt, stress, anxiety, or disappointment after or in between shopping sprees
- A strong preference for shopping alone or online most of the time
- Frequent shopping in reaction to arguments or other emotional triggers
- Frequent shopping as a way to reward oneself, even for mundane achievements
- Worsening debt or other financial problems
- Feelings of dread whenever a bill is received
- Shock or surprise whenever financial statements reveal how much money has been spent
- Secret bank accounts or credit cards
- Attempts to manipulate or rearrange financial expenses in order accommodate more shopping
- Constant worrying about money
- Denial about the consequences of accumulating debt or not paying bills
- An inability or unwillingness to stop over-spending, even in the face of negative consequences to friends or family members
- Avoidance of many day-to-day responsibilities, even simple ones
Symptoms, Effects, and Consequences of Compulsive Spending
A person's shopping addiction can have a wide variety of negative impacts, both for the addict and for the people in his or her life. And those impacts are often anything but trivial. Plus, many shopping addicts remain in denial about the impacts of their behavior or don't recognize the harm they may be causing to themselves or others.
Compulsive spenders are always on the hunt for their next shopping high, which is generally short-lived. The rest of the time, they may experience symptoms similar to mood disorders or substance withdrawal. For example, many shopping addicts experience symptoms like:
- Persistent agitation or nervous excitement
- Feelings of emptiness
- Loss of enjoyment in other activities
- Unexplainable aches and pains
- Unusual weight loss or weight gain
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of low self-worth
- Sleep problems
In addition to the signs and symptoms above, compulsive spending can lead to many long-term negative consequences in the lives of addicts and those they care about. Here are just a few of the most common long-term effects that can develop:
- Feelings of rejection or alienation
- Harmful co-dependencies with loved ones
- Ongoing conflicts with children, parents, or other family members
- Persistent marital problems
- Ruined friendships
- Unmanageable debt
- Loss of home
- Legal troubles
How to Overcome an Addiction to Shopping: 11 Essential Tips
As a shopping addict, you may know the experience of feeling alone in the face of criticism. And you likely already know that your spending habits are unaffordable and detrimental to your long-term happiness. So the following tips are meant to help you rise out of your addiction, not cause you to feel more shame.
Know this: You don't have to be controlled by compulsive spending. Overcoming your obsessive shopping habits is absolutely possible. You can experience the feeling of being whole, of "being enough." Your world can expand anew to include loving relationships, a sense of abundance, and meaningful work and activities.
You stop compulsive shopping by taking things one day at a time. You admit that you're a compulsive shopper, get professional help, stop taking on new debt, and make a commitment to changing your behavior. It's definitely a challenge that you can tackle. It won't happen overnight, but it will be part of a new journey that can bring you more positive and meaningful rewards than you've probably imagined.
1. Get a Mental Health Evaluation
This step is non-negotiable. And it's usually better to seek professional help yourself—before your caring friends or loved ones have to stage an intervention. A psychiatric evaluation can help you determine what may be causing your shopping addiction, which is key. In order to effectively overcome your compulsive spending habits, you may need to treat one or more co-occurring conditions (such as depression or anxiety).
By working with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, you can discover what really makes you shop compulsively. (What needs are being filled by shopping that aren't currently being filled in any other way?) For example, you may learn that shopping provides:
- A feeling of excitement that's missing in your life
- A distraction from your pain, fear, anxiety, or loneliness
- A way to feel more connected or significant
Ultimately, mental health professionals can recommend the most appropriate treatments and actions to take. They can also help you cope with inevitable challenges (such as withdrawal symptoms or staying motivated throughout your healing).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one form of treatment that may be recommended. It's a type of talk therapy that can be done one-on-one or in group settings. It generally involves:
- Identifying thoughts and thought patterns that are problematic
- Learning how to question those thoughts
- Understanding how your thoughts affect your emotions and lead to certain behaviors
- Coming up with healthy coping strategies and ways to change your troublesome thought patterns
If you have a co-occurring condition like depression, then medication could also be part of your treatment. However, in the absence of a co-occurring mental disorder, any attempt to treat compulsive buying through medication may be ineffective. Currently, there isn't enough evidence to conclude that any pharmaceutical drugs are effective in treating shopping addiction unless it occurs alongside anxiety, depression, or another psychological disorder.
2. Identify Your Triggers
What happens in the lead-up to each of your shopping binges? Like other compulsive spenders, you are probably triggered by certain emotions or types of situations. So it's important to identify what you may be reacting to when you feel the strong urge to go shopping. One good way to do this is to maintain a journal of your feelings by writing down whatever seems to trigger your need to shop in each moment it happens. For example, many compulsive spenders are triggered by feelings or situations like:
- Loss of control
Some shopping addicts are also triggered by happier emotions like joy or love. They sometimes react to certain positive emotions in a way that causes them to use shopping as a kind of celebration. For some compulsive spenders, any extreme mood swing (positive or negative) can lead to a shopping binge.
Knowing your most common triggers can help you stay more mindful, giving you a chance to pause and choose how you'll react. It can also help you avoid situations that make you want to shop.
3. Ask for Support and Forgiveness
Don't try to overcome your shopping addiction alone. For most people, that is simply too challenging. Instead, own up to your problems and ask for help. Be humble. Ask your friends and loved ones to forgive you for any harm or worry you've caused them. Tell them that you're committed to overcoming your addiction and that you need their support to keep you accountable in order to succeed. If you don't have those kinds of people in your life, find a support group in your community. Your therapist (or any other mental health professional you may be working with) can probably refer you to a local group where you can find help and even make new friends.
4. Impose Shopping Restrictions on Yourself
While recovering from your addiction, it's wise to ban yourself from most kinds of shopping. Create a "no-go" list of places that you're not allowed to visit. For example, shopping malls, big-box stores, discount warehouses, boutique retail districts, and other shopping areas should all be off limits for a while. Grocery stores can be an exception, but see if you can get someone else to go with you or even shop on your behalf.
If online shopping plays a major role in your obsession, then enlist the help of someone you trust. Provide the passwords to all of the shopping websites you visit regularly, and have him or her change them and keep them stored in a password keeper that you can't access. You also may want to consider a temporary halt to your home and mobile Internet access, especially if online shopping is your biggest temptation.
5. Put Away Your Debit and Credit Cards
The idea here is to only use cash for any purchases you need to make. It will be a lot less convenient than using your credit or debit cards, but that's the point. Since cash is less convenient to use and requires more advanced planning, you'll have more chances to pause and question your actions. Your spending will feel more real and consequential as you see more of your money physically disappear with each new purchase.
You may even want to destroy all of your cards, keeping just one credit card in case you need it for an emergency. Many people find that freezing their remaining credit card in a bowl of water reduces the temptation to use it for non-emergencies. Again, it's all about reducing the convenience factor and forcing yourself to pause and question your urges so that you can practice making better choices.
6. Get Help With Solving Your Financial Problems
Do you feel like you're drowning in debt as a result of your shopping addiction? If so, you're hardly alone. That's why support groups like Debtors Anonymous exist. You can meet other people who are experiencing the same kinds of challenges. And you can receive help with reviewing your financial circumstances and coming up with a strategy for paying off your debt, spending money more wisely, and saving for your future.
In addition to support groups, you may be able to find credit counseling organizations in your community. They can often help people consolidate their debt and formulate plans that prevent bankruptcy.
If you really struggle at being responsible with your finances, then it's smart to consider having someone you trust control your finances on your behalf, at least temporarily. The key word in this scenario is trust. You'll need a high degree of confidence that the person you choose is financially literate and won't take advantage of you. Seek the opinions of other people you trust to make sure you're choosing wisely.
7. Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind
What do you care about the most? Would you rank your close friends and family members higher than shopping? How about your health, financial freedom, and personal reputation? Would those rank higher than shopping?
Pause and think about your most important personal values several times a day or whenever you're confronted with the temptation to shop impulsively. How will your actions impact the people or goals you value most? Choose your actions based on this higher-level picture. Is what you're about to do working for or against the things you've ranked highest on your list?
8. Avoid Shopping by Yourself
At certain points, you'll need to go shopping, whether for groceries, clothes, or other necessities. The key is to avoid shopping alone since it may trigger your impulsive buying habits. Instead, find people you can count on to hold you accountable; make them your shopping buddies. Make sure they know exactly what you intend to buy ahead of time so that they aren't swayed later on by your pleas or rationalizations about wanting to buy stuff you don't need.
9. Remove Sources of Temptation
Modern society is full of advertising, marketing messages, events, and so-called "shopping holidays" encouraging us to buy more stuff. So it can be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid all sources of temptation completely. However, it is possible to reduce your exposure to those messages.
For example, you can unsubscribe from the email lists and newsletters of online retailers that are always sending promotional offers. When given the option, you can also choose not to have online retailers save your address or credit card information. (That way, you'll make shopping online less convenient for yourself, thereby creating barriers to impulse buying.)
Other examples of removing sources of temptation include:
- Avoiding ad-heavy newspapers and magazines
- Canceling subscriptions to shopping catalogs
- Only watching TV that doesn't include third-party advertising (such as Netflix or HBO)
- Avoiding or blocking your favorite shopping websites
- Staying home during store sales events as well as during the weeks leading up to Christmas
10. Practice Being Mindful When You Have to Shop
You can build greater self-discipline, a little bit at a time, by going shopping with an accountability buddy in short stints and practicing self-awareness. Pay attention to what you feel when looking at each item you're drawn to. Question yourself about why you like it or why you think you must have it. Think about how it fits into your values and the bigger picture (from tip 7). Really critique your thinking. For example, if you're considering a particular clothing purchase, ask yourself:
- Will you actually wear it more than once, or at all?
- Will it go with multiple items already in your closet?
- Is it really worth standing in a long line for?
- Do you actually need it right now? (Is it replacing something really old and worn out?)
If the answer to any of those questions is no, put the item back and walk away. Then, reflect on what you've learned from the situation. Again, pay attention to how you feel. Identify the specific emotion you're feeling, call it by its name, let yourself feel it for a while, then let it go. With time and practice, you'll get better at consciously recognizing when you're in danger of impulse buying and be able to pause and choose a better course of action.
11. Find Other Ways to Spend Your Time
Try new activities that you can turn into healthier habits. As they begin to take up more of your time, you'll naturally have fewer opportunities to think about or engage in compulsive shopping. Consider activities that are more about creating than consuming. The idea is to engage in things that improve your health or self-worth or that add value and meaning to the world, even in a small way. For example, explore activities such as:
- Taking art classes
- Exploring painting, pottery, jewelry making, photography, or other artistic pursuits
- Taking up crafts like scrapbooking, knitting, or crocheting
- Hiking or taking long walks
- Learning a martial art
- Doing yoga
- Joining a recreational sports league
- Learning to dance
- Starting an exercise program
- Learning a musical instrument
- Starting a blog about a favorite subject
- Hosting simple get-togethers with your friends
- Taking classes in something you've always wanted to learn about
- Learning to cook new recipes
- Volunteering your time for a good cause
- Getting involved in bird watching
- Learning a foreign language
- Honing your skills at a game like chess
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