5 Signs of a Shopaholic

By: Maria Trimarchi

Shopping is routinely depicted as a fun activity in the media, but as many as one out of 20 Americans is affected by compulsive shopping disorder.
Shopping is routinely depicted as a fun activity in the media, but as many as one out of 20 Americans is affected by compulsive shopping disorder.
©iStockphoto.com/Janis Litavnieks

We all know the cliché sayings: "I shop therefore I am." "Shop 'til you drop."

Tammy Faye Bakker Messner once mused that her version of heaven included a giant shopping center and no limit on her charge card. Plenty of people probably share that vision, but what if your retail therapy causes you to need real therapy?


Shopaholics, also known as compulsive shoppers or shopping addicts, may actually be suffering from a psychiatric disorder known as compulsive buying disorder.

Compulsive shopping, while long thought to primarily affect women, is now believed to affect both genders about equally. It is blind to income, race and age, although it doesn't usually show its first signs until late adolescence or young adulthood. And it negatively affects more than one out of every 20 Americans [source: Svoboda]. Let's take a look at five of the most common symptoms of a shopping addiction, beginning with the thrill of the hunt.

5: Shopping Causes Intense Feelings

While some of us may enjoy the thrill of an occasional splurge or scoring a good deal, spending more than you bargained for during an annual holiday shopping spree doesn't automatically make you a shopaholic. But that thrill, what some shopaholics describe as a high, helps drive compulsive shoppers to want more -- excessive shopping, uncontrolled spending sprees and impulse buys are the defining characteristics of compulsive buying disorder.

Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) sufferers have a sense of excitement before a purchase, an inability to resist the urge to shop and a rush or sense of reward while spending, despite any negative consequences of their actions. CBD is considered an impulse-control disorder. Just as with other impulse-control disorders such as drug and alcohol addiction and pathological gambling, for many compulsive shoppers the "high"of the spending spree is followed by a low, where the powerful euphoric feelings are replaced with those of distress, shame and guilt.


4: Shopping Despite Feelings of Distress and Guilt

For a shopaholic, the shame and regret that often follows a shopping spree can actually trigger a repeat of the same behavior.
For a shopaholic, the shame and regret that often follows a shopping spree can actually trigger a repeat of the same behavior.

People who suffer from compulsive buying disorder may also have feelings of anxiety or tension while they try to resist the urge to shop. And unlike those who compulsively shop without regret during the manic periods of bipolar disorder, CBD sufferers often feel depressed or distressed for having given in to the urge and guilty over their growing debts after they've gone on a spree. But it can be those very feelings of distress, shame and depression that ignite the shopping addict to again seek the "high" that comes along with shopping, despite any negative consequences of their actions.


3: Spending is Impulsive and Excessive

The average American has about three credit cards and knows how to use them -- on average, a cardholder owes almost $16,000 on their plastic [source: Woolsey]. Compulsive shoppers have, on average, the same number of cards as the rest of us but the difference is that they're more likely to maintain balances between $100 to $500 shy of each card's maximum limit [source: Koran]. They shop excessively and impulsively, typically making their purchases on credit.

What's excessive? Treating yourself to that pair of luxurious new boots you've had your eye on may feel excessive and unnecessary, especially if you're on a tight budget, but compulsive shoppers might buy five, 10 or even 20 pairs of those boots without hesitation. Some shopaholics shop for the thrill of the purchase no matter what the item is. Others may have specific shopping preferences -- consider the 2,000 to 3,000 pairs of shoes former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos had collected, for example.


2: Financial Problems and Big Debt

Frequently relying on credit to buy what you can't afford should be a red flag -- if you're not already in serious financial trouble, you're on your way.

Not all debts are created equal. Some debt, such as buying a home or going to school, can be good debt (usually). Good debt is debt that can work in your favor. Using high-interest credit cards to spend beyond your budget and carrying balances from month to month on those cards is bad debt.


Any debt you can't (or don't) pay off quickly is too much debt. While the amount of debt you carry is ultimately going to be a personal decision, there's a quick way to know for sure how your monthly financial obligations stack up against your monthly income. Add up your monthly debt obligations -- that's your rent or mortgage, your credit card, car loan, student loan and any other loan payments (this does not include what you pay for food, clothing, utilities or your discretionary spending). Add up your monthly income -- that's your gross salary plus any other income such as a bonus or alimony. If less than 30 percent of your income is used to pay your debts, you're in pretty good shape at the moment. When the ratio begins to creep towards 40 percent or greater, though, it's time for a financial intervention.

1: Spending Causes Relationship Problems

Compulsive spenders often have problems in personal relationships as well as financial issues. A study published by the World Psychiatric Association found that nearly 70 percent of compulsive shoppers admitted that their behavior caused problems in their relationships [source: Black].

How can a routine task such as shopping ruin marriages, friendships, even careers? First, there's only so much time in one day. Shopping consumes a lot of time for people with compulsive buying disorder. It's not a hobby; it's an uncontrollable, irresistible urge. CBD sufferers spend an inappropriate amount of time being preoccupied with all aspects of the shopping experience -- whether it's time spent tracking bargains or engaging in shopping itself, it's time that's not spent with family and friends, or on the job, and that growing distance may begin to take a toll on intimacy in relationships.


But it's not just a shopaholic's absenteeism that causes trouble. Money is the number-one source of stress in a marriage, and if you're going to fight with your partner, it's probably going to be about spending habits and debt [source: Schmitz]. The best way to deal with financial issues in a relationship is to face them, together, head on, with open communication. But one of the symptoms of compulsive buying disorder is the need to hide what's happening, either hiding how deep the debt has become, the purchases or both. The secrecy can cause (or deepen) rifts in the relationship and damage trust when discovered.

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