my two cents

How Do I Know If I Have a Shopping Problem?

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Holly, 28, is a management consultant who lives in New York and can’t seem to manage her shopping habits. Sometimes she really feels like she has no control, and will spend hours researching and buying things she knows she doesn’t need.

This fall, she’s moving in with her boyfriend. It’s her first time living with a significant other, and she’s uncomfortable with him knowing about the scope of her spending (he doesn’t know about her existing credit-card balance, or that she doesn’t have any savings, and she’d prefer he didn’t have to find out). She wishes she could just snap out of it and turn things around, but then she sees something else she wants and she can’t help herself. Does she have a serious issue? She’s smart, capable, and good with numbers — and she makes a decent salary. Why can’t she get a handle on this, and how can she regulate herself better? Does she need to get help?

“I’m glad you’re calling me right now, because I was about to buy a computer privacy screen,” says Justine, a 34-year-old woman who describes herself as a chronic overspender with compulsive shopping tendencies. She agreed to speak with me (under the condition that I not use her real name) when I started researching this topic, and she’s stuck in a similar loop to you, Holly — managing to stay afloat, but aware that something is amiss with her spending.

When I ask why she’s purchasing an item that her employer could surely provide (she works in financial services, after all), she explains that the process would take “too much time”: “Once I start shopping online, the compulsive side of me needs it now,” she explains. “I suddenly can’t stand people looking at my screen, even though I’ve been at this job for years. I’m obsessing over it.”

Justine doesn’t really consider herself in debt, although she technically is — she recently took out two loans, amounting to $7,000, to cover her credit-card bills. She’s quick to admit that she doesn’t know where her money goes; she lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, rarely travels, and doesn’t have children. “I made $180,000 last year, and that should have been more than enough, but I’m so vague on my expenses. They were all frivolous. It’s not like I got a new couch or anything,” she explains. “Buying stuff is a form of comfort for me. It could be $50 worth of random things on the internet, or a $120 dress. Some people eat — I shop.”

Compulsive buying disorder (which also goes by the more highfalutin title of oniomania — from the Greek word onios, “for sale”) has been found to affect at least 5.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2004 study. Defined by “uncontrolled urges to buy, with resulting significant adverse consequences,” oniomania hasn’t (yet) earned its own diagnostic classification in the DSM-V, but it’s lumped under the same catch-all category of behavioral disorders as kleptomania and compulsive sex.

On the plus side, it is widely considered to be treatable, usually through cognitive behavioral therapy (a method that involves examining emotional triggers for a destructive behavior, and helping the patient develop better coping mechanisms); in some cases, antidepressant medication helps, too.

The sticky part of diagnosing this disorder — or recognizing it in yourself — is that it’s normal to go nuts at the checkout counter from time to time. Humans are acquisitive by nature, and no one is immune to the heady tingle of coming home with something shiny and new, especially when the price tag feels indulgent. In fact, shopping can be a perfectly healthy mood-booster, argues Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist. “We often shop to make ourselves feel better, and that doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional,” she says. “Retail therapy is a real thing, because it gives us a little opiate boost.”

But things do get hairy when the guilt starts piling up — and it’s the guilt that you need to examine. According to Clayman, there are two areas to look out for: “Number one: Is this behavior causing disruption in your financial life? Are you going into debt, or having trouble paying other bills? Are you struggling to meet other goals because you can’t adjust your spending to make room for them?” she asks. “And number two: Is it causing stress in your relationships? Is this something that you’re trying to hide or lie about? Those are the red flags.”

Compulsive shopping is often misunderstood — or underestimated — because it can’t be measured by money or stuff (or pop culture — 2009’s Confessions of a Shopaholic is a mental-health professional’s nightmare). You don’t need to have a shoe box full of maxed-out credit cards under your bed to have a legitimate problem; contrary to popular belief, most compulsive shoppers aren’t hoarders, and many are very capable of making sound financial decisions.

“At least a third of the people I work with are not in debt — yet,” says Dr. April Benson, a New York–based psychologist and author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. “There’s a huge financial cost, certainly. But there are also interpersonal costs, emotional costs, and personal-development costs. If people are spending so much time and energy on shopping and buying — thinking about it, doing it, returning stuff later — then there’s less time, energy, and money for things that would truly enhance their lives. You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.” To determine whether your problem crosses the line into “problem” territory, Benson offers three free self-assessments (developed by different specialists in the field) on her website, as well as resources for getting help.

With proper treatment, Benson says that compulsive shopping can be kept at bay — but the key is to recognize that it’s a serious psychological issue, and one may take work. Clayman agrees: “Clients always come in and say, ‘I’ve been bad, here’s my shame,’ and they want me to agree, and tell them what they need to do to stop being themselves, financially,” she says. “People want to rid themselves of their behavior without understanding what they’re using it to satisfy, but that’s not what I do. I believe that all financial behavior has meaning. So before we even think about change, I try to create space for people to pay attention to money without getting emotionally flooded and overwhelmed.”

That’s right — don’t even try to stop anything yet! Just take time to notice what you’re doing before you try to slap your hand away your wallet. “We have to take change off the table until we’ve gathered a full picture of what’s happening,” she explains. “Awareness and self-regulation around money are the foundation for being able to set and reach meaningful goals, but you can’t do that while you’re berating yourself.”

When I ask Justine if she knows why she spends the way she does, she seems surprised for a moment. “I don’t know,” she says. “I do it because it makes me feel good. But there isn’t a specific formula behind it. Am I rich right now, or poor right now? It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s just like, a blackout — and then I come to with a $500 silk bomber jacket. Other times I can say no to a $120 dress. And couldn’t tell you what it is.” Does she think she’ll change? “I always say I will, but then I don’t take action,” she says. “I hope I do. There’s part of me that knows it’s not fiscally responsible, and it’s disproportionate to what you want in life.”

A few days after our initial conversation, I text Justine to ask if she bought the computer screen. As it turns out, someone in her office had an extra one lying around — but the novelty had already worn off. “By the end of the day, I realized I didn’t even like it,” she said. “So I gave it back.”

How Do I Know If I Have a Shopping Problem?