living with money

I Was a Shopping Addict With a Bottomless Bank Account

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Living With Money explores the personal side of personal finance: how our bank balances do and don’t define who we are.

The last major study on compulsive buying disorder, done in 2004, found that it affected about 5.8 percent of the U.S. population, although anyone with an internet connection can probably relate to its clinical definition of “uncontrolled urges to buy, with resulting significant adverse consequences.” Popularly known as shopping addiction and clinically known as oniomania (from the Greek word onios, “for sale”) it is classified in the DSM-V as a behavioral disorder, under the same umbrella as kleptomania and compulsive sex. (On a positive note, it is widely believed to be treatable.) A woman in her 50s talked to the Cut about how her shopping habits have affected her life.

I think I was raised an over-shopper. I am an only child, and I was the center of my parents’ universe. I got whatever I wanted. They spoiled me, but I was never a brat. My mother always liked to shop, and that’s what we did together when I was growing up. It’s how we connected. We’d spend a whole Saturday or Sunday at the mall or a flea market every weekend. Granted, my mother didn’t shop like me; I am Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus kind of shopper, whereas my mother was more into Woolworths. She also did not have debt. She always paid off her bills.

My father died young, just as I was finishing college. It was rough. My parents hadn’t built up any savings, so things came tumbling down for us, financially. In the year before my father died, money was very, very tight. I remember one weekend, I was in Manhattan, and I went into Macy’s in Herald Square to use the bathroom. As I was walking through, I saw all these beautiful things, and I knew I couldn’t buy any of them because we were in such financial straits. I remember saying to myself, One day, I will be able to buy all of these things.

I was a smart kid, and I majored in computer science, so I had a really good job lined up after I graduated. I worked hard, was successful, and got paid well; my starting salary was $55,000, which was a lot in the ’80s. If I wanted something, it went on my credit card. I always carried a balance, but it was never too bad, probably about $4,000. It never stressed me out or bothered me. I wouldn’t consider myself an over-shopper at that time; I was just an irresponsible shopper.

When I’m shopping, I feel no pain. If I’m sick, I don’t feel sick anymore. My right hip stops hurting. I don’t feel hunger. My adrenaline is pumping. I love the anticipation of shopping — just thinking that I’m going to go buy a new dress makes me happy. It’s only about a week later that I’ll say, “Why did I spend $3,000?” I do return things, but that doesn’t help the problem. I think I use it as an excuse to shop, to be honest. I’ll tell myself, “Go ahead and get it; you can always return it.”

My husband and I got married when I was 30. He’s the opposite of me — he does not carry a balance on his credit card, ever. He was the first person to say, “Look, you have all this debt. Let’s pay it off.” At the time, we both had good jobs; I was actually making more than he was, in the six figures. After I had my second child, I became a stay-at-home mom. We lived in a nice suburb, and soon I had my third. And that’s when my irresponsible shopping began turning into over-shopping. I think part of what caused it was that I still thought of myself as this independent career woman, and I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do.

As the years went by and my kids got older, I continued to feel like I was losing my identity as a person. I was a great mother and a good wife, but I missed being something besides that, although I didn’t realize it at the time. There was this void, and I was trying to fill it. My mother and I would put the kids in strollers and go to the mall together. And as my husband’s income increased, I started shopping at more expensive stores. I graduated from Macy’s to Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom and the bigger names.

I’m a perfectionist, and if I get my mind set on something, I have to complete it. That served me well professionally, when I was still working; if you gave me a project, I got it done. But when I applied that drive and relentlessness to shopping, it meant I couldn’t let go of something if I wanted it.

Things got out of hand after my mother died. In a typical week, I would go to the mall two or three days for hours at a time. I was a VIP at Saks Fifth Avenue, so I had a personal shopper and a special private dressing room that had a couch, snacks, and drinks. When I was on my way, my personal shopper would text me, “Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?” My tea would be waiting when I arrived. If I wanted Champagne, there was Champagne. She’d have pulled all these luxury clothes and handbags, and it was like a little candy store, just for me. If I wanted something, all I did was text her, and she would find it.

I had credit cards at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, and I really went overboard. I would bring things home and just shove them in a closet. I had several closets and they were all crammed. I couldn’t even remember half the stuff I had, and I would end up re-buying the same things. I must have had a dozen black cashmere turtlenecks, but I didn’t even know.

My husband had no idea that I had $25,000 on my Saks credit card. I absolutely hid it from him, but I would never outright lie; I’d say, “Please don’t ask me.” Still, he knew something was up. Finally, he did some snooping around, and managed to call places where I had credit cards and find out what the balances were. And that’s when it all blew up. He sat me down and said, “How much do you owe on your credit cards?” And I could tell by the tone of his voice that he knew. So I told him the truth. There was definitely tension between us for a little while after that.

I found a therapist who specialized in over-shopping, and after a number of sessions with her, I got to a point where I felt like I was okay. I was no longer in debt or shopping a lot. But I still hadn’t resolved the real issues. I still had a void that the shopping had previously filled. But I kind of hobbled along for about five years, until last summer.

I started losing control again after a death in my in-laws’ family. We’re very close, and it was a sudden loss. It made me feel vulnerable, like anyone could die at any moment. At the same time, my oldest was leaving for college. I was crying all the time, depressed, and I went straight to shopping. I started spiraling in July, when Nordstrom had its anniversary sale. This time, I did all my shopping online, because I had broken off my relationship with the mall. I wound up spending about $20,000 between July and September. When you spend that much, you get a lot of boxes, and my husband noticed.

The only thing my husband and I ever fight over is money. But we have a strong marriage otherwise, and it won’t get broken by this. He loves me for the good and the bad. When I came clean in September, he wasn’t that upset; it wasn’t like the first time. He just wanted me to get help. His empathy has increased. I think he has come to a different understanding that my addiction is not a betrayal.  He knows it’s deeper than me wanting to go out and buy a Chanel bag I don’t need.

I’ve been seeing the therapist and it’s helping, but I’m far from cured. I have to fill my void in some other way. Some over-shoppers have trouble with insurmountable debt, and I’m fortunate that I don’t, but there are other consequences. Just because I can afford it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. When I’m busy shopping, I’m not being productive, or doing other things I care about. I have shopped at my children’s baseball games, in the stands on an iPad, instead of watching. I could be a better mother if I didn’t shop so much.

Some weeks are better than others. Last week, I got it in my head that I had to have a very specific belt bag, or fanny pack, as we used to call them in the ’80s. One of my favorite fashion bloggers got one, and showed it with all these different outfits. The one she had was multi-functional; it could be a belt bag, or a cross-body bag, so it seemed to justify the $1,700 price tag. I started to look for it, but it was sold out everywhere, which made me want it more. The next thing you know, I’m bidding on an Ebay auction for this thing. I was hoping someone would outbid me, but no one did. A younger me would have been very excited about scoring the sold-out bag. But the older, wiser me recognized that I had made a mistake.

I do have a lot of shame about my problem, but now that I talk about it more, I feel less embarrassed. There’s very little out there for over-shoppers, in terms of support groups. I would love to get together with a group of people who have a similar issue, so we could talk about it and help each other. I don’t know any other over-shoppers — well, maybe I do, but they just keep it a secret.

I can control my shopping when I want to. I’ve gone a week without shopping, and two weeks, and even a month. So I can. But then, I want to get a few new things for summer, and that turns into going online and ordering every single thing I see. I don’t operate within parameters. And I haven’t figured out exactly how to stop yet.

I Was a Shopping Addict With a Bottomless Bank Account