Most of us enjoy shopping, especially those of us who consider fashion a hobby, but at the end of the day, our lives don’t revolve around it. We may covet numerous items, but we try to remain realistic about our finances, only buying what we can afford, and what we’ll really wear. Sure, there are occasional slip-ups—after all, nobody’s perfect—but generally we keep our shopping habits in control.
However, for a small subset of the population—compulsive shoppers—the opposite is true, and though it may not seem as dangerous on the surface, it’s an addiction on the level of alcoholism and drug abuse. Interestingly, it tends to affect the younger generations, often starting in the late teens to early 20’s. According to Donald Black, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, the addiction has to do with “impulsiveness and lack of control over one’s impulses.” So what does that boil down to, exactly?
Chronically spending over budget, an inability to buy just one item, a tendency to hide purchases, impaired relationships due to self-destructive shopping behaviours, and regular consequences resulting from shopping. Like food and alcohol addiction, it follows a binge-purge cycle that comes with feelings of shame and guilt. “If [someone is] no longer in control of their shopping but their shopping is in control of them, they’ve crossed the line,” says Rick Zehr, the vice president of addiction and behavioural services at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.
He goes on to note that these people “buy with the idea that their purchase will relieve some emotional pain, ranging from low self-esteem to childhood trauma.” And as with other addictions, when a person takes part in the destructive behaviour, the opiate receptors in their brain are turned on, causing them to feel momentary relief. But that’s the issue—it isn’t a real solution for whatever personal problems the shopper might be avoiding, in fact it tends to only make them worse.
To find out what that might look like, I spoke to a young woman named Claire whose mother struggles with severe shopping addiction. Scroll down to see what she had to say on the matter.
When did your mum's compulsive shopping habit begin and what do you think triggered it?
My mum has always been a crazy shopper but after my step dad passed away in 2013, things got much worse. She started spending large amounts of money on anything and everything, even if it wasn't for herself. I think she self-medicates with shopping.
Is she at all aware that she has a problem or just in denial?
She's completely in denial. She constantly talks about her money issues but doesn't seem to understand that they stem from her shopping problem. My mum has made good money as a make-up artist for CNN and CNBC for over 15 years, so if she would just slow down on the spending she wouldn't really have these money issues.
Do you or other family members try to talk to her about it? What's her reaction?
We all try to say things to her but she's completely in denial, and she takes things the wrong way and gets very defensive. We all know it stems from hurt and anger. It’s horrible to watch but whenever I say something she just tells me to mind my own business.
How much money do you think she spends in an average week?
I would have to say on a bad week she probably spends at least $1500 on nonsense. But it really all depends—there have been times when she’s come home with random $2000 couches or furniture that we don’t need. So it's hard to guage on a weekly basis, but she purchases clothes, shoes and unnecessary items for the house just about every day.
What does she tend to shop for?
Anything and everything: furniture, clothing, things for other people. She’s always creating reasons for why she should buy something. She once came home with a tent for camping and a bunch of camping supplies and we don’t even camp.
Does she tend to shop more online or in stores?
She tends to shop in the store but is always online looking for airline tickets.
What have been some of the consequences of her actions?
My mum is to the point where she's struggling to stay afloat: struggling to pay the mortgage, putting the house on the market and then taking it off, and things like that. My brother and I try to help her with bills in the house so the important things don't get cut off, but it can be so frustrating because then we’ll see her spend money frivolously. Meanwhile, we're trying to grow up and learn how to be adults ourselves.
Do you believe shopping addiction is more common than we tend to think? Sound off in the comments!