7 Questions for Shopaholics

How to get your spending under control once it becomes a problem.

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Some two to five percent of Americans struggle with shopping addictions, a dark illness that can destroy families as it wreaks havoc on bank accounts. People who compulsively shop – dubbed “shopaholics” – often lie about their purchases, even to family and friends. They tend to buy things they don’t need, and sometimes don’t even bother to open items once they get home. They also make frequent unplanned purchases.

It’s easy to make light of the problem, especially when moves like Confessions of a Shopaholic find comedy in the condition, but people with experience know it’s no laughing matter. As Grace, a recovering shopaholic from Virginia explains, “When I was going through a particularly difficult and unhealthy dating relationship, I was into splurging on clothes shopping. A new outfit always makes me feel a little better about myself, but in this case, I was trying to prove to myself and to [him] that I was desirable and beautiful.”

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In other words, shopping addictions bring up issues of self-esteem, self-worth, and other hefty feelings. If you find yourself slipping towards shopaholic tendencies and want to regain control, ask yourself the following seven questions.

Who can I talk to about this? Sharing your problem with friends can get them on your side. Instead of proposing a weekend afternoon at the mall, they’ll be more likely to suggest a night in instead. Whether you’re talking with a trusted friend or partner, give enough details so they understand the depth of the problem. Admit how much you have spent shopping in the past six months, how much credit card debt you have, and just how far you have fallen from being a responsible spender.

What is going through my mind while I shop? Some shopaholics report an internal dialogue that only makes the situation worse. They may be telling themselves things like, “You’re not pretty enough…. But this dress makes you prettier.” In her book Hot (Broke) Messes, Nancy Trejos explains how the insecurity she struggled with for years helped contribute to overspending.

What else could I be doing that would make me happy? Schedule activities to fill the time that you would usually find yourself shopping—whether it's playing softball, joining a book club, taking cooking classes, or something else. Distracting yourself from old habits can be a key step towards recovery.

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Who can I bring with me? Bring that trusted friend along with you when you do have to go shopping. That way, if you’re out looking for new sneakers but find yourself drawn to the knee-high boots, she’ll set you straight. (Even Gwyneth Paltrow has included this recommendation in her newsletter GOOP.)

Do I need a time-out? Emotions can often drive spending, especially in an overstimulating environment such as a shopping mall. Before you make an impulse purchase, consider taking a few minutes to walk outside, or even waiting 24 hours. You might find that the desire to make a purchase has evaporated. Asking yourself if you will still like the item six months from now can also help.

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What are my goals? If your goal is to be a homeowner in five years, or to purchase a car next year, then you probably want to stop spending on little items so you can save up for the big ones. Using an online personal finance tool such as www.mint.com can help keep you on track.

Can I find joy in spending? Luckily, being a recovering shopaholic isn’t like being a recovering alcoholic – you can still shop on occasion, as long as the spending stays under control. The excitement of anticipating a healthy shopping trip is much more rewarding than draining your wallet every week just to get a fix immediately.