For shopping addicts, the holiday season isn't always so merry. With advertisements and storefronts begging consumers to spend money, they can have a harder time saying "no."
"[Compulsive spenders] often feel the holiday shopping time almost gives them permission to do it, and they feel greater pressure sometimes. There are a lot of sights and sounds that trigger desires," including catalogues in the mail and shopping ads on the radio and television," says Jon Grant, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, which houses a clinic for impulsive disorders.
About 5 percent of Americans suffer from compulsive shopping, and even more struggle with lesser forms of overspending, says Terrence Shulman, founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending. As spending money has become easier, through the Internet and credit cards, Shulman says more people seem to experience problems with self-control.
Being surrounded by a culture that emphasizes materialism also exacerbates the situation, Shulman adds. "Everyone wants a slice of the American pie—a nice outfit, a nice car, a nice home. So people feel impatient or entitled to live the life of the rich and famous... People with shaky self-esteem or self-worth are particularly vulnerable," he says.
Signs of shopping addiction include being unable to stop oneself from making purchases, having conflicts with loved ones over expenditures, and lying about shopping. While many people love shopping, says Grant, people who do it compulsively do it despite negative consequences, such as going deep into debt. "They might get a lot of enjoyment from buying the item, but by the time they get home they're uninterested... It's not about the acquisition of the item itself, it's about the experience of acquiring it. They get a rush from it," he says.
Grace Vallis, 26, says that she began buying clothes and other items during an unhealthy relationship. "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," she says.
If you or someone you know has a shopping addiction, experts suggest the following:
In some cases, compulsive shopping overlaps with compulsive hoarding, where people accumulate so much stuff that it interferes with their lives and living spaces, says Gail Steketee, professor at the Boston University School of Social Work and co-author of Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding. Treatment through therapy often helps and takes about six months to a year to make significant changes.
Shulman adds that for some, emotional deprivation, or feeling unloved, plays a role, just as it does with other compulsions, such as addiction to food, drugs, or sex. "We try to do that painful work in therapy, to find another way to find love and feel love," he says.