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:
- Be nonjudgmental. "People don't like to disclose they feel out of control, and they feel embarrassed by the amount of debt they have," says Grant.
- Give a helping hand. Grant says if a family member is willing to take over the checkbook or finances of a person struggling with compulsive shopping, it can help them regain control. If that's too much of a burden, then a professional money manager can fill that role, he says. For Vallis, just sharing her struggle with friends and asking them to keep an eye on her made a difference.
- Discuss holiday gifts in advance. Instead of splurging on pricey presents, families and friends can talk ahead of time about exchanging skills or favors such as house cleanings. "There's a hangover after the new year when people are in a bad state after having gorged themselves," says Shulman. "What if we could take a breath early on and say, 'Let's make these holidays different.'"
- Consider therapy. Grant says that cognitive behavioral therapy that encourages people to understand their actions and the longer term consequences can help. It can also teach people skills such as using cash instead of credit cards or not going to stores when they feel depressed or stressed.
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.
- Look at possible medications. While studies on the effect of medications on compulsive shopping haven't reached any hard-and-fast conclusions, antidepressants or antianxiety medications are sometimes helpful, Shulman adds.
- Check out 12-step programs. Most towns and cities have Shoppers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, or Overspenders Anonymous programs that operate much like Alcoholics Anonymous. "For some people, it becomes a spiritual path," says Shulman.
- Find new activities. Vallis says a new set of friends and social life helped break the shopping habit. She suggests to others, "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."