Confessions of Former Shopaholics

How two people’s shopping addiction jeopardized their relationships and finances.

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Overflowing closets, jewelry boxes stacked one on top of the other, unopened shopping bags scattered throughout the house—these are all telltale signs of a person with a shopping addiction. Just as gamblers can't resist a trip to the casino, those with a shopping compulsion cannot stop themselves from frequenting the mall or visiting the websites of their favorite stores. Although the addictions are significantly different, gamblers and shopaholics both surrender to a vice that can tear their finances apart. The temptation to swipe one credit card after another is hard to dispel, despite the destruction a shopping spree leaves in its path.

Approximately 2 to 5 percent of Americans have a shopping addiction. For many, the consequences are devastating: More than 1 in 20 Americans have a shopping habit that jeopardizes their relationships or careers, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

A number of misconceptions surround shopping addiction. Despite popular belief, the Internet hasn't completely revolutionized the way so-called "shopaholics" operate, according to Donald Black, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa who studies impulse-control disorders. Even though the Web has made retailers accessible at one's fingertips, shopping online doesn't provide the same sensory experience as a brick-and-mortar store. "One of the things compulsive shoppers will tell you is they really enjoy the shopping experience, and I'm not sure that Internet shopping provides them with the sensual pleasures they're looking for," he says. "They like the sounds, the smells, the feel of fabrics—you can't have that shopping online."

In addition to varying shopping methods, not everyone with a shopping addiction has their finances fall apart, since some possess the financial resources to support their spending habits. However, the majority of compulsive shoppers exhibit habits that have damaging effects on their personal lives. For instance, mothers may be hitting the mall when they should be taking care of their children, or people go shopping rather than socialize and eventually lose friends.

[See: 10 Signs You Shop Too Much.]

Much of America's growing number of shopping addicts is a result of Western civilization, says April Lane Benson, author of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. "Consumption fuels our economy. Materialism is rampant. We think that if you can't buy happiness, you just don't know where to shop," she says. Some onlookers admire compulsive shoppers' ability to spend a lot of money, which can encourage them even more. "A lot of times, it's a smiled-upon addiction," Benson says.

Because of the way society enables their addiction, compulsive shoppers often rationalize their habits. Some think they simply have good taste, which warrants their need to keep up with the latest trends. Others falsely believe they have the assets to support their hobby. Many times, they are overlooking the root of their addiction: emotions that may include loneliness, boredom, depression, or the desire to feel empowerment.

Another energizer is the high some shoppers feel at the point of sale. But the rush is only temporary, Black says. Once they go home and see how much they've spent, the euphoria usually disappears. This can lead people to feel "buyer's remorse." Many hide the items—in the trunk of their car, in the attic, in the storage room—to conceal their shopping addiction. "They know what they're doing is wrong and obsessive, and they're either ashamed or embarrassed by it," says Black, "otherwise, why would they hide it?" In some extreme cases, people purchase a bunch of items, suffer from buyer's remorse and return the products, only to come back later to buy them again. Benson calls them "returnaholics."

According to Benson, shopaholics can never get enough of things they want but don't need. Consequently, she says compulsive shoppers need to figure out what it is they're really shopping for; For most shopping addicts, she says it's never the items in their cart.