U.S. News spoke to two reformed shopaholics, who shared their stories* of how they developed, grappled, and overcame their addiction.
Mary Hunt, founder of DebtProofLiving.com and author of 7 Money Rules for Life :
I was probably born with the propensity to become a shopping addict. I think it's a temperament. I wasn't able to practice it because I grew up in a very frugal family and didn't have the means to shop for things that weren't needs. So as a child, I always dreamed I was going to be rich one day and be able to spend money freely.
When I left my home in Washington to go to college in California, I got away from the tightly regulated life I had. The first thing I did was get a checking account. I had discovered a way I could spend money I didn't have by writing checks. I suppose deep down I knew it wasn't right, but it was exhilarating and satisfying. It gave me a high, a buzz, the feeling that I could get away with anything.
If I bought shoes at Nordstrom's, I'd have to buy a pair of every color. I felt the salespeople looked at me and thought, "Oh, how I'd love to be her and live this wonderful lifestyle," and that made me feel important. I had the same fantasy when I got my first gas card and had the option to go through full service. While they'd fill up the car, I'd sit there and think, "Wow, this is what the queen of England must feel like. I have a host of people waiting on me, people tending to my carriage." I knew it was just a fantasy, but it was what I wanted. Of course, if I was with a friend I wouldn't buy anything. You never want to practice your addiction in front of someone.
By the time I got married I had access to credit cards. But after a while, I had this moment where I realized I was affecting other people's lives—my husband's and my kids'. I didn't want to disappoint my husband. I told him time after time that I wouldn't go on another shopping spree. I'd cut up the credit cards and close accounts, but it didn't last forever. The pain of my actions was never great enough to make me give up compulsive shopping; there was always a tipping point. It came to the point where if I'm alone with plastic, I'm just a disaster waiting to happen. I loved my credit cards. They were my lifeblood, they were my oxygen, they were the tools that allowed me to be the person I couldn't be growing up.
After 12 years, I had wracked up more than $100,000 in unsecured debt. Even at the worst points, I would blame the debt on my husband for not making enough money to support my spending, which absolutely wasn't true. It wasn't his fault; it was mine. I blamed a lot of people other than myself.
My shopping addiction turned me into an ugly person. A liar, a manipulator. I'd lie to my creditors and my husband, but in my mind I wasn't lying—I was just being creative. I thought I was buying myself time to be able to pay the money back. But what was I thinking? I would have had to rob a bank to pay it all back.
Once I admitted to myself I had a shopping addiction, I was able to take a step back. I realized that who I am isn't measured by what I have or what I can buy. I had to realize materialistic things are the bane of my existence. I had to realize that I had a lot more control than I thought I had.
It took me 13 years to pay back more than $100,000 of unsecured debt, but I did it. To get back to point zero, I used a flow chart that I tucked into my wallet. I told myself I'd be adult enough to ask myself these questions before buying anything that costs more than $20: Do I need it? Do I need it today or can I wait? Do I already have something that would work just as well? If, say, it were an outfit for a party, I'd ask myself if I already have clothes I could wear to the occasion.
I used to be a mall rat; I'd go and just wander around. To change my habits, I started mapping out where I would go in the store to get what I needed. It was almost like I was putting on virtual blinders. I'd also park in front of the store, rather than just in the general parking lot. I'd walk in, buy what I needed, and walk straight out.