January often inspires new resolutions to spend less money. For some people, that means first overcoming a shopping addiction.
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, Spending & Hoarding based in Franklin, Mich. As spending money has become easier through the Internet and credit cards, Shulman says more people are experiencing 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 the inability to stop yourself from making purchases, conflicts with loved ones over expenditures and lying about shopping. While many people love shopping, people who shop compulsively do it despite negative consequences, like going deep into debt, says Jon Grant, a professor in the University of Chicago's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience.
"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," Grant adds.
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, dean of Boston University's School of Social Work and coauthor of "Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding." Treatment through therapy often helps, and it 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.
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," Grant says. So if a friend opens up to you about his or her shopping habits, try to respond in a supportive way.
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 the loved one regain control. If that's too much of a burden, a professional money manager can fill that role, he says.
Discuss gifts in advance. Instead of splurging on pricey presents, families and friends can talk ahead of holidays or birthdays about exchanging skills or favors like house cleanings. "There's a hangover after the new year when people are in a bad state after having gorged themselves," Shulman says. "What if we could take a breath early on and say, 'Let's make these holidays different.'"
Consider therapy. Grant says cognitive behavioral therapy that encourages people to understand their actions and the longer-term consequences of overspending 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.
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 says.
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," Shulman says.