The Mom Who Shopped Her Family Broke | Oprah's Lifeclass | Oprah Winfrey Network
How I Stopped Compulsive Shopping: One Woman's Journey
Shopping may seem like a freedom but it can turn into compulsion and then bankruptcy. People who over-shop may also be depressed and using compulsive spending to self-medicate. Here's how to find help.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Shopping may be a beloved American pastime, but compulsive shopping is a real problem for millions of people who really do shop till they drop. As Shopaholics Anonymous notes, much of the U.S. economy depends on easy credit card access, 24-hour shopping on TV and the Internet, and constant advertising to get you to buy what you may not really need, all of which make compulsive spending easier.
"Compulsive shopping is a legitimate disorder, and it reflects a national problem of debt, financial crisis, and difficulty understanding the difference between want and need," says Terrence Shulman, a certified counselor and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding.
Iris Balin now understands this all too well. The Pottstown, Pa., woman is a retired grandmother in her sixties who's looking for work again. "My father was an accountant, and I grew up in a very frugal home," Balin says. "Until I left home to get married, I could not spend any money on my own. My husband was also very controlling when it came to spending money. Unfortunately, my husband was never good at keeping a job. After we got divorced, I got a job as a real estate agent, and I started making money on my own. For the first time in my life, I could go shopping for myself. My motto was, 'I'll buy it if I want it.' Shopping was a type of freedom I really enjoyed."
When Shopping Becomes Compulsive Spending
Shulman estimates that 6 to 9 percent of Americans are compulsive shoppers. The condition "has a lot in common with eating disorders, sex addiction, and gambling addiction,” he says. "It becomes compulsive when it becomes a way to deal with stress, or loss, and it can become very hard to control."
if it's chronic and repetitive, difficult to control, and results in harmful consequences. It's more common in women than men. Causes may include:
- Emotional trauma or deprivation in childhood
- Need for approval
- Need for control
- Need to fill an inner void
- A painful loss or grief
Again, Balin can relate. "For a while, shopping was fun,” she recalls. “I went on trips and cruises. I bought tons of things for my grandchildren. I bought an expensive English tea set I saw on television. I never used it. It's still up in my attic, all packed up. It all seemed to turn bad when the economy crashed, I lost money in some bad investments, and one of my daughters lost a baby. Shopping became a way to soothe emotional pain. It was like an addiction, and I could not keep up with the credit card payments. I had to declare bankruptcy in 2007."
Like other addictive behaviors, compulsive shopping may cause changes in brain activity. A study published in theJournal of Consumer Policycompared MRI brain images of 23 women with a compulsive shopping problem and 26 women who were normal shoppers. The researchers found that while they were shopping, the compulsive shoppers had higher brain activity in regions of the brain responsible for decision making.
Compulsive shoppers also may be more likely to suffer from disorders such as substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Recognizing Compulsive Shopping
"Once I knew I had a serious problem, it was a matter of going back to basics,” says Balin, who says that Shulman was a great resource in helping her overcome her condition. “I knew how to make a budget. I knew I had to get rid of all my credit cards. I knew I had to start shopping with a list of just the things I really needed. It took a while, but I am getting things under control. I don't regret some of the things I spent money on, but I do regret not having any financial security in my life now."
"When compulsive shopping spirals out of control, it can result in financial infidelity in a marriage and serious money or legal problems," explains Shulman. "We encourage support group therapy and couples therapy "that usually lasts three to four months." Unlike other addictions," he says, "you can't strive for abstinence from shopping so we strive for safety while shopping."
If you’re concerned about your level of shopping, there are signs to look for. You may be a compulsive shopper if you:
- Shop to avoid painful feelings
- Buy many things you don't need
- Prefer to shop alone
- Hide what you buy from others
- Feel high when shopping and guilty after shopping
- Are in financial difficulty because of shopping
- Are having emotional problems in your life because of shopping
Tips for Managing Compulsive Shopping
"The best advice is not to shop when you are emotional," Balin says. "You should not shop for food when you are hungry, and you should not shop for anything else when you have an emotional void that needs to be filled."
Here are other tips that can help:
- Admit you have a problem.
- Ask for help from your doctor or a mental health professional.
- Join a self-help group like Shopaholics Anonymous.
- Get rid of your credit cards.
- Shop with a list and a friend.
- Avoid Internet shopping sites and TV shopping channels.
- Find healthy ways to deal with difficult emotions.
If you think you have a problem with compulsive shopping or spending, get more information at the Shulman Center's Web site. You can learn more about compulsive shopping, take an online test to see if you might have a problem, and get a phone number to call for a free consultation.
"Compulsive shopping has left me in a hard place. You can't live very well on just Social Security," Balin says. "But I have a lot to live for.
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