Rotating closets full of clothes and aisles of shoes sound like a dream come true. Most of us like to stay in style or even start our own trends. There’s nothing wrong with heading to the mall with your friends and occasionally splurging on a Coach bag or Jessica Simpson heels. Everyone likes to shop. (Right? Right?) So when does that designer fantasy become a real problem? We talked to Shopaholics Anonymous founder and director Terrence Shulman and collegiettes to get the scoop.
Shop ‘Til You Drop
Ana*, a senior at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, heads to the mall six times a week. “I love window shopping, which usually turns into real shopping,” she says. “If I am feeling stressed or low, I will go to the mall to cheer me up.” These trips to the mall usually end with several bags full of small things, like jewelry, magazines and makeup, and a price tag of over $100 a week.
As a college student, spending that much a week on stuff you don’t need can really add up. Saving money loses its appeal when the next sale comes along. Sure, you’re spending less per item, but it’s cutting into your other expenses and increasing your credit card balance.
“Sometimes I go through phases of spending on things that I don’t need, let alone want,” says Ana. Emotional spending and mindless spending, which is spending during heightened emotions or without any thought, is one sign of a possible shopping addiction.
Phyu-Sin, a Mount Holyoke College sophomore, notices the shopping habits of the people who come to the store where she works as a sales associate. “Once a client purchased nearly $1,000 worth of items,” she says. At the time, Phyu-Sin worked at a clothing store that didn’t sell high-priced designer items.
“Her card had a $500 limit. So she lied to her husband and said she hadn’t paid [her bill], and he would need to pay for her purchases,” Phyu-Sin continues. Instead of putting back a few items, the customer felt that she had to buy all of the items.
This need to purchase more and more is referred to by psychologists as compulsive buying, or a shopping addiction.
Are you addicted?
According to Terrence Shulman, the founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, symptoms of a shopping addiction include:
- Buying impulsively and without thought
- Shopping for hours on end
- Spending more money than you have (and on a regular basis)
- Using most of your energy to go shopping
- Revolving your life around the next sale
- Keeping your purchases a secret from your family and friends
Phyu-Sin sees this behavior on a regular basis at the store where she works. “There are clients who purchase items relentlessly but return them out of guilt within the next week,” she says. After getting their credit card statement or realizing how much they bought and didn’t need, customers feel “shopper’s remorse,” a symptom that often follows shopping addicts on a regular basis.
The compulsion to shop isn’t limited to the mall. Shopping addicts will sometimes spend time online or on the phone ordering item after item. “For many, online or TV shopping can be harder because it is more easily accessible 24/7,” says Shulman. “Most people can more easily avoid stores than their computers, phones or TVs.” It’s as easy as picking up the phone and reading off your credit card number or typing it into a website.
According to a 2012 study conducted by researchers Sang-Hee Sohn and Yun-Jung Choi at Seoul National University, several factors contribute to the need to spend and spend: feelings of loneliness and isolation, constant exposure to advertisements and commercials, false beliefs that they could afford it and a sense of post-shopping guilt and anxiety over missing a sale.
Participants, who were all compulsive shoppers and shopping addicts, confessed depression, lack of confidence, buy-and-return behaviors and extreme anxiety and guilt before and after their compulsive shopping trips. Low self-esteem contributed to the participants’ need to shop as a means of improving their self-image and social status.
Like other addictions, shopping became a way to feel in control of their lives, but the consequences of their addiction led to debt and even more guilt.
A shopping addiction disrupts your life. “[It results in] lost time and energy, debt, arguments in relationships...bankruptcy, stealing...hoarding, loss of work and activities and enjoyment, change in sleep and eating habits,” says Shulman. The compulsive spender then finds herself in a cycle of depression, spending and guilt.
The good news is that an addiction to shopping is treatable. Compulsive spending doesn’t have to control your life, and you can overcome those feelings of guilt. “Treatment may differ depending on the length of time in addiction and its severity, [as well as] on various underlying and related issues,” Shulman says.
The Shulman Center, which provides counseling and support services in person, on the phone or online, treats an addiction to shopping like any other addiction. Shulman works with shopping addicts toward a full recovery by helping them come to terms with why they’re spending so much and by developing a plan of action to prevent and deal with relapses.
He advises his clients to write down a list of what they need to buy when they go to the store and to only buy what is on that list. Recovering addicts should also block shopping sites and TV shopping networks to avoid the temptation to shop. Regular counseling sessions and accountability checklists will also help someone overcome a shopping addiction.
Ana has begun trying to overcome her need to shop by asking herself how much she really needs or wants the item. “Sometimes clothes or accessories look cute but ask yourself if you would regret not buying it,” she says. “Usually we regret buying things; it’s rarely ever that we regret not purchasing things.”
In addition to asking yourself if you really need yet another black dress or a new sweater—no matter how tempting it is—ask yourself why you feel compelled to buy it. If loneliness and depression are one of the reasons you feel compelled to shop, building a support group of friends or a talking to a mentor when you’re feeling alone will go a long way toward recovery. Are you shopping to reward yourself? Find a less expensive way to pat yourself on the back. Consider a quiet night in with a bubble bath, your favorite tunes and no incessant creditor calls.
Preparing a detailed budget is another way that you can curb your spending. If you know where your money needs to go and how much money you actually have, you’re less likely to go on a shopping binge. The consequences of overspending will be right in front of you, making your money a tangible set of numbers instead of a seemingly unlimited pool.
If you’re certain that you can’t control yourself or your money, ask your parents to hold you more accountable for your spending. Some credit cards give you the option to get text message alerts with every purchase. Have those alerts go to your parents’ cell phones.
“It takes time, but usually through a combination of specialized therapy, support group involvement, reading books on the topic, medication [if necessary], family and peer support and understanding and resolving underlying issues, you can overcome a shopping addiction,” Shulman says.
Shopping can be a fun and healthy activity. It helps the economy, provides a social experience for friends and adds style and convenience to our lives. But when it starts to take over your life, it’s time to ask for help. You can be free! And that’s the best feeling of all.
How do you make sure you don’t over-shop? Comment below!
*Names have been changed.