Personal Finance Smart Spending

Are You a Compulsive Shopper? Here’s How to Quit

Beth Trach
Written by Beth Trach

Need a little “retail therapy” because you’re a “shopaholic”? These terms may make for some cute t-shirts and memes, but shopping can actually be a serious addiction. In fact, compulsive buying disorder (CBD) affects 5.8 percent of Americans and can lead to serious psychological distress — not to mention debt, bankruptcy and despair.

Not everyone who loves to shop has a disorder, of course. But if you think you may have a problem getting your impulses under control and sticking to your budget, it’s worth learning more about CBD and how to treat it. Even if you just want to strengthen your frugality muscles, the suggestions for helping true shopaholics are also useful for anyone who wants to conquer their shopping itch.

What Is Compulsive Shopping?

First, the official name for this psychological disorder is Compulsive Buying Disorder, or CBD. But it goes by many other names, including:

  • Compulsive shopping
  • Compulsive spending
  • Impulsive buying
  • Oniomania
  • Shopaholism
  • Shopping addiction

True CBD is a disorder that features compulsions, which is a behavior that is continually repeated despite negative consequences. For example, if you feel an overwhelming urge to hit the mall even though you know you’ve maxed out your credit cards or won’t be able to contribute to your IRA this month, your shopping has become a damaging compulsion and not just a fun way to spend some time.

Compulsions feel like something you have to do, not just something you want to do. They are very often a coping mechanism to deal with stress in your life. So if you frequently have an impulse to go shopping, pay attention to when those occur. Is it in response to a bad day? Right after a fight with your significant other? As a way to boost your self-esteem?

“Retail therapy” may seem like a way to deal with your problems, but shopping compulsion can lead to all kinds of problems — and not all are financial. CBD looks a lot like addiction and often comes with a side order of depression and anxiety. It can also lead to interpersonal problems, particularly with spouses.

Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Buying Disorder

The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale takes into account seven main behaviors of a shopaholic. These include:

  1. Regular intrusive or obsessive thoughts about shopping
  2. Shopping to boost your mood or feel better about yourself
  3. Buying more items each time to get the same euphoria as you used to
  4. Spending so much time shopping that you can’t keep up with basic responsibilities
  5. Spending so much that it has caused negative consequences
  6. An inability to stop buying, even when you try
  7. Feeling sad or depressed if you’re not able to go shopping

If you experience four or more of these symptoms, you may have a bona fide shopping disorder.

It’s also helpful to break down exactly how you feel during the act of buying something to see if your actions fit the pattern of behavior associated with CBD. Here’s what happens when a compulsive shopper goes on a spending spree:

    • Step One: The Impulse Purchase: You buy items you don’t need without much planning or forethought. You may also try to hide your purchases from others and not actually use the things you buy.
  • Step Two: The Euphoria: Once you buy something, you get a rush of good feelings. These endorphins are exciting and make you want to experience more of this rush.
  • Step Three: The Guilt: You feel bad about your purchase afterward because you know you didn’t need and possibly couldn’t afford what you bought. Buyer’s remorse is a regular occurrence.
  • Step Four: The Bill: You feel anxiety or depression when you receive the bill for your purchases, particularly if your shopping leads to financial problems.
  • Step Five: Repetition: To alleviate the bad feelings that come up in steps four and five, you feel a strong urge to go shopping again because you know it will make you feel better — thus creating a vicious cycle.

How to Get Control of Your Shopping Habit

If you think you may have a real shopping addiction, it’s a good idea to seek treatment from a qualified therapist who can help you figure out your triggers and work through a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program to learn to replace your shopping compulsion with more positive coping mechanisms. You may also find relief in digging into any anxiety and depression that come along with your shopping compulsion.

Whether you’re struggling with CBD or just want to curb your impulse spending, there are several steps you can take to help keep money in your pocket and resist the urge to buy things on a whim. Try these tips to get a handle on your shopping habits:

  • Get rid of your credit cards. If you can’t control your impulses, you need another way to make sure you don’t go into debt. Cut up your credit cards and switch to cash or old-fashioned checks to keep from overspending. If you want to try a debit card, just make sure you don’t have overdraft protection and that it simply gets declined when you don’t have the cash in your account to cover the purchase.
  • Make a list and check it twice. Before you go to the grocery store or the mall, take the time to make a list of everything you need. Check your list before dropping anything into your cart. If an item’s not on the list, put it back on the shelf. Bring a friend to help you if you don’t think you can stick to the rules alone.
  • Turn Off the Shopping Channels: Lots of people with CBD watch home shopping channels on TV. Being bombarded with 24/7 infomercials is enough to weaken anyone’s willpower, so change the channel. If you find yourself lingering on QVC as you channel surf, turn off the TV entirely and get some exercise instead.
  • Block the Ads: The internet is packed with ads for items, and many will be for something you’ve already looked at while “window shopping” online. To prevent this temptation, install an ad blocker to kill all those images while you work or read the news. You can also install an app that blocks certain websites in your browser — just choose all your favorite stores to keep you away from online shopping.

Have you been able to beat a wicked shopping habit? Share your experiences about what worked for you in the comments!

About the author

Beth Trach

Beth Trach

Elizabeth Trach is a writer and editor living in Newburyport, MA. She also sings in a band, grows almost all her own food, and occasionally even cooks it. You can catch up on all her adventures in frugal living and extreme gardening at Port Potager.

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