Health & Wellness Articles

7 Tips to Conquer Compulsive Spending

Signs, Symptoms and Treatments

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Mounting debt is on its way to becoming the national pastime, with 2 in 5 families spending more money than they earn. In the words of Madonna, "We are living in a material world."

Shopping malls are meccas of entertainment and materialism, and when we're bored, many of us head to the stores. For most people, spending money is just another part of life. But for about 6% of the U.S. population, spending money becomes an addiction. And it's a costly one: According to researchers from the University of Florida, the average compulsive spender is carrying $23,000 in debt.

What is compulsive spending?
Like alcohol, food, or gambling, spending can become an addiction. Compulsive spenders don't shop because they need or want things; they shop for a pick-me-up or the emotional "high" that comes from spending money. They lose their ability to rationalize purchases, and out-of-control shopping sprees become the norm. It doesn't matter how much money they're spending or which stores they're visiting. The "out-of-control" feeling that accompanies those purchases is one sign of an addiction.

Spending "addicts" need not shop at the fanciest, most expensive stores to have a problem. Stockpiling tag sale finds, hoarding used books, or stashing knickknacks from garage sales are all compulsive spending habits.

Compulsive spending can be a year-round problem, but experts say it is more common around the holidays, when people tend to spend more money. Compulsive shoppers use spending money—at the mall, online, or even at flea markets or yard sales—as a way to cope with depression, anxiety and loneliness. After the thrill of the purchase wears off and the reality of the expense sets in, the guilt, anxiety, or depression return, continuing the cycle of compulsive behavior.

Some people shop for items they think will improve their life status, such as sports cars or electronic gadgets, while others shop for bargains and convince themselves they're actually saving money. Some spend money on "trophy" items like expensive and designer goods, while others pick up tabs or buy lavish gifts to get love and attention.

Compulsive spending, which is not recognized as its own mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, is similar to other addictive or compulsive disorders like gambling and kleptomania. In those and other compulsive disorders, the behavior is recurring and progressively worsens over time. The "highs" of shopping can lead to debt and financial troubles, stressed relationships, lying about spending habits, along with feelings of shame, anxiety and guilt.
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About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.

Member Comments

  • I've been a compulsive spender most of my adult life - I finally admitted it relatively recently and with the support of my sister who is now (in her own words) my Financial Engineer, for the first time I feel almost in control! We are working to clear my debts and I am now on a weekly budget, which really works for me as my brain can understand it - with a monthly one, the first week is "woohoo, lets spend money", closely followed by tears and worries as I realise I don't have enough to get me to the next payday - 6/17/2012 10:25:38 AM
  • I completely identified with these "symptoms". I used to be exactly what they call a compulsive spender. In the last 4 years, though, I have worked with a debt management program to learn how to budget. In those 4 years, I totally paid off my nearly $30,000 in credit card debt. Overcoming compulsive shopping IS doable and I'm proof of that!! Now I live frugally and have learned the difference between needs and wants. :o) - 7/28/2010 11:45:34 AM
  • Debtors Anonymous is a wonderful program that encompasses even more than the money aspect of debt -- indebtedness to self, friends and community. It's a life saver. It helps to ameliorate the shame of compulsive spending. Of course when we give up one addiction (food, booze, unhealthy relationships) other addictions get to have their day in the sun!

    - 7/5/2010 1:12:36 PM
    Wow, this made me realize I replaced food with shopping. Crap! I better find a hobby, that's inexpensive or free, because I'm broke from shopping all the time instead of taking up space in my kitchen all day! - 1/24/2010 12:47:37 PM
  • I've known for awhile that I have a bit of a problem but until now I didn't realize how to deal with it. - 10/6/2009 10:35:20 PM
  • I tried retail therapy during a marriage and life of benign and not so benign neglect. Over $40,000 in credit card debt I declared bankruptcy. Being mostly debt free, I owe on a loan and the IRS I have much less anxiety. I am now able to stay on a budget and have stopped the behavior. Since every dollar counts, I evaluate each purchase, even the thrift shop ones to be sure I will use what I have. I am so grateful to be able to overcome this habit. - 5/18/2009 7:53:07 AM
  • PAM_S_
    The article hit home. Thank you for the great article. - 12/26/2008 9:44:09 AM

    LOVE THE ARTICLE - 8/2/2008 2:15:26 PM
    Looked the article.
    While I am not NOW a spender, I am in debt recovery. I am happy to say, outside of my mortgage and car note, my debt is down 75%. - 7/22/2008 1:13:41 PM
  • Great article. - 7/17/2008 12:14:14 PM

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