7 Tips to Conquer Compulsive Spending

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.

What are the symptoms?
Compulsive spending often starts out small and grows into an increasingly destructive habit. These descriptions are just a few examples of feelings or scenarios associated with compulsive spending.

  • A home full of books you've never read, gadgets you've never used, and clothes you've never worn.
  • Spending money when you're feeling sad, lonely or depressed.
  • Spending money you don't have on things you don't really need.
  • Feeling excited when you buy something new, but guilty soon after.
  • Feeling reckless and careless when you spend money.
  • Forgetting how much you spend or suffering an emotional "blackout" after a shopping spree.
  • Lying about how much you spend.
  • Stealing money to keep spending.
  • Continuing to spend despite having large debts.
  • Feeling anxious, scared or unhappy about your shopping habits.
  • Fighting with loved ones over your spending habits.
  • Shopping to make yourself feel better.
  • Hiding purchases and spending habits from loved ones.
  • Not knowing (or not wanting to admit) how much you shop.
  • Turning to alcohol, food or exercise to help you cope with the stress of your debts.
  • Maxing out credit cards on superfluous purchases.
  • Taking out loans you know you can't repay to cover your debt.
If you can identify with most of the symptoms above, then you likely have a problem with compulsive spending. The next step if getting the help you need to overcome it.

Can compulsive spending be treated?
Yes, compulsive spending can be treated, but it can be a difficult problem to overcome on your own. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes, simply changing your behavior and putting yourself on a budget is enough to conquer the problem. But for others, enlisting help from a friend, support group, therapist and/or financial counselor is a better approach.

As with any addiction, talk to a trusted loved one and your health care provider about what's troubling you. Do not be ashamed, as compulsion spending doesn't make you a bad person. Print a copy of this assessment to make it easier for you to discuss your problems.

Here are 7 tips to help you get a handle on your spending.

1. Admit you have a problem. The first step to recovery from any addiction is acknowledging that you have a problem. Having trouble controlling your spending doesn't make you weak or vulnerable; it makes you human. Talk to your health care provider to work out a treatment plan. (See #5 below for more resources.) Share your problem with a trusted loved one. They can serve as a support network and help you during your recovery. Remember that spending money is not solving any problems; it's creating new ones. Some people binge on food as a way to distract themselves from the real trouble in their lives. Others spend money as a way to numb some sort of pain or sadness. To get past that, you need to first confront those bad feelings.

2. Dissect the problem.
What are your "triggers"? Do you splurge on big ticket items? Do you hoard budget items? Open your drawers and closets, and take out your credit card statements. Examine your spending habits. Determine what kind of shopper you are, and avoid the places that tempt you most. Cut up your credit cards (keep one for emergencies, but have someone else hold onto it for you), and rely only on cash if you don't trust yourself with a debit card or checkbook.

3. Examine your feelings. Why do you spend money? Do you hit the malls when your partner works late? Are you lonely when your children go to school? Is shopping a way to cope with depression, or do you shop to boost your self-esteem? Do you shell out big bucks for clothes before going to an event? Before you can heal and modify your behavior, you need to admit the root of the problem. Try to examine the answers to these questions by journaling or talking with others.

4. Divert your time. When and how do you shop? Notice patterns and then try to find alternatives to spending. Instead of staying up late and shopping online, spend time on a hobby, read a book or call a friend. If you hit the stores during the day, consider volunteering or getting a part-time job (preferably one where you won't be tempted to spend). Do you socialize by shopping? Suggest alternative activities to your friends and family. Take a walk, go to (or rent) a movie, or visit a museum. Do you overspend in public (by picking up tabs or heading to the swankiest restaurants in town)? Only bring cash, so you will only be able to pay your share. Stick to your budget by meeting for drinks or dessert rather than an entire meal. Or invite your friends to a potluck at your home.

5. Find a support group. Debtors Anonymous is a 12-step program for people who find themselves spending uncontrollably. Check your local newspaper for meetings in your area, or visit DebtorsAnonymous.org. It can be very therapeutic to talk with people who are going through the same thing. Call your local Mental Health Association or a counseling agency for information about or referrals to support groups for people with obsessions, compulsions or other kinds of mental health problems. You might also find support through the SparkPeople Message Boards or a SparkTeam.

6. Talk to a mental-health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in compulsive behaviors. You can first contact your primary health care provider for recommendations. Talking to a neutral, compassionate third party can help you sort through your troubles and get to the root of the problem.

7. You can also get help putting your finances back on track. If your spending habits are under control, but your finances are still in recovery, try contacting a consumer credit agency in your area. Such agencies offer free credit counseling and nonprofit debt management programs.

Compulsive spending is a difficult addiction to overcome, but you can succeed. Debts were accrued over months or years, and it can take even longer to get out from under them. Stay positive, be patient and remain diligent. You can and will succeed if you're determined to do so. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, so remember to keep a steady pace and you'll get back on track.