How to know if you're a shopaholic

Written by lisa sefcik
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Shopaholics' damaging addiction costs more than money

How to know if you're a shopaholic
Compulsive shopping can burn a hole in your wallet. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

What commercials don’t show are people going broke because of how much they spend on cosmetic procedures or outfits.

— Bruce McClary, Seattle-based credit counselor

Shopping is in a woman’s blood, if exasperated-but-indulgent husbands and boyfriends are to be believed. Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” novels document the humourous antics of plucky protagonist Rebecca Bloomwood in her assiduous pursuit of designer duds, shoes, cosmetics and other girlie goods. Readers titter as the hapless “Bex,” put on the spot at the checkout counter of an upscale boutique, forages in her wallet to find the last credit card that’s not maxed out. But translate the shopaholic into real life, and Bex nothing to laugh about, says psychologist April Benson.

Shopaholics among us

Compulsive shopping, also known as compulsive buying disorder, is as addictive as any drug -- and it’s ultimately just as destructive. A study conducted by University of Richmond published in the December 2008 issue of The Journal of Consumer Research indicates that shopaholics comprise 8.9 percent of the population and roughly 90 percent of whom are women.

“It’s a smiled-upon addiction,” Benson said, who specialises in treating shopaholics. Benson believes that “women must shop” is a time-honored cliché that fosters unhealthy habits. When it comes to compulsive shopping, “you can never get enough of what you don’t really need,” she said ruefully. “It’s like looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Clothes, shoes, accessories and beauty products, as well as books, make up a large percentage of consumer goods the female compulsive shopper acquires. By the time women seek Benson's help, retail therapy has “damaged their personal lives and relationships and other aspects beyond the financial.”

Compulsive buying disorder is characterised by four distinct phases: anticipation, preparation, shopping and spending. While in the throes of a spree, shopaholics experience an exhilarating high that researchers have likened to really good sex. Then comes the fallout -- disappointment, depression, lack of fulfillment. While this might sound like the average retail therapy session with the girls, Benson is careful to distinguish compulsive shopping disorder with the occasional frivolous dress purchase that looks less flattering once you get it home.

“Buyer’s remorse is something that happens from time to time,” she explained. “Compulsive buying has a consequence -- and it happens on an ongoing basis. It could be financial, it could be occupational, or it could be interpersonal.”

Advertising allure

Seductive marketing campaigns pushing the latest makeup palette, skincare system or cosmetic treatment are significant enablers of the shopaholic with low self-esteem. “Beauty at Any Cost,” a 2007 report, cites studies showing that young women who watched a mere 30 minutes of television advertising experienced a negative change in self-perception.

“Advertising is designed to create in us a desire,” Benson noted. “[It] appeals to either insecurity or anxiety – if you don’t buy this, you’re going to be ostracised, or you’re not going to be up to the moment.”

Bruce McClary, a counselor for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, points to the redundancy of advertising in the beauty and fashion world, which promotes numerous versions of the same item, each purportedly better than the next.

“What commercials don’t show are people going broke because of how much they spend on cosmetic procedures or outfits,” he said.

Retail therapy rescue

The good news is that shopaholics can get help through specialised programs tailored to get them to face their personal bête noires. Benson encourages her patients to examine how and when compulsive buying began, as well as how committed they are to changing their behavior. Through therapy, a portrait of the compulsive shopper emerges to reveal purchasing habits, as well as how the shopaholic treats her treasure. Does she proudly display it or use the Rebecca "Bex" Bloomwood method of shamefully stashing it out of sight? Benson places emphasis on the feelings and events that trigger shopaholics’ spending sprees: “Are they lonely? Are they bored? Did they just have a fight with a spouse? Do they shop to avoid feeling loss?”

Then there’s the matter of addressing how compulsive buying affects personal finances. And this is where the bottom line gets really ugly. When “charge it” leads to “bankruptcy” and finally to “assets depleted,” relearning the ABCs of personal finance is in order.

Spotting a shopaholic isn’t always easy for the professionals who help compulsive shoppers mend tattered finances, McClary says. However, “there are some outward signs -- if they have a lot of ‘bling’ or show up emphasising their tastes for certain brand names.”

Owning five different jackets in different colors is a dead giveaway. Working with the shopaholic puts the credit counselor in a catch-22 of addressing crippling financial problems with complex, unresolved psychological roots. “Once overspending is identified, the challenge is getting the person to realise it," he said. "You can’t just point your finger and say, ‘This is a problem you need to fix.’”

“No quick fix”

Real-world Bloomwoods face a much uglier scenario than their fictional counterpart, McClary says. “Typically, how it plays out is that they’re not well-off or super rich, but they’ve been extended a healthy dose of credit. If they have this buying disorder and all this available credit, you know what the next step is going to be – they’re going to max it.”

By the time most shopaholics seek financial counseling, he says, debt is spiraling out of control.

At the end of each “Shopaholic” installment, Bex miraculously manages a personal bailout that gets her back in her creditors’ good graces. “It takes a long time to pay debt down, especially with an average income and no miraculous fantasy-book ending,” McClary cautioned. “Compulsive shoppers can’t just run out and get a bunch of charge cards again. It may take five years of their lives undoing the damage that might have been done in a matter of weeks.”

In the meantime, cars, home and jobs are lost. “And lives are torn apart, " he added. "Families split up because of the stress and frustration over the debt situation.”

Benson also has horror stories. One patient had ratcheted up £500,000 in debt and was forced into bankruptcy. The woman’s pet penchant: hundreds of pairs of shoes. When the time came to pay the piper -- in this case, the credit card bill -- the patient was forced to resell the shoes just to make the minimum payment.

“Every time, of course, she lost money, so it got worse and worse,” Benson recalled.

Hone your shopping smarts

Whittling down the beauty budget is an integral part of the shopaholic’s recovery, McClary says, as is emphasising that other “s” word: save. According to the YWCA report, if women put the amount of money they spend on a monthly manicure into savings for 10 years, they’d have an extra £10,000. This doesn’t mean that women have to suffer a threadbare wardrobe or eschew trips to makeup counters for life. Self-deprivation doesn’t exact a financial toll, but there’s a price to pay for being too frugal.

“Self-care and self-kindness are where people like this need to focus,” said Benson, who goes on to note that women who staunchly avoid spending to maintain their appearance often neglect other areas in their lives, as well, such as getting regular medical checkups and adequate dental care.

“To buy or not to buy” remains the question for women who wonder if the designer bag they desire is a compulsive purchase. Before taking it to the checkout counter, Benson advises, women should ask themselves: How do I feel right now? Do I need this? What happens if I don’t buy it right now? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it? Will I want to return it?

“If they can answer those questions satisfactorily, it’s probably not a compulsive purchase,” she says. “But often, by the third or fourth question, they realize this is not something they should be buying.”

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