Are You a Shopaholic?

This interview with Dr. Benson appeared on in September, 2011.

A psychologist reveals why you may be a compulsive shopper–and not even realize it.

What do Mary Todd Lincoln, William Randolph Hearst and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have in common? Aside from friends in high places and triplicate names, each had an issue with what psychologist April Benson calls “the smiled upon addiction”: compulsive buying. Like workaholism, shopping addiction is often dismissed as relatively harmless, and is sometimes even considered positive (remember Bush 43 telling Americans to “go shopping more” to combat the recession). But as Dr. Benson told us, this can be an extremely deleterious condition.

  • What is shopping addiction?Shopping addiction is when someone spends so much time, energy or money, shopping – or even just thinking about shopping – that it’s impairing his or her life in a significant way.
  • So you don’t need to buy anything to have a shopping compulsion?If you’re spending eight hours a day thinking about it, or obsessively ruminating, or going online and putting things in your shopping cart, you’re considered a compulsive buyer. You could be classified as a compulsive buyer without ever buying a thing.
  • How do I know if I’m someone who has a shopping problem, versus someone who just spends a little too much sometimes?Shopping addiction isn’t necessarily about the money, it’s about how shopping impedes your life. If you or someone you know has any of the following “symptoms” – it’s a problem:
    • You are shopping despite considerable debt or despite having no money for retirement.
    • You’ve isolated yourself from her friends, your spouse or your children due to shopping. For example, there might be fights at home because of the spending or you’ve found yourself lying about something you bought. A lot of relationships break up over this.
    • You lack other personal interests. Somebody who’s spending so much time, energy and money shopping often has little time or interest in cultivating other talents and hobbies.
    • You experience considerable anxiety, guilt or shame from shopping.
  • Why do people compulsively shop?There are several main factors that play into shopping addiction. It is for some people an instant mood enhancer. Money is an equal opportunity, all-purpose mood-changer. For other people, it makes them feel more like their ideal self – they believe the acquisition of material goods is a central goal of life, a key to happiness, and a predictor of success. Some do it because it makes them feel more in control, because in other areas of their lives, they feel out of control. Some people do it to avoid dealing with loss, or to avoid a step in their life they don’t want to take. Some people do it because it’s the lesser of evils – for instance, if they’re not doing this, they might be shooting up heroin. They may come from a family with a lot of addiction. Some people do it to express anger, or seek revenge. One study in England suggested that up to a quarter of compulsive buyers do it for revenge – on spouses or parents.
  • It seems important to realize that this addiction touches on more than just money.There’s financial affording, and then there’s emotional and spiritual affording. We can bankrupt ourselves in many ways. A full one-third of the people that I work with are not in debt.
  • We all know people who live for bargains, perhaps compulsively. What’s going on there?The need to get a bargain is something that differentiates one group from the others. These people might feel less deserving, and need to spend less money on themselves than the normal compulsive buyer.
  • What about people who have a lot of money, and as soon as a new luxury item comes out, they have to have it, whether they need it or not?This is about status – and how important it is to have the newest and the best. Compulsive shoppers tend to have a big self-discrepancy – the distance between who we are and who we’d like to be, or how we would like to be seen. People might think a particular product will help them get closer to being that ideal person.
  • What about wishful shoppers? For instance, someone who wants to lose weight, so she or he will buy something too small, with the thought they’ll lose weight to fit into it.It’s buying for a fantasy. Buying for a party you imagine you’d go to. Or buying for a size or shape you imagine you could attain. Buying for a date you imagine you could go on.
  • Some people seem to get hooked on QVC, or HSN, almost as if buying something from them makes them feel less lonely – as if the people on TV were their friends.Absolutely. A colleague of mine did a study of 100 testimonial calls to QVC – ‘Why I love QVC.’ 75% of those calls had to do with compulsive buying motives. And home shopping networks lull you into believing that these are your friends whom you’re buying from. A lot of insomniacs do this – that’s when they’re buying. They feel much less alone, like they have a friend out there.
  • What should you do if you feel you might have a problem?In my book, there’s a perforated card with six questions. I tell my clients to ask and answer them in writing when they’re about to buy something. If you can answer these satisfactorily, it’s probably not a compulsive purchase. This is also a way of creating space between the impulse and the action, which is often all we need to make a more mindful decision.
    • Why am I here?
    • How do I feel?
    • Do I need this?
    • What if I wait?
    • How will I pay for it?
    • Where will I put it?
  • How do you approach a friend or loved one you might be concerned about?You want to start by saying what you’ve noticed. For instance, “I have noticed that every day I see you, you’re wearing something different.” Or, “I noticed how much money is coming out of our checking account.” Describe rather than dictate. Put the focus on how the behavior has made you feel, not directly on the person. Then, if they’re receptive, talk about possible help.

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Read More