If Your Loved One is a Compulsive Buyer

Whether, When, and How to Intervene

Is your loved one a compulsive buyer?


1. How strongly would your loved one agree with these statements?

    • My closet has a number of unopened shopping bags in it.
    • Others might consider me a shopaholic.
    • Much of my life revolves around buying things.
    • I consider myself an impulse purchaser.
    • I buy things I don’t need.

2. Would your loved one answer “yes” to a number of these questions?

  • Do you use shopping as a quick fix for the blues?
  • Do you spend more than you can afford?
  • Are some of your purchases unused or hidden?
  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed about this behavior?
  • Would your life be richer if you were shopping less?
  • Have your attempts to change been unsuccessful?

3. Would you answer “yes” to a number of these questions?

  • Is there an overabundance of stuff in your loved one’s home that seems to be added to constantly?
  • Do you see a lot of unused, unworn items (regardless of whether or not your loved one would answer “yes” to that question)?
  • What about shopping bags that haven’t been unpacked or put away?
  • Are there too many of one kind of item?
  • Has your loved one told you that this is a problem?
  • Is this something he/she’s tried to stop, but been unable to?
  • Is your loved one continuing to buy?
  • If you believe your loved one is a compulsive buyer, do you intervene?
  • Has your loved one confided in you that this is a problem?
  • Has he/she asked for your advice?
  • If so, do you think he/she really wants it?
  • Has someone else asked you to intervene? How does your loved one feel about that other person having intervened?
  • Do you have a sense that your loved one has another addiction or compulsive problem that needs to be attended to first?
General Principles Regarding Intervention
  • Realize that there’s only so much you can do. Your loved one has to genuinely want to change—and see some value in changing—for it to happen.
  • Preserving your relationship with your loved one is the first order of priority.
  •  Overspending loved ones can evoke very strong feelings in all of us. Envy, competitiveness, anger, contempt, and disgust are common. Pay close attention to your thoughts and feelings before you intervene.
  • If you notice your loved one becoming defensive, back off.
  • In your desire to help, it’s easy to promise more than you can deliver. Don’t get in over your head. You could both drown!
  • There’s no shame, and more likely wisdom, in telling your loved one that some of what he/she needs goes beyond your area of expertise and that you’ll assist him/her in getting help. There are a variety of sources of help and support on my website you can tell your loved one about.

What do you say?

  • Tell your loved one what you see—without adding any interpretation or analysis.
  • Let your loved one know that you want to help and you’ll do whatever you can.
  • It’s also useful to let your loved one know that this problem can be quite serious and often has psychological roots. Let your loved one know that there is specific and effective professional help available and that you’ll help them with resources.
  • Make sure your loved one knows that overcoming a habit like overshopping takes time, energy, awareness, knowledge, and patience.
  • Let your loved one know how important it is to forgive him or herself for any backsliding, to notice and allow it. That’s allow, not swallow; allow, not wallow.

Proven Strategies for Stopping Overshopping

  • Make a list with your loved one of what she currently has in the categories of items that are being overbought. Seeing excess in black and white can be a helpful motivator.
  • Encourage your loved one to think about her particular overbuying cues or triggers. Does her buying occur in response to particular feelings, watching others shop, holidays, advertisements, time of day or year, seeing a sale sign, for example?
  • You might let your loved one know that it can be helpful to keep a notebook handy and jot down thoughts and feelings that occur to her/him when there’s an impulse to overbuy. The writing creates space between impulse and action, expands consciousness, and can serve as a deterrent to buying. Knowing what triggers the impulses is extremely important baseline information.
  • It can also be extremely helpful to take some deep breaths and follow them all the way in and all the way out when an impulse occurs. This slowing down will help your loved one to know that eventually the urgency will subside, if not pass altogether.

Suggest that she ask these questions before every purchase:

1. Why am I here?

2. How do I feel?

3. Do I need this?

4. What if I wait?

5. How will I pay for this?

6. Where will I put it?

  • Encourage your loved one to think about the negative consequences of overbuying, whether those are emotional, financial, occupational, social, or relationship difficulties. Often there are both immediate negative emotional consequences (when the “high” of the buy has passed) and longer term negative consequences—when the bill comes, for example, or a spouse or partner finds hidden goods.
  • Suggest that the loved one enlist the aid of someone that he or she can use as an advocate, or shopping support buddy, to help gain control. Sometimes the buddy makes him or herself available for phone calls, or provides e-mail support. Sometimes the buddy might go shopping with your loved one and keep him or her focused on the goal of stopping overshopping. Other buddies help overshoppers by helping them “shop in their own closet” and make new outfits with existing clothes.
  • Sometimes it may be useful for you to be a shopping support buddy to your loved one. You might offer to make a quick call to your loved one at home or office during high-risk times to assure your loved one is not out shopping or, if she is, to help her to leave the shopping venue. Be sure the loved one reads this as a helpful reminder rather than a policing action.

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at BehavioralCents.com, 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