Compulsive shopping, also known as compulsive buying disorder or shopping addiction, refers to a tendency to think about and engage in excessive shopping, often severe enough to affect someone’s quality of life. Some people with this condition prefer to purchase certain products, like watches or food, but others compulsively shop in every category.
What Is Compulsive Shopping?
It’s common to enjoy shopping as an occasional treat, but compulsive shopping is an addictive behavior that poses a significantly serious problem. People who suffer from compulsive shopping may have intense cravings to shop and experience a high when doing so. That said, they may hoard items or struggle with financial issues as a result of their spending. Furthermore, they often shop to cope with stress, only to feel regretful or ashamed after the purchase clears.1
Compulsive shopping, also known as a shopping addiction, affects almost 6% of the US population, and it can coincide with mood, anxiety, and other impulse control disorders.2
Is Compulsive Buying Disorder Real?
Compulsive buying disorder is not officially recognized in the DSM. However, mental health professionals agree that this condition is a legitimate problem that can have a lasting impact on individuals and their loved ones, and treatment options are similar to treatments for other behavioral addictions.
9 Characteristics of Compulsive Spending
People who shop compulsively often conceal or hide their spending habits from their loved ones, so it may not be obvious initially. They might also present as wealthy, even when they’re accruing debt. Many people also justify their shopping to appear as if they have things under control.
Here are nine common signs of compulsive shopping:
1. Constant Preoccupation With Shopping
Someone who struggles with compulsive shopping may feel obsessed with buying or receiving new things, whether the purchase is necessary or not. For example, they might want another pair of jeans despite owning two of the exact same ones, or they might feel an intense urge to check out a sale, even if they have no money left in their checking account. They will also find it hard to resist having certain items and may become preoccupied with them.
2. Buying Things You Don’t Need
Compulsive shopping often entails buying items that have little to no use for the person. For example, someone might purchase numerous baby outfits even if they don’t have a child or any plans of having one. Someone else may purchase another case of wine, even if they have several cases already at home.
This mindset differs from people who buy extra things to stock up or because they’re on sale. When someone compulsively spends, they don’t necessarily consider the price, but do rationalize it to prevent excessive guilt and shame.
3. Experiencing Financial Problems Due to Shopping Habits
Compulsive spending often coincides with poor money management. People with this condition generally find it hard to stick to a budget or save money as a result of the compulsive need to seek comfort through shopping. They may rack up credit card debt quickly, and may max out one credit card, they quickly try to open up another one.
4. Lying About Shopping Habits
Many of us have seen the common trope of a wife hiding shopping bags in her car trunk because she doesn’t want her husband to see the purchases. Unfortunately, these themes of lies and deceit tend to prevail when it comes to compulsive shopping.
For instance, people may send packages to work addresses or open up secret credit cards to maintain their habit. This is often a result of shame–they feel embarrassed and fear telling their loved ones about what’s happening.
5. Stealing to Continue Shopping
Compulsive shopping habits can overlap with kleptomania symptoms. However, unlike pure kleptomania, these shoppers don’t typically get a rush from stealing their purchases. Instead, they steal to justify their compulsion or avoid more financial repercussions.
6. Shopping Despite Fears, Guilt, or Desire to Change
One of the classic signs of addiction is wanting to stop the behavior, but feeling unable to do so. This is also the case with compulsive shopping. People struggling with compulsive shopping often want to change their ways. They may recognize their habits as irrational and excessive, but they continue engaging in negative habits.
7. Shopping to Feel Normal or Regulated
People without shopping addictions enjoy buying something to receive temporary pleasure. They may purchase things on impulse from time to time. But compulsive shopping often coincides with irritation, restlessness, and intense desire. These people often feel they must shop to feel normal. Therefore, going “cold-turkey” from shopping can mimic a withdrawal state. They may experience depression or anxiety, and those symptoms can trigger ongoing relapses.
8. Shopping More & More Intensely
As with most addictions, compulsive shopping develops progressively, and symptoms worsen over time. For example, someone may start by compulsively shopping once a month. Their habit can quickly spiral into compulsively shopping several times a week or every single day. Likewise, they might shop within their defined monetary limits at first, but it becomes harder and harder to stick to those boundaries.
9. Feeling Like You “Black Out” While Shopping
Just as people can experience alcohol-related or food-related blackouts, some compulsive shoppers feel like they completely zone out when they make purchases. They may remember going on a shopping binge, as an alcoholic might, but they can’t recall what they bought or how much they spent.
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Who Does Compulsive Shopping Affect?
Most shopping stereotypes focus on women’s retail habits, but the research appears to be mixed. Some studies showed that up to 90% of compulsive shoppers were women, but other studies showed that men and women experienced this condition equally. It also appears that compulsive shoppers are more likely to be younger adults, particularly after establishing credit, and with reported incomes under $50,000.1,3
Compulsive buying appears to be on the rise in America. However, experts are still examining potential risk factors. Research shows the condition has significant comorbidity, especially with mood, anxiety, substance use, eating, addictive personalities, and other impulse control disorders.3
Compulsive buying can also coincide with hoarding disorder. Some of the symptoms overlap between the two disorders, such as the progressive worsening of symptoms, secrecy, and shame. Most people who hoard compulsively shop, but not all compulsive shoppers hoard.4 People who hoard hold onto their large number of possessions, leading to substantial clutter. Someone who compulsively shops–but doesn’t hoard–does not experience such difficulty with discarding their items.5
Co-occurring mental health conditions associated with compulsive shopping include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Binge eating disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Histrionic personality disorder
- Other behavioral addictions
- Impulse control disorders
How to Stop Compulsive Shopping
If your spending feels out of control, or if you frequently shop to cope with stress, it may be time to reevaluate your habits. You can overcome compulsive shopping, but it’s important to have a practical coping plan in place.
Here are nine ways to stop compulsive shopping:
Identify Your Triggers
When are you most likely to compulsively shop? Is it during a specific time of day? Is it when you’re with certain people or at a particular store? Recognizing these triggers–and being honest to yourself about them–is the first step toward evaluating the reason behind your compulsion and making a change.
Commit to Developing Other Hobbies
If you shop out of boredom–or as a way to feel good about yourself–you need to replace that action with something else that satisfies your urge in a non-harmful way. Consider re-engaging or trying new hobbies to fulfill your time. The goal isn’t to be so busy that you’re distracting your emotions, but try to find meaningful activities that reignite a sense of passion.
Track Your Money
Many people who compulsively shop lack insight into their finances. Keeping track of this information reveals exactly how you spend your money. If it feels too challenging to cut out all discretionary spending, start by setting a reasonable discretionary limit each week or month. If this is overwhelming for you, consider finding a financial specialist or planner to assist you and to provide you with a sense of accountability.
Make Shopping Lists
When you must shop, stick to a list. Before visiting a store, write down what you need to buy. If it’s too challenging to stick to the list, consider asking a loved one to shop for you.
Give Yourself a 48-Hour Rule
Anytime you feel tempted to buy something you need, write it down and then commit to waiting 48 hours. This strategy can significantly curb impulsive spending.
Bring Only Cash When You Go Out
Research shows that people typically spend more when using credit cards instead of cash.6 While it’s possible to overspend using cash, credit cards can make purchases seem “painless,” which can reinforce compulsive behavior.
Cut Up Your Credit Cards
You can also make your credit cards inaccessible by literally cutting them in half. This strategy can cut your spending without affecting your credit. Consider keeping 1-2 in case an emergency arises, but give it to a trusted loved one who can keep it away from you. Clear any saved card information from your digital devices.
Unsubscribe From Stores
Unfortunately, the internet makes compulsive shopping extremely easy. As a safeguard, consider unsubscribing from any stores or companies that sell products you like. You can also try deleting shopping apps and blocking triggering sites on your digital devices.
Join a Support Group
Peer support can help curb your shopping and you stay accountable to your recovery goals. There are numerous online and in-person groups around the country, including Debtors Anonymous, Spenders Anonymous, and Stopping Overshopping. Additionally, many local therapists and mental health organizations facilitate group therapy for people struggling with behavioral addictions.
When to Seek Professional Help
Behavioral addictions often make people feel shameful and insidious. Unfortunately, many people struggle for years before seeking help and finding relief. If you feel like you can’t stop your behavior, or like your behavior is affecting your everyday life, it may be worth considering therapy.
Try to find a therapist experienced in addiction treatment. Many of these therapists use cognitive-behavioral techniques to help clients understand their triggers and implement alternative coping strategies. You can search for therapists using an online directory.
Compulsive shopping may feel challenging to overcome, but recognizing the signs can help you change your behavior. Remember that you aren’t alone in your struggles, and if you feel that way, you may benefit from joining a support group or attending group therapy. Seeking professional help often makes an invaluable difference in changing compulsive habits.