Although not a formally recognized mental health disorder,1 shopping addiction refers to a pattern of maladaptive shopping in which someone continues to shop despite physical, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal consequences. Shopping addiction is treatable, and there are many treatment options available for those seeking help.
What Is a Shopping Addiction?
Like other forms of addiction, shopping addiction is characterized by the subsequent problems it causes to the individual, families, and society in general. Someone who shops every day may not necessarily be considered addicted when it’s done in a healthy, non-problematic manner such as regularly purchasing produce, food, household goods, gas, and other essential everyday items. Shopping addiction, also known as oniomania, compulsive buying disorder (CBD), or compulsive shopping, affects about 18 million adults in the United States.2
It can follow the typical progression of addiction in which someone continues to engage in unhealthy behavior despite physical, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal consequences. Shopping starts to increase in frequency and intensity, and includes a variation of cravings and withdrawal. Those with shopping addiction may ultimately arrive at a point where they make unnecessary purchases for the sake of buying something even though they don’t need it and it’s draining their financial resources.
Controversy About Shopping Addiction & Compulsive Buying
When defining shopping addiction, it is important to note that, like many behavioral addictions, it is not currently recognized as a diagnosable mental health disorder. Although there is still further research and consensus needed for it to become formally recognized as a diagnosable disorder, current research has demonstrated a pattern of identified behaviors, signs, risk factors, and symptoms for this condition.2 Given that some of this research is mixed, considering a formal diagnosis is still under debate.2
Online Shopping Addiction
The Internet is the perfect platform for making shopping even more exciting, and there is evidence to support the claim that it has increased problematic shopping.3 The ability to purchase items with just the “click of a button” is exciting.4 It is simple and fast. It also eliminates the need to travel from one store to the next, which delays the shopping and purchasing process. For those who enjoy variety, there are numerous stores to shop online—some of which seem to sell just about anything and everything (e.g., Amazon, eBay). To this extent, shopping online may take mere seconds or hours, days, and even weeks or longer depending on the purchase.
Here, the shopper receives gratification twice–upon making the purchase and receiving that item.5 For those addicted to shopping, however, there is less and less enjoyment toward the item purchased. In fact, it may lead toward shame and regret—two feelings commonly experienced by those facing addiction.6
Types of Shopping Addiction
People with a shopping addiction likely fall into one of these types:7
- Compulsive shopaholics: People who shop when feeling emotional distress
- Trophy shopaholics: Always shopping for the perfect item
- Shopaholics: Want the image of being a big spender and love flashy items
- Bargain seekers: Purchase items they don’t need because they are on sale
- Bulimic shoppers: Get caught in a vicious cycle of buying and returning
- Collectors: Don’t feel complete unless they have one item in each color or every piece of a set
Do I Have a Shopping Addiction? 7 Signs of Compulsive Buying
Although everyone’s experience with shopping addiction varies, there are some warning signs that may indicate a problem. The more warning signs you experience, and the more severe they are, the more likely you are to have a shopping addiction or problem with compulsive buying. Signs tend to begin with little to no notice and gradually intensify over time. The earlier these are brought to awareness and corrected, the better.
Here are seven signs of a compulsive buying problem:
1. Negative Emotions & Low Self-Esteem
For many people, even those without a shopping addiction, shopping feels good. It can be just the pick-me-up you want after a challenging day. In moderation, this can be perfectly fine, but when shopping becomes a go-to coping skill for life’s problems, it can quickly get out of hand.
People struggling with negative emotions such as anxiety or depression or possessing low self-esteem or overall low self-concept, are at higher risk. Rather than perseverate over a negative thought or dissolve into a negative emotion, this avoidant strategy activates the reward pathway in the brain, leading to euphoric sensations. When the problem persists and becomes further complicated with a shopping addiction, the cycle is reinforced and harder to break.
2. Preoccupation With Shopping
You do not need to be actively shopping 24/7 to struggle with shopping addiction. A huge part of the struggle is the time spent thinking about shopping. This involves fantasies of things desired, researching the item, comparing prices, reading reviews, and budgeting. After a purchase, additional time might be spent, again, comparing prices or considering returning, exchanging, or reselling the item. The preoccupation with shopping can become so intense that it becomes the object of your desire. More time is spent thinking about shopping than anything else, including family, friends, work, school, and other life obligations and previously enjoyed activities.
3. Shopping in Secret
A sign of shopping addiction is shopping in secret and experiencing distress when your cover might be blown. Great measures might be taken to hold this one close. Most people either keep or attempt to keep their vices private. Even if someone has an awareness of the problem, admitting or showing it to others is something entirely different. Compulsive shopping is no exception. If shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, you might say you are doing something else. With shopping online, you might clear your browser history and cache to remove any record.
4. Being Unable to Stop Shopping
As the addiction intensifies, the ability to control it lessens. Like a craving and withdrawal process experienced with substance use disorders, the gratification from each purchase lessens in intensity and duration. Almost immediately after making one purchase, you are already thinking about or moving onto the next one.
It is common to go beyond purchasing more desirable items to completely unnecessary ones. As this happens, the likelihood of increased returns and exchanges happens. Even in these cases, the thrill is in the purchase. With the money or credit returned, the next shopping spree can begin.
5. Compromising Your Values or Well-Being to Shop
Good values tend to be those that treat others the way you want to be treated and lead toward a well-balanced life. Compulsive buying can quickly compromise that. Shopping in secret, lying about it, and spending excessively can have detrimental effects on not only the person, but their relationships. Well-being may be impacted along the mind-body-spirit pathway as well. When someone puts shopping above all else (developing an unhealthy attachment), they may stop committing to healthy nutrition and exercise, and lose contact with other healthy supports; everything begins spiraling downward until interrupted.
6. Feeling Guilty & Shameful About Purchases
Guilt is a common feeling following a purchase, especially one that is unnecessary. You might feel bad about a purchase, think it over a bit, work through it, and casually move on to the next purchase. This is especially true during the early stages. But as the addiction intensifies, so do feelings of guilt. When guilt becomes profound enough, it may result in shame. Shame is guilt internalized. Rather than, “I feel bad about buying those new shoes for $300 when I just bought a nice pair last week,” you may hold a core belief such as, “I am a loser.” This negative core belief becomes so ingrained that it impacts the overall self-concept.
7. Needing to Shop to Feel Normal
As the pleasure of shopping gradually fades, the shopping still continues. At this point, you may find yourself shopping just to feel normal. Doing so reduces the craving and withdrawal cycle, which eases the tension you feel inside yourself. This is where you just go through the motions, but the shopping has developed into what is essentially a basic need. As you would ensure that you eat, drink, and sleep each day; shopping follows suit. When shopping is removed, the effect may be profound.
What Causes Compulsive Buying Disorder?
Without ample awareness, someone who is more vulnerable to addiction may be more susceptible to shopping addiction (with the potential to develop a cross addiction). Although individuals vary, as do the causes and triggers, research has identified some common factors for consideration.
First, one may consider predispositions. Such predispositions may be associated with one or a combination of co-occurring disorders, upbringing, materialism, relationships, and personality.4
Other Mental Health Issues
Many individuals who struggle with shopping addiction also have diagnosable mental health and/or substance use disorders. Mood, eating, and personality disorders are among the most common.
Many people who struggle with shopping addiction were raised in homes where there was a compulsion to shop. It is also more common when parents or guardians also had mental health and/or substance use disorders.
When people place high value on material items and extrinsic goals such as financial success and social status, there is an increased likelihood of developing a shopping addiction.
In cases where people struggle to attain and maintain close, satisfying relationships, they may turn to material items to fulfill emotional needs.
Research has indicated that those with shopping addiction tend to have higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness. They are also typically less disciplined.4
Other Emotional Distress
Additional risk factors associated with thoughts and emotions include:8
- Filling a void after experiencing grief or loss
- As a way to get back at life when it feels unfair
- To get a lift when dealing with depression
- A means for comforting or soothing anxiety or stress
- A way to gain acceptance or to fit in with a certain group
- Trying to feel empowered or in control of their life
- To fight boredom
- To distract from feelings of worthlessness
- Feeling entitled as a way to compensate for over-giving or sacrifice
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How to Stop Compulsive Shopping
The first step to stopping compulsive shopping is being real with yourself. If you possess any or a combination of the signs above, it is important to act quickly and decisively. Fortunately, there are many ways that you may overcome this serious problem. Regardless of how you proceed, it is important to stand strong against compulsive shopping while engaging in healthy coping skills intentionally and consistently.
Here are five ways to stop a shopping addiction:
1. Admit to Yourself That You Have a Problem
The first step is admitting to yourself that you have a problem. As hard as it is to dive deep into the less desirable side of yourself, it is necessary. Remember, when it comes to shopping addiction, you are not alone. The help is out there, but it is only as helpful as you allow. Upon admitting that you have a problem, there needs to be a firm commitment toward its resolution.
2. Tell Someone You Trust
When struggling with shopping addiction, it helps to have social support. Telling someone you trust ensures that you are not alone. This person may assist by checking in, sharing advice (when requested), help with whatever goals and objectives you set, and hold you accountable. The truth is that there will be difficult times throughout recovery. To best prevent lapse or relapse, it helps to have someone there.
3. Try Shopaholics Anonymous
Shopaholics Anonymous is a great opportunity to meet others who have similar challenges. During meetings, members share details of their shopping addiction, recovery success stories, struggles with relapse, healthy coping skills, and resources. Further, members hold one another accountable, especially when you have a sponsor. Traditional meetings meet at brick-and-mortar locations, but more offerings are now available online as well.
4. Figure Out Your Triggers & Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Triggers are anything that lead toward an urge to shop. For example, a shopping buddy who is also a compulsive shopper might not be the most positive influence. Walking around the shopping mall might not be the best place to clock steps. And lamenting over the one missing color in your ROYGBIV wardrobe, might lead you to a craving. It helps having healthier coping mechanisms in place. These may include exercising, reading, writing, deep breathing, listening to music, playing music, meditating, praying, and many others.
5. Put Boundaries in Place Around Shopping
Because shopping is—to a great extent—an essential part of life, it may be unrealistic to completely abstain from it. This is what makes shopping addiction a bit unique. During earlier stages of recovery, it may help to have someone else you trust do the shopping. You create the list and budget and the other makes the final purchase. From there, begin implementing boundaries with the intention of a substantial life change. This may include creating shopping lists, purchasing only necessary items, budgeting, avoiding certain stores and websites, and placing money in high yield savings or money market accounts. The more boundaries enforced, the more impenetrable you become.
Treatment for Shopping Addiction
As with any other addiction, there is no defined cure, however symptoms can be minimized or even eliminated with therapy and occasionally medication.7 It is important to tailor the treatment plan to the individual and their needs, as each individual may have different underlying triggers that need to be addressed with therapy. Like most addictions and mental health disorders, it is important to recognize and treat the underlying triggers in order to minimize symptoms.
Outpatient therapy and support groups for compulsive disorders, including compulsive shopping are relatively common. For more severe cases, residential treatment may be necessary. Because shopping addiction is not a currently diagnosable condition, many insurance companies and other managed care organizations do not offer reimbursement.
Given the complexity of shopping addiction, therapy is the first-line treatment option. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common therapeutic approach for shopping addiction.7 The therapist and client work together to uncover faulty beliefs and problematic thoughts. For example, the faulty belief might be, “I must buy things to feel good.” The problematic thought can be, “I need to buy this now and can figure out the money later.”
The goal is to replace these negative thoughts with positive thoughts and to develop helpful coping mechanisms that can replace sudden urges. New strategies will be suggested until the individual has recovered. At that point the focus is on maintenance, which involves stopping any unnecessary or compulsive shopping behaviors.
Although shopping addiction cannot be cured, an intentional recovery and maintenance effort may allow one to move forward with minimal symptoms. Motivation is the driving force behind this intentional effort.
There is no specific medication prescribed for shopping addiction, but some are used off-label that have been proven to help. One medication that has demonstrated some success is memantine, a cognition-enhancing medication used to treat dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease.9 Although research at this time is relatively limited specific to shopping addiction, it is associated with less impulsive buying and improved levels of impulsivity.9 Psychiatric medications used to treat mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and impulsivity are also useful.9
Those with co-occurring disorders (e.g., shopping addiction in addition to a mental health and/or substance use disorder) are strongly encouraged to take medications as prescribed and discuss their compulsive behavior with their prescriber as well.
How to Get Help for a Shopping Addiction
Currently, there are many providers and organizations offering help for shopping addiction. Getting help may begin by conducting a search for “shopping addiction” treatment in one’s local region. As options appear, it is important to carefully review each to find the ones that appear to be the best fit. For outpatient or online therapy, it can be helpful to use an online therapist directory where you can filter by expertise and insurance coverage.
From there, contact the provider or organization to ask any relevant questions. These may include:
- Do you specialize in shopping addiction or compulsive behavior disorders?
- What are your treatment outcomes?
- What is the cost?
- Are expenses covered by my insurance, and if not, is there a payment plan?
At this point you may also share some of the issues you are dealing with to ensure that treatment will be comprehensive. For instance, if a mental health or substance use problem is present, it is important to mention that here. Remember that mental health and substance use problems will reinforce problematic shopping. If one is treated and not the other, it is likely that the problematic behavior will come back.
How to Get Help for a Loved One
Recovering from shopping addiction is not as simple as telling your loved one to “stop” or making ultimatums. Rather, it requires a comprehensive effort toward correcting underlying problematic beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. The first step is to become informed on shopping addiction and to recognize any signs and symptoms in your loved one. Second, it is helpful to have an idea as to what treatment options are available in your area.
Upon having this information, an informed, supportive conversation with your loved one may begin. Remember that resistance is likely. Remain supportive. Do not become defensive or go on the attack. Further, it is important to stand in solidarity. If you have an issue with problematic shopping as well or are engaging in behaviors that have compromised your loved one’s well-being, it is important to work on change from your end as well.
Once treatment begins, it is also important to be as involved as your loved one prefers. If this entails engaging in treatment together, then this can really help. The better able you are to work together, the greater likelihood of recovery.
Preventing a Shopping Addiction Relapse
Life after shopping addiction can be quite great. Through maintenance, it is important to adhere to the lifestyle changes suggested previously. Being intentional and consistent with recovery is a must—it’s a lifelong process
Here are several ways to cope with and prevent a future compulsive shopping problem:
- Actively engaging in treatment during recovery as well as continuing with lessons learned throughout maintenance.
- Speaking to someone during difficult times.
- Attending support groups such as Shopaholics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and Spenders Anonymous.
- Keeping atop of one’s mental health and avoiding problems with drugs and alcohol.
- Avoiding the use of credit cards and loans less in the event of major necessary purchases.
- Engaging in healthy hobbies that distract from spending/purchasing.
- Establishing and maintaining a savings account in which it is difficult or impossible to impulsively remove funds (i.e., 401K, Roth IRA, brokerage
- account, etc.)
- Informing loved and trusted others about your shopping addiction so that they may also keep watch and help hold you accountable.
- Being grateful for the positive things in life.
- Remembering that relapse is possible and being sure to remain intentional and consistent with efforts.