PhotoSome additions are well known and understood. Drug addiction, alcohol addition, and food addiction have primary impact on health. But spending addition has mostly economic impact, and the impact can be severe.

“Shop til you drop” is a mostly lighthearted term, but it's deadly serious for consumers who run their credit cards up to the limit because of their shopping addiction.

Compulsive shopping or spending can be seasonal relief for depression, anxiety and loneliness during the December holiday season. The credit cards can also come out when a person feels depressed, lonely or angry.

Compulsive buying disorder

The World Psychiatry Association recognizes the condition as compulsive buying disorder (CBD). It notes those suffering from CBD may have substance use disorders, eating disorders, and other disorders of impulse control. It also finds compulsive shopping tends to run in families.

The question is why do shopping addicts keep spending regardless of the consequences? A new study suggests compulsive buying is fueled largely by poor credit management and a belief that new purchases will create a happier life. If you think about it, it's the main reason an alcoholic keeps drinking.

Widespread problem

PhotoWhile the U.S. is perhaps the world's greatest consumer culture, the problem is not confined to our shores. It's estimated that around 10 percent of the adults in the Western world are in the grip of “plastic abuse,” spending on things they don't really want or need. Researchers at San Francisco State University have recently identified specific behaviors that lead to compulsive buying.

"Compulsive shoppers tend to be people who bury their head in the sand and ignore the credit card bill," said Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at SF State. "We also found that these individuals keep on buying because they are looking for that 'buy high,' hoping their purchases will lift their mood and transform them as a person."

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Shopping doesn't raise self-esteem or heal the hurts, regrets, stress, and the problems of daily living.

Researchers at Indiana University created a web page with compulsive shopping disorder information and attached a notation that they would not longer be able to respond to questions because of the high volume of traffic on the page.

Will buy anything

On the site they note that many shopping addicts go on binges all year long and may be compulsive about buying certain items, such as shoes, kitchen items or clothing; some, they say, will buy anything.

“Women with this compulsive disorder often have racks of clothes and possessions with the price tags still attached which have never been used,” the researchers write. “They will go to a shopping mall with the intention of buying one or two items and come home with bags and bags of purchases. In some cases shopololics have an emotional black out and do not remember even buying the articles. If their family or friends begin to complain about their purchases, they will often hide the things they buy.”

PhotoThose with the problem can easily slip into denial. Because they can not pay their bills their credit rating suffers, they have collection agencies attempting to get what is owed, may have legal, social and relationship problems. They sometimes attempt to hide their problem by taking on an extra job to pay for bills.

If you think you suffer from this condition, the first step is to come to terms with it, just like any other additions. Alcoholics, for example, admit they can't control their drinking and adopt abstinence. That, of course, isn't going to work for shopaholics. After all, you still have to buy things.

Instead, you have to adopt some controls. Here's what the Indiana University researchers recommend:

  • Pay for purchases by cash, check, debit card.
  • Make a shopping list and only buy what is on the list.
  • Destroy all credit cards except one to be used for emergency only.
  • Avoid discount warehouses. Allocate only a certain amount of cash to be spent if you do visit one.
  • "Window shop" only after stores have closed. If you do "look" during the day, leave your wallet at home.
  • Avoid phoning in catalog orders and don't watch TV shopping channels.
  • If you're traveling to visit friends or relatives, have your gifts wrapped and call the project finished; people tend to make more extraneous purchases when they shop outside their own communities.
  • Take a walk or exercise when the urge to shop comes on.
  • If you feel out of control, you probably are. Seek counseling or a support group such as Debtors Anonymous.

Taking a course and financial literacy or money management may also yield results. Howell and his SF State colleagues found that lack of money management predicted individuals' compulsive spending, regardless of their personality, gender, age and income. In particular, out-of-control-shopping was primarily driven by poor credit management, such as not paying attention to credit card statements, not paying credit card bills on time and exceeding credit limits.

The researchers also believe credit cards facilitate much of the out-of-control behavior. It's easy to get sucked into a shopping binge with a credit card because it allows a consumer to separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying.

"We know that a person's values impact their shopping habits, but values aren't the easiest thing to change" Howell said. "Even if you are still materialistic and you have the desire to acquire more possessions, it's how you manage your behavior that counts. Our findings suggest that you can keep your shopping under control by paying attention to your credit card and checking in with yourself about whether you are shopping for emotional reasons."

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