I’ve always really loved things.
It’s never mattered much what kind of things, as long as they were new to me. From the time I was small, I would turn to my mother while watching commercials and say, “Mom, I need that.” It was never a want; it was always a need.
I was incapable of going into a store without buying something — I always found a reason for needing whatever thing it was, even if I couldn’t really afford it. When I was bored, I’d go to the mall. I’d wander the long concourses lined with shops, see something I wanted in a store window, and tell myself, “If I’m still thinking about it in three days, I’ll go back and get it.” And I was always thinking about that thing three days later, because once I saw something I wanted, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It became an obsession.
When I was a teenager, I’d beg my parents to buy me things and, eventually, they’d give in. They spoiled me rotten and I took advantage of it. If I couldn’t get my mom to buy me what I wanted, I’d bat my eyes at my father. I became an expert at manipulation. And because I’d always been able to have almost anything I wanted, I never really learned the value of money.
When I went away to college, I realized quickly that if I wanted to keep buying things, I’d need a strategy. So I opened several credit cards — the perfect solution to my problem. I figured I’d pay my monthly minimums and I could continue to spend the way I wanted to.
At first, I was in heaven. I spent most of my money on clothes and shoes. I was sure that these things would make me happier and cooler. I thought they’d get me the attention and validation I craved. I thought I wouldn’t be okay without them.
I maxed out every single one of my credit cards in a matter of months. I couldn’t even pay my minimums, and I panicked. Ashamed, I didn’t tell anyone about my financial situation. I began throwing away the unopened bills. Then the debt companies started calling, sometimes up to 20 times a day.
I changed my number.
Despite my lack of cash, I didn’t stop acquiring things. I couldn’t just stop when I ran out of money. My bank account was always overdrawn, and more than one bank closed my account when I couldn’t pay my hefty overdraft fees. I didn’t tell anyone how empty I felt inside.
Eventually, I ended up in rehab for another one of my addictions — alcohol. It was there that I was forced to recognize my shopping addiction for what it was. Both addictions came from the same place: the feeling of emptiness.
Coming clean was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not only did I have to stop drinking and using drugs, but I had to stop spending money in destructive ways. I had to learn to live within my means and confront the damage I’d done to my life.
The first step was opening all the bills that had piled up at my house while I was in treatment. It was the only way to know what I owed and to make a plan to deal with my debt. I had a combination of credit card bills and medical bills, some of which I’d been ignoring for years. One by one, I opened each and every envelope. Simply doing that was incredibly freeing.
The next thing I had to do was figure out what I could afford to pay. Because I had to make so many different payments, I couldn’t afford to pay more than $10 per month on any one bill. So I called the creditors up and explained my situation. I told them I wanted to start to pay them back, but I couldn’t afford to make my minimum payments. I started small, and eventually, when I began to make more money, I increased my payments.
It’s been four years, and my life is drastically different today. I’ve paid off most of my debt, and I was lucky enough to have some help from my parents. My grandparents helped with some of the payments, too, and I’ve paid them back over a couple of years. But that doesn’t mean that my shopping addiction is a thing of the past — I still struggle with spending money and buying things I don’t need.
That’s why I now adhere to a very strict budget to make sure that I stay within my means: My husband and I sit down every week and go over our budget and note how much money was spent and on what.
I’m still living with the repercussions of my disease: I don’t have a single credit card — my credit is terrible, and I’m working to rebuild it. I’ve tried to get a single credit card so that I can begin to build back the credit I destroyed, but I can’t get approved for any of them. I’ve also been denied bank loans for home improvements.
My shopping addiction nearly destroyed my life. Trying desperately to medicate my self-loathing with stuff left me financially and spiritually bankrupt. But hitting rock bottom taught me a crucial lesson: No gorgeous pair of shoes or one-of-a-kind dress will ever be a substitute for the self-love I’ve found through recovery.
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, feminist mama, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.