Maybe you have a lust for shoes or overdid it buying for your newborn. Many of us have had the occasional shopaholic episode — and gnarly credit card hangover. But for some people, the impulse to whip out the plastic crosses the line from a moment of weakness to a full-fledged addiction.
Shopping addiction may sound a bit far-fetched, but researchers say it’s a legitimate issue. “It’s when someone spends so much time, energy, and money buying — or even thinking about buying — that it seriously impairs their life,” April Benson, PhD, author of To Buy or Not to Buy, says.
In addition to the obvious financial aftershocks, overbuying has emotional consequences: You experience guilt, shame, or anxiety after the shopping spree, Benson says. Plus it can damage your relationships, creating friction with friends and family. It can even hurt your professional life: You take two-hour lunch breaks to troll eBay or make a Target run, or eventually get fired for shopping online all day instead of working.
To wit: Benson worked with a woman in her mid-forties named Amanda. Amanda was a police detective in a large Midwestern city. As a compulsive buyer, she shopped three times a day on eBay and her house was overflowing with clothes, books, and magazines.
Amanda said that she couldn’t focus on her new husband and lied to him about shopping. He was concerned about how secretive she’d become and the number of packages piling up. She felt like she was “dumbing [herself] down” with her constant preoccupation with purchasing. Her former interests, like social and environmental causes, went by the wayside in favor of focusing on buying things.
But despite the havoc shopping addiction can wreak, the disease is rarely taken seriously. “It’s called the ‘smiled-upon addiction’ because it’s socially condoned,” Benson says. And because many people don’t realize how addicting shopping can be, Benson adds, it’s that much easier to fall into addiction.
That lack of awareness — plus the advent of online and mobile shopping — gives rise to addiction. “Data suggests that 5.8 percent of the population could be considered compulsive buyers,” Benson says, but in her experience, “it has become much more prevalent as online shopping has gotten increasingly easier.” Here’s why some people just can’t stop burning through their cash, and how to break the buy-buy-buy cycle.
Why We Turn to Retail Therapy
Like an addiction to alcohol, smoking, or gambling, shopping fiends get hooked on the quick-fix way to feel good: “Shopping actually stimulates feel-good chemicals in the brain,” Benson says. And, for shopping addicts, buying compulsively can be “an avoidance mechanism to put off taking certain steps in their life, like quitting their job or leaving their spouse.” Amanda, for example, started bidding on eBay as a way to procrastinate writing a novel — it had long been a goal of hers, and her slow progress was frustrating. Shopping was also an outlet to escape the stress and boredom of her job, and to mask her yearning for a closer relationship with her husband.
Other addicts use shopping as a way to feel more like their ideal self. “It closes the gap between who they are and who they want to be seen as,” Benson says. “They view the acquisition of material goods as a central life goal: an indicator of success and a pathway to happiness.” In reality, of course, shopping can pull you farther away from your goals.
All of this comes down to insecurity, James A. Roberts, PhD, marketing professor at Baylor University and author of Too Much of a Good Thing, says: “People are trying to fill a hole that other aspects in their life, like their relationship or job, are not satisfying.” If your spouse doesn’t make you feel loved or if your career doesn’t give you the sense of importance that you crave, you might turn to something else — such as the lure of Amazon — to quiet the rumbling.