I had dinner with my friend Sue the other night. Over pasta and clams, we talked about life and money. She told me about her brother. “He’s a compulsive spender,” said Sue. “He spends money even when he doesn’t have any.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “for one thing, he spends his money before he gets it. For example, when he was still working with Big Computer Company, Inc., somebody told him he was going to get a raise. But instead of waiting for the raise, he started spending as if he already had the money. He never got the raise.”

I nodded. I’ve done that myself in the past.

“And now that he’s on his own,” Sue continued, “he does the same thing. He’ll get a consulting job that promises to pay big bucks, so he’ll buy a new laptop or go on a trip. Sometimes these jobs fall through, though, and he’s spent money he never received. It’s dumb.”

I could tell she was frustrated. “But the dumbest thing he’s done is cashing out his retirement when he quit Big Computer Company, Inc. He did use that money to pay off debt. That was good. But that debt has slowly and surely reappeared. He owes just as much as he used to, but now he doesn’t have anything saved for retirement.”

She shook her head and ate another clam.

“He’s a compulsive spender,” she said. “If he was a woman, I’d call him a shopaholic.”

I knew exactly what she meant. I used to be a compulsive spender, too. For years, I was addicted to shopping. I got a rush out of buying new stuff. I especially liked buying new books and movies, but really I didn’t care what I bought — it was the act of buying itself that made me feel good. Sometimes on the drive home from work, I’d stop at a department store just so I could buy something: candles, magazines, small pieces of furniture, whatever.

I could rationalize any purchase.

What is compulsive spending?
According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, four or more of the following money habits indicates a problem with shopping or spending:

  • Shopping of spending money as a result of being disappointed, angry or scared.
  • Shopping/spending habits causing emotional distress or chaos in one’s life.
  • Having arguments with others regarding shopping or spending habits.
  • Feeling lost without credit cards.
  • Buying items on credit that would not be bought with cash.
  • Spending money causes a rush of euphoria and anxiety at the same time.
  • Spending or shopping feels like a reckless or forbidden act.
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed or confused after shopping or spending money. Many purchases are never used.
  • Lying to others about what was bought or how much money was spent.
  • Thinking excessively about money.
  • Spending a lot of time juggling accounts and bills to accommodate spending.

I have experienced all of these. In fact, I used to suffer from many of these at the same time. It felt awful. An addiction to spending is a scary, dangerous thing. Like other addictions, it causes victims to feel lost, out of control.

Those who have never suffered from compulsive spending cannot understand the problem. They don’t know what it’s like to see something and feel the urge to buy it now. They don’t know the rush from shopping, and the subsequent nausea from the guilt of having spent more money they do not have. At the height of my spending, I had a love-hate relationship with my credit cards. I knew that what I was doing was destroying my life, but I felt powerless to stop. The only thing that gave me comfort was buying new Stuff. (The very Stuff that I’ve spent the last three months purging from our house, by the way.)

Coping with compulsive spending
Based on my own experience — and based on conversations I’ve had with others — here are six steps you can take now to put a stop to compulsive spending:

  1. Cut up your credit cards. Do it today. “But I need them for an emergency.” “But I get cash back.” “But they’re convenient.” No buts. If you have a problem with compulsive spending, destroy your credit cards now. Don’t jot the numbers down someplace “just in case”. I’ve done this in the past, and I know how easy it is to go to your desk drawer, pull out the numbers, and place an order online. Get rid of the credit cards completely. (Do not attempt to cancel your accounts, however, until you’ve paid everything you owe.)
  2. Only carry cash. Don’t use checkbook. Don’t even use a debit card. Inconvenient? Absolutely, but that’s the point. If you’re a compulsive spender, your goal is to break the habit. To do this, you’ve got to make sacrifices. You’ve also got to begin to make the connection between buying something and actually spending money. Plastic (and to some degree checks) make this connection fuzzy. Use cash.
  3. Track every penny you spend. When I was addicted to shopping, I intentionally turned a blind eye to how much I was spending. But most of the time, I wasn’t even aware of how much I spent. Lunch every day at McDonald’s? How much could that possibly cost? (Answer: over $100/month.) Picking up a few comics on my way home from work? What harm was there in that? Once I began to track my spending, certain patterns became clear. When I saw the patterns, I was able to act on them.
  4. Play mind games. For some people, money is not an emotional issue. They understand it intuitively. They’re able to make the smart choices without temptation to do otherwise. For most of us, though, money is more about mind than it is about math. For us, it can be useful to play tricks on ourselves. What do I mean by mind games?
    • Use the 30-day rule to control impulse spending.
    • Ask yourself: “Is this a want or a need?” Try to discover what is motivating the purchase.
    • Tax yourself: Whenever you buy something, force yourself to set aside some set percentage as savings.
    • When you’re tempted to buy something, write it down. Make a wishlist. I do this at Amazon in order to control my spending. I have a gigantic wishlist which I prune occasionally. This wishlist keeps me from actually buying things!

    Yes, these are simple little tricks. But they’re tricks that work. If they can help you stop spending, that’s all that matters.

  5. Avoid temptation. The best way for me to avoid spending money on comic books is to not enter the comic book shop. If your weakness is music, stay out of the record store (or de-activate your iTunes account). If you tend to spend money at big department stores, then stay out of them. Avoid the places where you’d normally spend.
  6. Ask for help. Beating an addiction can be tough when you’re going it alone. Seek support from your friends and family. Ask your spouse to help. (And be open when they call you on your actions — don’t get angry.)

Finally, consider seeking professional help. There is no shame in obtaining psychotherapy for problems that seem bigger than you. Ultimately you must look inward to overcome any form of addiction — a therapist is like a trained guide who can help you find the way.

Additional resources
For more information on coping with compulsive spending, explore the following web sites:

The good news is you can overcome this. You can break free from emotional spending. The bad news is that it’s going to take work. It won’t happen overnight. You’ll make mistakes, and you’ll backslide. When you do, don’t give up. Don’t beat yourself up because you bought a new purse or played a round of golf at the new course. You’re human. Keep focused on your long-term goal, and resolve to do better next time.