As a college student, I often took up side jobs to make extra cash. One of those side jobs included selling random things on eBay. It was easier and slightly more lucrative than holding a garage sale every weekend.

Once, I sold a pair of highly coveted boots that I no longer wore. They went for $75, or in college currency, one textbook. I’d already started wrapping them up and brainstorming my budget when I received an email from the buyer:

“Sorry, but I’m not going to pay for these,” she wrote. “I have a shopping addiction, and my husband is going to be upset.”

Sigh.

“That’s fine,” I replied, kindly asking her if she wouldn’t mind repaying me for the five dollars in eBay fees. (This was old eBay. There were no second-chance offers; there was no fee reimbursement).

“Sorry, but no.” was her answer. “I have a shopping addiction, and that would defeat the purpose.”

As both a full-time student and full-time employee living in a world where every cent counted, including that five dollars, this upset me. I expressed my discontent. She told me that “other people have been really sympathetic and supportive.” I was being insensitive to her disorder, she said.

That was the first time I’d ever heard shopping addiction referred to as a disorder, and perhaps, yes, I was being insensitive. Because according to a study from Stanford, about 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men are legit shopaholics. Like alcoholism, it is, indeed, an addiction.

Shopaholics have been having a moment. There’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, for example, and I recently got a spam email that read: “Unleash your inner Shopaholic!” Oh—and there’s even a new reality show called My Shopping Addiction:

In recent years, there’s been a spotlight on this cultural trend of hyper-consumerism. And it’s been given a cute, marketable name, but really, shopping addiction is pretty dangerous, even for the frugal.

The rise of the shopaholic

In the early 2000s, there was a cultural message that was beginning to spread through literature and film. Fight Club, American Beauty, and American Psycho all touted this message. Oversimplified, that message was: materialism is bad. Here’s a clever excerpt from Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, for example:

“Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made…”

Consumerism, materialism and superficiality are nothing new. We’ve been keeping up with the Joneses for years. But things seem to have intensified in recent years. People seem to be very obsessed with Stuff lately.

According to this 2007 article in World Psychiatry, “Compulsive Buying Disorder” (CBD) was first described clinically as far back as the early 20th century. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that it really started to gain attention. And apparently, I’m not just imaging things—it has gotten worse.

How common is clinical shopping addiction? Does it matter?

Ever had an earache or an itch and then logged onto WebMD to self-diagnose everything from polio to the plague? Well, I have, and the point is, I think it’s natural to clinically label our discomforts, flaws and behaviors. Stanford puts the number of legitimate shopaholics at around 6 percent, while Wikipedia says it’s more like 8 percent. Either way, that’s not a lot of the population. Yet a lot of the population seems to be so obsessed with buying things that they’re satisfied to live in the shackles of debt just so they can have their Stuff. That sounds like an addiction to me.

So when is compulsive shopping just impulsive behavior and when is it a disorder?  That same Stanford study says:

“Compulsive buying seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable, as indicated by the way purchases often provide social or personal identity-markers.”

But that’s pretty much all of us, right? To quote Chuck Palahniuk, the author of “Fight Club,” “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” As frugal as I’ve become, in the past, I’ve spent more money than I care to remember on clothes. And it’s always about trying to look better, be a better person. At least a better-looking person.

We all doubt ourselves; we all struggle with our identity from time to time, so doesn’t that make us all susceptible to shopaholism?

Do the percentages really matter when you can see the epidemic in front of you?

The fall of the shopaholic

The silver lining to this whole shopping-addiction trend—even that silly reality show—is that it’s raising awareness. Whether or not people legitimately suffer from clinical shopping addiction, they’re realizing that they have a problem, and they’re rejecting that problem instead of embracing it.

Even using the word “addiction” to describe compulsive shopping is significant. Addiction implies an ailment—something negative and unpleasant. Something from which you want to be cured. Shopping is becoming something people want to overcome.

The symbolism of malls

I was talking to a neighbor the other day about the shops and restaurants on our street. The subject of shopping malls came up, and he immediately grimaced. “I hate malls,” he lamented, and I could relate. In fact, I recently found myself nodding quite a bit at this anti-mall article from GRS guest writer Holly Johnson.

People hate malls now! And their reasons for hating malls are interesting: malls are superficial. They’re associated with emptiness and materialism. They’re for zombies. People are beginning to find those qualities unappealing.

The brink of a frugality renaissance?

Slowly, gradually, I feel like compulsive shopping is on its way out. Maybe this is the hopeless frugal in me, but I feel like we’re on the brink of a frugality renaissance.

Whether it’s an excuse, a justification or just skirting responsibility, I think the awareness of “shopaholism,” as ridiculous as it may seem, is a good thing. After all, it exposes compulsive shopping as an illness. I can see how someone might think a pithy expression like “shopaholic” and a silly TV show like My Shopping Addiction* are only glorifying consumerism. But I think it’s the beginning of a cultural shift. I think it’s becoming less attractive to be an impulsive consumer and more attractive to be a frugal thinker.

How do we help?

Looking back, I’m still not sure what I should’ve done about the woman on eBay. I’m in a better position both mentally and financially, now, to deal with something like that. But all I could think about back then were my own stresses, frustrations and lack of money.

At the time, my mom was quick to argue that the woman’s “sympathy” plea was indicative of a victim mentality—she’d been plagued with this disorder; it wasn’t her fault. So why should she have to pay for it? That thought process was silly, my mom said.

It’s hard for some people to have sympathy about shopping addiction. Having grown up extremely poor, “shopping addiction” just wasn’t a thing in my mom’s world. As an impoverished child, I don’t think you could have even explained the concept to her.

But consider this: We’re conditioned to be consumers. Companies infiltrate our minds, our email accounts—even our friends—in order to get us to “unleash our inner shopaholic.” Is it that far-fetched that shopaholics are victimized?

This is the part where I feel inclined to give a spiel on self-control and responsibility. But I suppose that’s my question in all of this: for the majority of shopaholics, is compulsive shopping an excuse for bad behavior, or is it legitimately uncontrollable? I ask, because although I’ve had bouts of shopaholism, I ultimately know and understand that I’m in control.

But that doesn’t mean everyone else does. So I’m curious:

  • When is it a disorder and when is it just bad behavior?
  • If you’re a reformed shopaholic, how did you get over it?
  • If you suffer from shopping addiction, what sets you apart from a typical compulsive buyer?
  • Thinking about the word “shopaholic” and shows like My Shopping Addiction, do you think these trends raise awareness about frugality? Or do they simply glorify consumerism?

*10/17/2012  Editor’s note: Oxygen Media provided us with a link to a study conducted by Research Now on shopping addiction.

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