Shopping addiction: How to stop being a shopaholic

Yesterday, I mentioned that because I grew up poor, I inherited a faulty money blueprint from my parents. They didn’t know how to handle money effectively, so they couldn’t teach me how to handle it effectively. I entered adulthood with many of the same bad habits they’d had when I was a kid.

I was a compulsive spender, for instance. I had a shopping addiction. I had no willpower, no impulse control. Even when I had no money in the bank, I still found ways to spend. I took on over $20,000 in credit card debt before I turned 25!

Nowadays, I mostly have my spending under control. I’m no longer in debt, and I force myself to make conscious decisions about what I purchase. (Conscious spending is one of the keys to overcoming emotional spending.)

Having said that, I know that if I relax for even a moment, I’ll be right back in my old habits. I’ll find myself at the grocery store buying magazines to soothe a bruised ego, or shopping for music in the iTunes store because I had a stressful day.

How do I know I’ll relapse if I’m not careful? Because I do from time to time. When I was prepping for my big talk at the end of June, for example, I felt super stressed and my shopping addiction kicked in. I spent an afternoon browsing on Amazon, putting things in my shopping basket. (I even ordered a few of the things, although I knew I shouldn’t.)

Emotional spending is comforting — not just for me, but for a lot of other people too. Though I’m a recovering spendaholic, I’m still a spendaholic. I’m always one step away from compulsive spending.

My story is not unique.

What Is a Shopping Addiction?

People who have a shopping addiction suffer from what’s known as “compulsive spending”. According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery:

“Compulsive shopping and spending is described as a pattern of chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes difficult to stop and ultimately results in harmful consequences. It is defined as an impulse control disorder and has features similar to other addictive disorders without involving the use of an intoxicating drug.”

The organization offers the following list of warning signs of a shopping addiction:

  • 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’ve 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. As with other addictions, victims feel lost and out of control.

People who have never suffered from a shopping addiction can’t understand the problem, and you may have a hard time explaining it to them. They don’t know what it’s like to see something and feel the urge to buy it now. They don’t know the lure of the shopping “rush” — and the subsequent nausea from the guilt have having spent too much.

“Overspenders…have confused and confusing relationships with money,” write psychologists Brad and Ted Klontz in Mind Over Money. “On one hand, they’re convinced that money and the things it can buy will make them happy; yet they’re often broke because they can’t control their spending.”

Fortunately, I’ve learned some ways to cope with emotional spending. Though I’m still tempted, I don’t spend nearly as much as I used to because I’ve developed habits that help me do the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult.

How to Fight a Shopping Addiction

Based on my own experience — and based on conversations I’ve had with others — here are seven strategies you can use to fight a shopping addiction:

Cut up your credit cards

If you have a problem with compulsive spending, destroy your credit cards now. Don’t make excuses. Don’t jot the account numbers someplace “just in case”. Don’t rationalize that you need them to help your credit score. If credit cards fuel your emotional spending, you’re better off without them. (You can always get new cards once you’ve learned better habits.)

Carry cash only

Don’t use your checkbook or 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. Spending cash is a way to remind yourself that you’re spending real money. Plastic (and to some degree checks) make this connection fuzzy.

Track every penny you spend

You may not even be aware of how much you’re spending. Back when I let my emotions rule my financial life, I had no idea how many books I was buying, for example. But once I started tracking every dollar that came into and went out of my life, patterns became clear. When you track every penny you spend, you can act on them.

Play mind games

For some people, money isn’t an emotional issue. They’re able to make logical choices and not be tempted to otherwise. They’re lucky. For most of us, however, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re in this majority, find ways to play tricks on yourself. You might train yourself to use the 30-day rule, for instance: When you see something you want, don’t buy it right away; instead, note it on your calendar for 30 days in the future. If you still want it in a month, consider buying it. I’ve found that I can keep myself from buying a lot of stuff by simply putting it on my Amazon wish list. I come back later and wonder why I was ever tempted!

Avoid temptation

The best way to keep from spending is to avoid situations that tempt you to spend in the first place. If your weakness is books, stay out of bookstores and avoid Amazon. If you tend to overspend at big department stores, stay away from the mall. Stop going to the places where you normally spend, especially if you’re under emotional stress.

Remind yourself of larger goals

I’ve struggled with my weight all my life. Whenever I’m tempted to eat something bad, I ask myself, “Will this help me or hurt me?” The same question can be asked when you’re about to make an impulse purchase. Will your new toy bring you closer to your goals or move you further away? (If you’re not clear on your larger goals, try drafting a personal mission statement.)

Ask for help

There’s no shame in asking for help if you’re having trouble with your spending. Talk to a close friend or family member, and ask for support in breaking the cycle of compulsive spending. You may even want to seek professional help. But remember: If you ask for help, don’t get angry when your counselors call you on your missteps. Listen to what they have to say.

Each of these techniques can help curb your shopping addiction to some degree. Different techniques will appeal to different people.

There’s one other strategy that I’ve found to be very effective for myself: When I find myself tempted to buy something, I force myself to stop for a moment and ask myself some serious questions.

Shopping for clothes

What to Do When You’re Tempted to Buy

Let’s say you’re in the mall or at the Electronics Emporium. There’s nothing you need to buy, but you’re killing time while your spouse finishes an errand. As you wait, you browse. You admire the Thneeds. Look! There’s a new one! It’s bright and shiny and you think it will make you happy, so you pick it up, walk to the register to purchase it.

Wait! Before you buy, think about the following questions:

When will I use this?

When you buy compulsively, when you spend on impulse, you tend to acquire a lot of stuff you never use. Look around your home. Do you have unopened CDs or DVDs? Unread books? Unplayed videogames? Do you have clothes that still sport their price tags? Do you have a collection of “money-saving” gadgets gathering dust in your closets and kitchen drawers? Before you buy something new, ask yourself when you’ll actually use it — and be honest with yourself.

Do I have another one like this already?

If so, what’s wrong with the old one? I use this question in a variety of situations, especially when I’m tempted to buy clothes. Kim gets frustrated with my tendency to acquire new t-shirts, for example. “You already have five blue t-shirts,” she told me recently. “Why do you need another?” This is also a great question to ask when faced with the urge to upgrade. Do you really need to replace your iPhone?

If I buy this, where will I put it?

It’s surprising how often this question prevents me from buying something new. For the past few years, I’ve had limited space to store stuff. First, Kim and I were on the road in an RV with no storage. Next, we moved to a smaller house. If I force myself to think about where I’ll store whatever it is that tempts me, that’s often enough to make me decide not to buy it.

If I buy this, can I pay cash? Would I pay cash for this?

When I was in debt, I bought almost everything on credit. I figured I could pay for it later. All of my cash went to pay my credit card bills. I was dumb. I’ve since realized that if something isn’t worth saving for, if it’s not worth buying with cash, then it’s almost certainly not worth buying on credit.

Can I buy a good-quality used version for less?

I used to be a “new snob”. I believed that things were only worth buying if I could have them in new, pristine condition. Now I know that great deals can be had on gently used items. This is true of cars, of course, but it’s also true of games, electronics, clothing, and more. Make a habit of checking Craigslist first — and taking a look at your local thrift store.

Do I know anyone who already owns one I can borrow?

I overheard a story the other day. Evan was preparing for some yardwork and making an inventory of his tools. He decided he wanted a chainsaw. He called his friend Lee to ask for advice on which one to buy. “Why do you want to buy a chainsaw?” Lee asked. “Do you have a lot of trees to clear?” Evan admitted that he did not. “Then why don’t you just borrow mine?” Lee asked. When done respectfully, borrowing is a great alternative to buying new.

Can I wait to buy this?

One of the best things I’ve done to fight my shopping addiction is to teach myself to wait. For the past decade, I’ve used the afore-mentioned 30-day rule. When I find myself in the Electronics Emporium holding the latest game for the Nintendo Switch, I put it back and tell myself that I can buy it in 30 days if I still want it. The key is to make yourself wait to make a purchase, to not give in to your desire to buy in the moment.

Why do I want to buy this?

And why do I want to buy it today? It’s true that many times I’m inclined to buy something because it would fill a need in my life. But just as often I find myself wanting to buy things because I’ve recently seen an ad. Or, worse, a friend has shown me some cool new gadget. In these cases, I’m not filling an ongoing need; I’m simply trying to fill a sense of lack created by comparing myself with others. If I can figure out why I have the urge to buy something, I can sometimes make the urge go away.

Are there better options available?

This is a great question to trick myself into taking more time. If I find myself browsing Amazon tempted to buy a compound miter saw, for example, I can sometimes talk myself out of it by realizing that I have no idea whether this compound miter saw is the best model. Instead, I go research compound miter saws (or whatever) via Consumer Reports and online review sites. I try to find the best option. Most of the time, the process gets overwhelming: There are so many compound miter saws with so many different features! I lose interest and I save myself some money.

What would my partner say if I bought this?

Kim isn’t opposed to everything I buy, but she’s often able to detect compulsive spending when I cannot. Sometimes if I’m tempted buy a new toy, I try to put myself in her shoes, to view the purchase through her eyes. If, from her perspective, the purchase seems reasonable, then I consider it. But it looks foolish, I often change my mind.

I’ve used all of these questions to learn to control my shopping addiction. I don’t ask myself all of these questions every time I shop. Each is useful in certain situations. And these questions don’t stop all of my purchases. But I’ve found that if I give myself honest answers, they can prevent a lot of spending.

Additional Resources

For more information on coping with compulsive spending and shopping addiction, explore the following websites:

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.

The good news is you can overcome this. You can break free from emotional spending. The bad news is that it takes 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.

More about...Spending Wisely, Shopping

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There are 22 comments to "Shopping addiction: How to stop being a shopaholic".

  1. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says 15 August 2018 at 09:27

    At one point I was a shopoholic when it came to outdoor gear. Once I decided that I want to spend most of my leisure time doing outdoor sports I started buying “all the things” to do them. And the outdoor sports industry is pretty notorious for being gear-driven and expensive to boot.

    In 2017 I pledged to go a year without buying any outdoor gear and made it. But I do use my stuff a lot, so it does wear out and break. So this year I’ve had to buy some stuff but I really learned a lesson from 2017 and now I curb my impulses.

  2. TOO much says 15 August 2018 at 09:54

    I too am battling a lifelong compulsive spending problem. I see a family pattern and am determined to quit and now really try to think and scrutinize each purchase. I do have times where I lose it. Reading “The everyday magic of tidying up” and other declutter books when I am feeling the urge has helped– as is looking for these types of articles online until the feeling passes!

  3. RH says 15 August 2018 at 10:06

    I found myself ordering way too much stuff off Amazon Prime (since it’s so convenient with 2 day shipping). Most of the stuff sat unused after a year. Solution? I had my wife change the Amazon password and not tell me. Now I can’t do any impulse buys. It’s worked for 6 months so far!

  4. herman schwartz says 15 August 2018 at 12:45

    I am a compulsive home buyer. I buy homes, for cash, that I’d like to live in. Even when I go on vacation, where ever it might be, I always stop in to a real estate office and tour current homes for sale. My other compulsion is cars. I buy cars, new cars for cash, at a drop of a hat. I change them as I change my mood. One season I may buy a fiery red Mustang convertible. Next season I’m feeling more SUV than anything. My last shopping compulsion is RVs. Yes, I pay cash, use them for a year and then upgrade to something else. And yes, I lose money on both the cars and the RVs. But not the real estate which makes up for any losses.
    I’ve cured myself of this very simply. I’ve locked up practically all my cash in non-breakable investments and have forced myself to live on a budget. I can not get my money out of these investments for 10+ years (unless there is an emergency, but there’s a penalty). Gulp.
    The car I drive now, is a luxury SUV but I bought it used, for cash. It was 3 years old with 35,000+ miles on it.
    I’m living in one house now (paid cash) for a few years now with no chance or opportunity to buy another home. Not enough cash, remember?
    My RV is new but it has a slight loan on it for the next 10 years @3%. The payments are easily affordable but it let’s me know I can’t buy another one (because I don’t have the cash) so I better take good care of it.
    I don’t know how else to cure myself.
    My addiction is pretty bad.

  5. Matt says 15 August 2018 at 13:14

    So much, this. Grocery stores and Amazon are the two biggest offenders.

    Grocery shopping without an agenda and more of a “get this and that, then browse” is still troublesome for myself. And then you see the register adding things up and pretty soon that $10 thing you came for becomes a $50 thing(s). You pay with a debit card (and these days, a quick tap on the phone), and it becomes a “whatever” moment and doesn’t pass a 2nd thought.

    Amazon is worse, just due to the ability to click “ship here, pay with this” and be done with it and parted from your money in 10 seconds or less. This week, I was eying some new Dewalt tools for future DIY projects. I researched specs, found the right things for the as-of-yet not-started projects and had to stop myself. I asked real hard “Do I NEED this right NOW” and I said no, I don’t and deleted the items from my cart. Saved myself $500 by simply thinking about it. While I will acquire said tools at some point, I’ll really push for them on a as-NEEDED basis.

    It all really does come down to self-control. It’s hard to slow down and ask the “do I need?” question, especially when you can afford (or should be able to afford) the items without any immediate financial impact. For me, it IS that constant battle of keeping at the forethought of all decisions the questions of “Need?” and “When?”. Those questions are the “Davids” and “Want” is the Goliath.

  6. Sequentialkady says 15 August 2018 at 15:31

    While I’ve never had a shopping addiction, I tend to get “spendy” when I’m bored and feel stuck in a rut, or it’s been an emotionally trying week, or I’m waiting on [thing] to start the next phase of my money plan …. [wheedling spendy voice]I mean it’s only $10 dollars, right? It’s not really going to set you back.[/wheedling spendy voice]

    Fortunately, I’ve never gotten into debt, but there have been times that not reigning it in enough has meant a really lean month afterwards in order to stay on track.

    To combat it, I’ve created an “I’m bored” list full of things to do that don’t cost money, and, usually something on the list feels like the (emotionally) right thing to do at any given moment:

    The list includes things like:
    *Bust out the crevice tool and go to work in [name of room]
    *Clean the sliding door track
    *Deep clean the shower
    *Check the incase of emergency crate and swap out dated food/medicines
    *File the damn papers
    *Dust the guest room
    *Clean your desk
    *Research [topic of interest]
    *Clean out the car
    *Call a friend/family member and chat

  7. Joe says 16 August 2018 at 07:08

    I never understood compulsive shopping. I thought it was just an excuse. Thanks for explaining it in detail. Now I know where to send people when they have that problem. Most people I know have a pretty good handle on their spending habit.

  8. Raven_smiles says 16 August 2018 at 07:51

    I don’t quite qualify for the compulsive shopper criteria outlined above, but I was spending a decent amount of money. I targeted 2018 as a strategic no-spending year and it’s worked very well so far. I had to hide one of my favorite purse-makers from showing up on my Facebook page, and didn’t step into a Target for a few months, but once I got into the habit of not going to the store it’s worked well. There are some items I’ve purchased this year which likely violated the spirit of my self-defined rules, but I’m quite happy with the results this year and plan to continue this into 2019 and beyond.

  9. Bill says 16 August 2018 at 12:01

    I’ve had that issue too, and yes – Amazon Prime makes it way to easy when you can log on and complete a purchase within, what 2 minutes? I’ve bought so many tools and gadgets over the years that I could almost open a hardware store, yet when I need something I can’t find it. Surprisingly, I think I’ve learned from my kids to trim my possessions down. They both asked me to get rid of most of the furniture in their rooms because they prefer ‘space’. In fact, my daughter helped me empty my closet one day, and I filled 4 bags with unused clothes and things. I realized then, how much I buy that I don’t really need. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that we need more storage bins, boxes and shelves, when we really just need to buy less stuff.

  10. incomefizo says 17 August 2018 at 05:29

    That was what I had to struggle with the most in college. Well mostly on groceries then.
    But, the tricky stuff is that you barely know how much bucks’s gone out of your pocket until you sit down and track your coins.
    What helped me most then was deliberately and consistently tracking my spending mid-weekly.

  11. Jennifer says 17 August 2018 at 09:14

    What about the opposite problem – compulsive saving/fear of spending money or buying anything? At times I find myself agonizing over buying anything at all, even for example in a thrift store over whether I should buy a $3 t-shirt or not, and most often talking myself out of things in my quest to be thrifty and spending money wisely. I’d appreciate an article and some perspective on that end of the issue spectrum, as I don’t want to turn into a miserly curmudgeon!

    • J.D. says 17 August 2018 at 09:24

      Great point, Jennifer! In an earlier article on the abundance mindset and the scarcity mindset, I covered some of this. Growing up poor (and developing a scarcity mindset) actually leads to a couple of possible outcomes. In this article, I talk about how deprivation can lead to compulsive spending as an adult. But in that other article, I mention that for some folks it actually leads to the behavior you describe. Check it out.

  12. Bonnie says 17 August 2018 at 10:00

    Thanks for this article! This is something I continually struggle with. I’m definitely a spender by nature and have the debt to prove it. I’m digging out, though!

  13. Sarah says 17 August 2018 at 16:59

    I really had an addiction to shopping at Homegoods, TJMaxx and Marshalls. A great day would be hitting all three! I used to call it the trinity. My sister works for TJX, so anytime she had a 20% off weekend, we would go. And I worked at JCP for years and got a 20% discount. It was impossible not to covet the new clothes and wait for them to go on sale or clearance. It was an endless cycle.

    What’s helped me is that now I look for cosmetics that are cruelty-free, clothes that are made of natural fabrics instead of synthetics, and products that aren’t made in China. Now I can’t just walk into Target, Homegoods, or a mall and buy something just because it’s pretty/convenient/cheap. It takes more effort to find quality/ethical products, but I feel better when I do, and I buy new things far less often.

    • Marty says 10 April 2019 at 13:17

      Great article. I have a really bad shopping addiction. In the last three years I have racked up $30.000 in credit card debt. Not to mention the other $75.000 I spent out of my earnings. Every penny went yo stuff outside of bills. This month I returned $1200.00 of jewerly. Hopeing to get out of this mess. Been tracking spending and delaying it. Wish me luck,pretty discouraged. The fear that I can not trust myself gets overwhelming at times.

  14. Mimi says 28 August 2018 at 17:58

    All of your content is impressive. I’ve read personal finance websites for years. Included was your first iteration. It was out of necessity and kept me going. Feedly is a cost free addiction. Thank you for your work. Good luck w your podcasts. I have recently started using Overcast.
    I always have loved thrift stores. They have changed a lot over the years.
    When at my crisis point I could get some ‘relief’ to my urge to buy at the thrift store without endangering my family. My psychologically conflicted urge to spend/save/hoard come from close family suffering the after effects of the Depression.

  15. RayinPenn says 16 November 2018 at 10:25

    30 plus years of hard saving and careful spending has me the just the opposite of a spender. My christmas present this year, already purchased deeply discounted, is a pricey Breville toaster oven ($170). The vacation home we rented had one and i fell in love with it. 64 years old, FI and i am still asking myself is it really necessary?

    Balance is everything in life.

  16. linda says 16 November 2018 at 10:46

    Hello Bill..The tools and gadgets and clothes story sounds EXACTLY like my home. We cannot find anything wherever it is stored and hiding and we have to go the nearest store to get a new one… and the TShirts look so appealing begging to come home and live in my cupboard to be with their other TShirt friends !!

  17. RayinPenn says 17 November 2018 at 09:24

    My Mom couldn’t teach me about money because we never had any. You cant really blame your Parent(s). We have a societal problem as the average american saves a paltry 3% of every dollar they earn. In countries where there is no government safety net the people save more much more.. for example in Singapore they save 50% of what they earn.

    Education about the dangers of credit cards, consumer debt in general and the power of compounding is sorely lacking. No one should graduate high school with understanding of basic consumer finance.

  18. Betsy says 06 February 2019 at 14:55

    I am just beginning to really delve into my compulsive spending problem. I feel like I am never really present in my own life, and don’t feel much when I am shopping, spending, or after. It’s definitely in my family, and I battle with depression, anxiety, chronic illness and more. I have put us in a position where we can’t afford a bigger house (that we need desperately), and my marriage is hanging on by a thread. It’s been an almost 20-year thing. My husband has called me on it at least 3x. I haven’t been honest with him about what I am spending, and didn’t even raise it in the 3 years I was in therapy. I am starting therapy again, and am ready to acknowledge that this is a real problem, likely coupled with some of the other mental health problems I experience. Thanks for this article; I am going to dive into your info and pull myself out of this. For the good of my future, and my family. 42 isn’t too late, right?

  19. Gabriel says 26 April 2019 at 02:59

    I know the feeling, but my mom helped me a lot to deal with this problem. I was always lying to her what I bought or how much money I spent. She noticed that and suggested professional help. She saved me. This article shares a story about shopaholic and her decision to change shopping habits.

  20. Nakar says 19 February 2020 at 13:42

    I have never had a time in my life that I saved any money. I’ve always bought anything I wanted and could, and many times could not afford. Now for the first time I don’t owe anything on my 2 credit cards thanks to my new partner who encouraged me to pay off my cards and only buy what I can afford to pay cash. I’m still addicted and have the urge to buy stuff I don’t need but the good news is that now I ask myself if I really need the item, and most of the time I don’t. Nowadays when I feel like spending I try to just browse the stores I like the most and most of the time I come out empty handed what makes happy. I still relapse but I am willing to stop it completely for the sake of my family and my sanity.

    Thanks for bringing it to the light. Many people suffer from the same problem but they don’t give it a name. Blessings

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