Tips for Dealing with Compulsive Spending

Advertisers know how to tempt us with their marketing campaigns and most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves buying something we did not need, going over our budget on a shopping trip, and feeling regret over a purchase. For most people, this is an occasional occurrence and then goes away completely or for a long time before another mild flare-up happens. Some people are able to learn from these experiences and implement new systems that help them reduce regret, overspending, and thoughtless buying. However, some people become caught in a destructive cycle of spending and buying that they struggle to remove themselves from, despite the increased knowledge, guilt, and tools they may have at their disposal.
These individuals struggle with Compulsive Spending, which is sometimes referred to as Shopping Addiction or, more popularly, being a ‘shopaholic.’ I personally refrain from using the latter term as in our popular culture it has an atmosphere of whimsy and cuteness about it, which true Addiction does not. Someone with a Shopping Addiction does not just buy an extra cute outfit and move on with their day, they are often in debt, overwhelmed, unhappy, and feel trapped in the cycle of spending that has consumed them. This is not a pretty picture, nor one to be taken lightly.
Identifying the Problem
How does one know if you have a Spending Addiction vs. average spending behaviour? While a self-test is not a replacement for a formal assessment and diagnosis by a licensed and experienced healthcare provider, it can help ascertain if there is something seeking further support around. Here are some things those struggling with Spending Addiction will notice and experience:
  • Inability abstaining or refraining from the parts of spending/shopping that are problematic to you (e.g., spending a lot of time browsing flyers and advertisements each day)
  • Difficulty setting and sticking with reasonable boundaries around money and spending (e.g., saying you will spend $100/month on clothing items and going well beyond this)
  • Cravings (frequent, repetitive, and strong desires to act out with spending that are difficult or impossible to set aside)
  • Problems in relationships (whether directly or indirectly related to problems with your financial health)
  • Problems managing feelings in a healthy way (outbursts, self-harming behaviours, depression, anxiety symptoms)
  • Problems with other compulsive behaviours or substance use, either past or present
  • Difficulty prioritizing the things you want to prioritize due to the spending behaviour (work, chores, relationships, self-care)
  • Spending a significant amount of time planning, researching, and/or executing the spending behaviour
  • Significant amounts of debt and/or financial unmanageability
  • Others in your life have expressed concern
  • You are concerned
The more of these items that are present for you, the more likely it is that you may be struggling from problems regarding your relationship with money and spending. Addiction involving finances/money/spending can present in a variety of ways, including risk taking behaviours (stock market, gambling), as well as around compulsive spending.
Examples of Spending Addiction
This may show up with small, regular purchases like things at a Dollar Store or online, but can also be someone who compulsively hunts for a “good deal” and cannot pass this up if they find it. For some, this behaviour may lead to hoarding/stockpiling where a large quantity of an item is stored for reasons that are not clear to others but have a personal rationale to the individual, though even they may not totally understand why they have 50 boxes of macaroni and cheese when they do not even eat it. Some notice that they find themselves online browsing and buying, as well as in person shopping, as they enjoy the escape and distraction it provides from life, and/or the thrill of hitting ‘select’ and putting things in the cart. Even with the intention to just browse, this is not enough and the browser becomes the buyer. You can start to see, I hope, why compulsive spending can become so intrusive.
Compulsive spending, like other manifestations of Addiction, is rooted in the brain circuitry of the individual. The reward circuitry gets rewarded from purchases and this leads to more and more desire for a behaviour, even at the expense of health and wellness. After some time has passed, the person finds themselves engaging in the behaviour even when they no longer want it or find perceived benefit from it. This is the cycle of Addiction and can happen with any behaviour or substance. At what point the person will desire and seek out change varies, but typically as things get worse people become more and more desiring of change and will seek this out. 
Finding Recovery and Balance
What can help someone move from compulsive spending into a healthy relationship? Some common recovery strategies and tools are:
  • Support, support, support. The stronger your network of people who are there to listen in a compassionate and non-judgmental way, provide accountability, and be there to help you navigate stress, emotions, and cravings, the better
  • Establishing boundaries with email lists, websites, and in person retailers that are particularly vulnerable for you
  • Have an accountability person present when you are shopping, whether in person or online
  • Some people find having limitations on their bank accounts or credit cards can help them stick with budgets
  • Working with a financial planner to establish budgets and financial goals, as well as reduce shame and increase financial confidence
  • Support groups, like Spenders Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous and/or Recoveries Anonymous 
  • Dealing with stress and emotional pain differently to reduce the likelihood of acting out due to upset
  • Improving your overall wellness and self-care
  • Seeking professional therapy and support
  • Exploring any trauma, childhood issues, or other issues that may be playing a role in this compulsive behaviour
  • Learning about the issue and understanding it
  • Reducing shame, often by sharing with others and facing the problem rather than avoiding it
It is estimated that around 10-15% of people in North America are vulnerable to Addiction with shopping and spending and struggle with this issue. It is an aspect of Addiction that is quite hidden and there is, therefore, a lot of shame and stigma around it. If you are struggling, I hope that you will remember that you are not alone and there are pathways to change and recovery. The first step starts with you and can put you on a path better than you thought possible. It is not easy work, but it is rewarding work.
Sana Psychological is an Addiction and Mental Health counselling agency located in Calgary, Alberta. We service Calgary for in person sessions as well as Alberta and Canada for virtual sessions. If you are looking for some professional support around Shopping Addiction, do not hesitate to reach out to us. We wish you all of the best in your pursuit of health and recovery.