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We all have money issues and, with the current economy, now more than ever. The bubble has burst as individuals, families, companies, and governments come to terms with overspending and living beyond our means. We were given easy credit, no money down, and promised “The American Dream.” Look what’s happened?
Americans work longer hours, take less vacation time, have more health issues such as lack of sleep, depression, anxiety, and obesity, and report less overall satisfaction with life. As we continue to emulate and chase the lifestyles of the “rich and famous,” we pay a devastating toll-individually and collectively. Yet, it is strange that in our capitalist culture money is also taboo-perhaps more than sex. We talk fairly openly about sex. But when was the last time we told even a close family member or friend exactly how much we earn per year, how much we spend, how much we owe? Do we even know ourselves? Presumably, we know just as little about the financial details of others who are close to us. Why is this? Is there fear? Is there shame?
Something is going on. You’ve probably noticed a growing trend over the last decade or so. We see it from Suze Orman to Dave Ramsey, from Oprah’s Debt Diet to A&E TV’s Big Spender. Books, articles, television and radio shows-calls near and far-are sounding the alarm about our individual and collective problems with debt and spending. A dangerous mindset has taken root: spend now and worry later-or, better yet, don’t worry at all! The easy access of the Internet and Home Shopping TV make shopping and spending as addictive as crack cocaine.
Mixed messages are all around us. We still have the hyper-consumerism best illustrated by the blossoming of magazines and TV shows pushing the lure of haute couture and mocking-tongue-in-cheek-the excesses of shopping and spending-from Sex in The City to the Confessions of a Shopaholic novella which was released as a major motion picture earlier this year. We were prodded to shop after 9/11 and we’re still being encouraged to shop and spend to help the overall economy. But if we don’t shop wisely, don’t save, don’t invest, and don’t buy good health insurance and have enough left over for the kids’ college and our own retirement-that’s not good for the economy or us.
In the addiction/recovery field, it has long been noted that many addicts seem to have money manageability issues. Many relapses also occur when money stresses pile up. Yet, we have been slow to assess and treat shopping and spending behaviors as part of good overall recovery foundation. In fact, the notion that shopping and spending can be addictive behaviors has only recently gained some acceptance.
In 2006, a landmark Stanford University study concluded that something else may better describe the phenomenon that is growing among millions of people. It is called “compulsive buying disorder.” For simplicity’s sake, I will be using a preferred term: “compulsive spending.” While still controversial-there’s a tendency to call it “poor money management”-it opens a new window towards prevention and treatment of persons whose spending may not be helpable through conventional approaches such as just cutting up credit cards or trying to follow a financial advisor’s counsel. Assessing spending as addictive or compulsive behavior is similar to assessing any other: look for loss of control, increased tolerance, negative consequences, withdrawal symptoms such as preoccupation, denial, lying, etc.
Consider the following statistics:
• 17 Million Americans (roughly 6 percent of the population) are compulsive spenders (Stanford University Study, 2006)
• Nearly half of all compulsive spenders are men (Stanford University Study, 2006)
• Arguments over money and spending are the primary reason for couples’ conflict or divorce (Money Smart Life, 2009)
• The average credit card debt per American household is $10,678-mostly from unnecessary purchases (Center for American Progress, 2009)
We’ve all heard the old saying: “you can’t solve most issues with money or things.” Most of us have experienced this lesson. We see how “the rich and famous” still have problems. We’ve heard the stories of lottery winners who blow their money all too quickly, fall into depression or addictions, or who end up saying they wish they’d never won. Yet, millions of us still buy into the fantasy that more money or more things will make us happy. As with any addiction, nobody starts off planning to get out of control. Nobody starts off intending to get into debt, lie, hide purchases, or become obsessed with shopping, spending money, or with things. The shame for most compulsive spenders and is palpable-as if to be revealed as flaky, irresponsible, superficial or materialistic-cracks in an otherwise common façade of perfection and order. But compulsive spending tends to happen a little at a time. It’s insidious. Our culture conspires to create “super consumers” out of all of us.
What makes assessment, treatment and recovery more challenging for most compulsive spenders are several factors: one, the behavior is legal; two, most if not all people shop/spend; three, it’s an activity that’s greatly encouraged by advertising and by social culture; it’s easily accessible even from home; and stopping shopping and spending (complete abstinence) is unrealistic and not even the primary goal. As with eating disorders, sexual addiction, and codependency, the client who overspends needs to learn to have a healthy relationship with money, credit and things so that his or her spending comes from a place of choice, balance and appropriateness rather than from a place of emotional need, escape, or emptiness.
The following scale can be useful in assessing problem shopping or spending. It is modeled after the Debtors Anonymous 15 Question scale:
The Shulman Center 20 Question Assessment
1) Have you ever lost time from work or school due to shopping/spending?
2) Has shopping/spending ever created problems in your relationships?
3) Has shopping/spending ever affected your reputation or people’s opinion of you?
4) Have you ever felt guilt, shame, or remorse after shopping/spending?
5) Do you have trouble with debt or paying your bills?
6) Did shopping/spending ever cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
7) Did you ever experience a “high” or “rush” of excitement when you shop or spend?
8) Have you ever shopped/spent to escape worries?
9) Has shopping/spending caused you to have difficulty eating or sleeping?
10) Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create an urge to shop or spend?
11) Have you noticed you began shopping or spending more frequently over time?
12) Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your shopping/spending?
13) Upon stopping over-shopping or overspending did you continue to be tempted/preoccupied by it?
14) Have you kept your shopping/spending a secret from most of those you are close to?
15) Have you told yourself “this is my last time” and still over-shopped or overspent?
16) Have you continued to shop or spend despite having been had legal issues such as bankruptcy or divorce?
17) Do you often feel a need for control or tend toward perfectionism?
18) Do you have issues with clutter or hoarding the items you’ve purchased?
19) Have you purchased items that you’ve never if rarely even used?
20) Do you have trouble speaking up for yourself, asking for help, or saying “no”?
Most compulsive shoppers or spenders will answer yes to at least seven (7) of these questions.
A simplified 6-item 2008 test for “compulsive buying” was administered along with a survey that revealed that nearly 9 percent of a sample of 550 university staff members, mostly women, would be considered compulsive buyers. Nancy Ridgway and Monika Kukar-Kinney of The University of Richmond and Kent Monroe of The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and The University of Richmond developed the test.
This test includes six statements, for which individuals answer on a 7-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree:
• My closet has unopened shopping bags in it.
• Others might consider me a “shopaholic.”
• Much of my life centers around buying things.
• I buy things I don’t need.
• I buy things I did not plan to buy.
• I consider myself an impulse purchaser.
Respondents who score 25 or higher would be considered compulsive buyers.
“We are living in a consumption-oriented society and have been spending ourselves into serious difficulty,” researcher Kent Monroe, a marketing professor. “Compulsive buying is an addiction that can be harmful to the individual, families, relationships. It is not just something that only afflicts low-income people.” Monroe and his colleagues found compulsive buying was linked to materialism, reduced self-esteem, depression, anxiety and stress. Compulsive shoppers had positive feelings associated with buying, and they also tended to hide purchases, return items, have more family arguments about purchases and have more maxed-out credit cards. For compulsive shoppers with higher incomes, money matters could be non-existent. A dwindling bank account is just one of the upshots of shopping ’til you drop. Others include family conflicts, stress, depression and loss of self-esteem.
Through my research and my work with clients, I’ve distilled some of the most common psychological reasons people compulsively shop or spend. These are similar with most other addictions as well:
Top Ten Reasons People Overspend
1. Grief and Loss, To Fill the Void
2. Anger/Life is Unfair, To Get Back/Make Life Right
3. Depression, To Get a Lift
4. Anxiety, To Comfort
5. Acceptance/Competition, To Fit In
6. Power/Control, To Counteract Feeling Lost/Powerless
7. Boredom/Excitement, To Live on the Edge
8. Shame/Low self-esteem, To Be Good at Something
9. Entitlement/Reward, To Compensate for Over-giving
10. Rebellion/Initiation, To Break into Own Identity
Some other sub-categories of compulsive spenders include the following:
The classic compulsive shopper tends to shop to avoid or suppress a core of pain-usually from trauma or loss. The compulsive shopper may shop fairly consistently or become triggered by something recent and then go shopping as an automatic response to distract from painful or uncomfortable emotions.
Trophy shoppers tend to need to be the best at everything and, thus, to have the best of everything. The trophy shopper-regardless of income level-seeks to find the perfect accessory for outfits, high end items-be they art, furniture, clothes, and-often-the more rare or hard to find, the better.
Image shoppers are similar to trophy shoppers on the surface because they tend to buy nice things, too. Their motivation is different, however. The image shopper buys things less for the inherent value of the items themselves and more for the image those items project to others. The image shopper needs to impress others more than the trophy shopper does.
Bargain shoppers are driven by the need to get a good deal-regardless of income level. It boosts their mood, their self-esteem and symbolically soothes their pervasive feeling of being shortchanged in some area of their lives. They often buy things they don’t need but feel are too hard to pass up.
Codependent shoppers primarily buy things for other people to gain love and approval and to keep others from leaving or abandoning them. They feel their primary worth or value is what they can give to others.
Bulimic shoppers are sometimes referred to as “binge shoppers.” They may have relatively short or episodic outbursts of excessive shopping-usually during times of stress. Bulimic shoppers-like bulimic eaters-may also engage in a pattern of “bingeing and purging:” shopping and then returning the items almost immediately after purchase; the initial buying is cathartic but then guilt or ambivalence sets in so the returning also brings relief.
Collector shoppers are similar to trophy shoppers in that they typically are focused more on attaining or accumulating items for personal satisfaction rather than to impress others. Unlike trophy shoppers, collector shoppers don’t necessarily have to possess the best or hard to find items; rather, the collector shopper typically becomes obsessed with having complete sets of something to feel empowered or in control. Collector shoppers are often hoarders.
Spenders vs. Shoppers
There are people who are less concerned with “things” than experiences or who may make occasional-rather than frequent-purchases are financially excessive. Overspenders may splurge on dining out, vacations, theater and concerts, hosting parties, weddings, or gatherings, or may exceed their budget on cars, homes, an engagement ring, or other “lifestyle” purchases.
Deprivation vs. Overindulgence
One quick, relatively effective way to understand why many people overspend is to explore early childhood upbringing patterns. I’ve found that most compulsive spenders fall into two basic groups: those who were brought up spoiled or overindulged (materially and/or emotionally) and those who were brought up neglected or deprived (materially and/or emotionally). The first group essentially continues the behaviors/lifestyle they were modeled; the second group attempts to “make up for” what was not given, what they wanted or felt they deserved or were owed. There may also be a mixed group-those who were showered materially but neglected emotionally and so shopping or spending develops to fill an endless emotional void.
Thus, while no parent is perfect, we have seen a trend in the last decade or so of parents spoiling and overindulging their children-creating a culture of entitlement. What would it be like if we actually taught children about money at an early age? Why not teach them about saving and spending and how to value things while also valuing “things other than things”? Further, when working with families and couples, all of the key dynamics play themselves out in the financial arena. People’s shopping/spending may be related to issues of power and control, trust and mistrust, commitment, belonging, and caring.
While our current economic downturn may have slowed or scared straight many compulsive shoppers and spenders-with less disposable income and harder-to-obtain credit-it has created financial and emotional stress which have exacerbated the addiction for many more. Even compulsive spenders are born every minute as the urge to “snap up” beyond-belief bargains escalates. Fortunately, now is a great time to examine and reset our spending habits as there’s a new frugality that’s in vogue.
We each need to stop, take a breath, and calm ourselves in the sea of endless desire and consumption. Either we can try to satisfy all our desires in a rush and then burst or we can learn to spread out our desires and enjoy life for real. As mental health professionals, we need to learn about our own money and consumerist tendencies and assist our clients in prevention and treatment of this growing problem. I’ve had many clients report that they’ve gone to counselors who didn’t understand compulsive spending as real problems and oversimplified or minimized it with comments such as “oh, everybody overspends a little from time to time,” or “just cut up your credit cards and avoid the stores.”
Most successful treatment for compulsive spending may include the following: specialized counseling, support group attendance, reading, medication (Naltrexone and Celexa have been studied and used), trigger avoidance/management, increased support system, and new hobby/goal development. Compulsive spending is a serious disorder that requires sensitive and aggressive treatment. The good news is that, like with other addictions-especially food, sex, and codependency-people can learn why they are really spending and make real and healthier choices that help them live their best lives, financially, emotionally, and in relationships.