Feature Archive

Shopping Spree, or Addiction?

What happens when shopping spirals out of control, and in some cases, becomes an addiction?

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

From hitting the mall with your girlfriends on a Saturday afternoon, to holiday spending on gifts that go under the tree, shopping could be called one of America's favorite pastimes.

For most people, it means some new clothes for work or a small trinket for a friend. For others, however, shopping is much more than an enjoyable pastime, and in some cases, it is a real and destructive addiction that can turn into a financial disaster.

"Compulsive shopping and spending are defined as inappropriate, excessive, and out of control," says Donald Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. "Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control over one's impulses. In America, shopping is embedded in our culture; so often, the impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping."

Sometimes referred to as "shopoholism," shopping addiction can wreak havoc on a person's life, family, and finances. Experts explain to WebMD why shopping can be so addictive, what the warning signs are, and how to stop the cycle of spending.

Reinforced Shopping

"No one knows what causes addictive behaviors, like shopping, alcoholism, drug abuse, and gambling," says Ruth Engs, EdD, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University. "Some of the new evidence suggests that some people, maybe 10%-15%, may have a genetic predisposition to an addictive behavior, coupled with an environment in which the particular behavior is triggered, but no one really knows why."

While the origin of addictions remains uncertain, why addicts continue their destructive behaviors is better understood.

"Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like shopping," says Engs. "Meaning that endorphins and dopamine, naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on, and the person feels good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it -- it's reinforced."

So what are the telltale signs that shopping has crossed the line and become an addiction?

Shopoholism

"There are certainly a lot of commonalities among shopoholics and other addicts," says Engs. "For instance, while alcoholics will hide their bottles, shopoholics will hide their purchases."

What else should a concerned family member or friend look out for when they think shopping has become a problem?

  • Spending over budget. "Often times a person will spend over their budget and get into deep financial trouble, spending well above their income," says Engs. "The normal person will say, 'Oops, I can't afford to buy this or that.' But not someone who has an addiction," explains Engs -- he or she will not recognize the boundaries of a budget.
  • Compulsive buying. "When a person with a shopping addiction goes shopping, they often compulsively buy, meaning they go for one pair of shoes and come out with 10."
  • It's a chronic problem. "A shopping addiction is a continuous problem," says Engs. "It's more than two or three months of the year, and more than a once-a-year Christmas spree."
  • Hiding the problem. "Shopoholics will hide their purchases because they don't want their significant other to know they bought it because they'll be criticized," says Engs. "They may have secret credit card accounts, too. Because this problem affects mostly women, as alcoholism affects mostly men, husbands will all of sudden be told their wife is $20,000-$30,000 in debt and they are responsible, and many times, this comes out in divorce."
  • A vicious circle. "Some people will take their purchases back because they feel guilty," says Engs. "That guilt can trigger another shopping spree, so it's a vicious circle." And in these people, debt may not be an issue because they're consistently returning clothes out of guilt -- but a problem still exists.
  • Impaired relationships. "It is not uncommon for us to see impairments in relationships from excessive spending or shopping," says Rick Zehr, vice president of addiction and behavioral services at Proctor Hospital at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. "Impairment can occur because the person spends time away from home to shop, covers up debt with deception, and emotionally and physically starts to isolate themselves from others as they become preoccupied with their behavior."
  • Clear consequences. "It's just like any other addiction -- it has nothing to do with how much a person shops or spends, and everything to do with consequences," says Zehr. "We often get the question around the holidays that because a person spent more money than she intended, does this make her an addict? The answer is no. However, if there is a pattern or a trend or consequences that occur with excessive shopping then the person may be a problem spender -- the hallmark is still loss of control. If they are no longer in control of their shopping but their shopping is in control of them, they've crossed the line."