Shopping addiction is a pattern of compulsive shopping that resembles other addictive disorders in its causes, course of development and effects. Spending addiction is a broader term that encompasses shopping addiction and other patterns of overspending.

People who develop shopping and spending addictions frequently have co-occurring mental health conditions and shop compulsively in an attempt to alleviate anxiety or improve their mood. However, as with other addictions, the cycle of compulsive spending tends to make people feel worse over time. Financial and interpersonal problems can intensify anxiety and depression. Fortunately, shopping addiction responds to treatment and can be overcome.

What Is Compulsive Shopping?

Compulsive shopping disorder is a process addiction. Also known as behavioral addictions, process addictions are disorders in which people regularly engage in an activity in a way that has negative effects on their lives. There is no compulsive shopping definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), but general consensus defines it in similar terms as gambling disorder and substance use disorders: a pattern of overspending that continues despite escalating, negative consequences.

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Impulsive vs. Compulsive Buying

Impulsive and compulsive behavior can overlap. They both reflect two distinct patterns of behavior. The DSM-5 defines compulsions as repetitive behaviors that a person feels compelled to perform. These behaviors are usually conscious and done with the goal to alleviate distress or prevent a negative outcome. On the other hand, impulsive behavior is defined by the lack of forethought or conscious consideration that precedes it. Impulsive behavior comes from powerful drives like aggression, fear and desire.

What distinguishes impulsive vs compulsive buying is whether a person makes purchases suddenly, on impulse, or feels driven to shop regularly by conscious, uncontrollable urges that grow in intensity if they are ignored or resisted. Someone who shops compulsively is more likely to think about shopping a lot and to be bothered by these thoughts, while someone who makes impulsive purchases is less likely to think obsessively about shopping and more likely to make purchases in response to environmental or emotional triggers. Impulsive buying behavior can occur in isolated instances while compulsive buying tends to develop into a recurring pattern that can progress into compulsive buying disorder.

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Signs and Symptoms of Spending Addiction

While there is no specific definition for compulsive shopping disorder in the DSM, many clinicians have developed informal diagnostic criteria based on common criteria for other addictive disorders, which include:

  • People engage in the behavior for a longer period of time than they intended
  • People experience a persistent desire to stop, reduce, or control the behavior
  • People spend a great deal of time engaging in the behavior or recovering from it
  • People experience strong cravings to engage in the behavior that requires significant psychological effort to resist
  • People continue engaging in the behavior despite its negative interpersonal, social, legal, occupational, physical or psychological effects

Spending addiction symptoms include shopping-specific variations of these general symptoms like feeling guilt or remorse about purchases but being unable to stop shopping in response to these negative feelings. Additional signs of shopping addiction include patterns of shopping that lead to any of the following financial problems:

  • Maxing out credit cards
  • Taking out multiple loans or lines of credit
  • Overcharging debit cards and incurring overdraft fees
  • Having frequent money-related arguments with loved ones

People with severe shopping addictions who run into financial barriers due to continued spending may even start stealing, lying or committing financial fraud to be able to continue shopping.

Do You Have a Spending Problem?

Simply asking the question, “Do I have a spending problem?” can be a sign that you have one. Often, one of the first symptoms of a spending problem is feeling guilt or worry about shopping behavior. However, many people who worry about purchases do not have compulsive shopping disorder. Being able to stop or change behavior that concerns you indicates that the behavior has not yet progressed to an addiction.

Some people who are unsure about their shopping and spending habits might try to diagnose themselves by taking a compulsive shopping quiz online. However, these quizzes are rarely clinically valid. Fortunately, more accurate clinical tools like The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale are available online. Researchers have studied this scale and found it to be an accurate measurement of shopping addiction.

signs and symptoms of shopping addiction infographic

What Causes Shopping Addiction?

Shared cultural influences like consumerism and frequent exposure to advertising drive purchasing behavior on a large scale. Increased social status and neurological rewards for making purchases reinforce frequent shopping behavior for many Americans. However, not everyone who shops on a regular basis develops a shopping addiction.

Individual factors contribute to the development of shopping addiction. Neuroticism, or susceptibility to negative moods, can make people more likely to shop compulsively; many compulsive shopping disorders are driven by attempts to use shopping to elevate mood. Additional research revealed the following variables of shopping addiction risk factors:

  • Enjoyment
  • Being female
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-regulation
  • Social anonymity
  • Cognitive overload

“Enjoyment” refers to a pattern in which compulsive shoppers experience more enjoyment from the act of making a purchase than having or using the item they just bought. Bargain shoppers, for example, are driven by the pleasure they get from finding a good deal.

“Cognitive overload” refers to increased psychological stress from having to process too much information under stressful circumstances. In general, people who are experiencing elevated stress are at increased risk of impulsive or compulsive shopping.

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Effects of Shopping Addiction

The effects of shopping addiction can be severe. Escalating financial problems can lead to debt and even bankruptcy. Interpersonal conflict over purchasing patterns can become so severe it ends close relationships. People with shopping addictions can develop secondary hoarding disorders as they fill their homes with items they don’t use but feel too anxious or guilty to relinquish.

Shopping addiction consequences include legal problems when a person who has run out of money resorts to shoplifting, check fraud or other illegal means to continue shopping. Often, people who resort to these extreme measures to shop are aware of the risks and don’t feel comfortable with their behavior, but are driven into it by powerful, irresistible cravings.

Even people who do not experience legal or financial consequences can suffer from worsening mental health in response to shopping binges. A defining element of a shopping addiction is that a person wants to stop overspending but is unable to stop on their own. People with compulsive spending disorders often feel guilt or shame about the social and financial consequences of shopping that can worsen comorbid anxiety and depressive disorders.

Shopping Addiction Statistics

Original estimates of the prevalence rate of compulsive buying disorder ranged from 2 to 16 percent of the United States population, but more recent shopping addiction statistics reveal that it affects about 6 percent of Americans. In one study of people with compulsive shopping disorder, 74 percent of people said that they felt out of control while shopping. In other study, 68 percent of people with the disorder said it had a negative effect on their relationships.

People with compulsive buying disorder have high rates of co-occurring conditions:

  • From 21 to 100 percent of people with compulsive buying disorder have a mood disorder
  • From 41 to 80 percent of people with compulsive buying disorder have an anxiety disorder
  • From 21 to 46 percent of people with compulsive buying disorder have a substance use disorder
  • About 60 percent of people with compulsive buying disorder have a co-occurring personality disorder

These high comorbidity rates reveal the scope and impact of shopping addiction. People with co-occurring addictive and mental health disorders are at increased risk of hospitalization and suicide. They also are at greater risk of problems at work and home including job loss, conflicts with co-workers and unstable relationships.

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Spending Addiction and Co-Occurring Conditions

Depression and shopping addiction have especially high comorbidity rates. Either disorder can develop first; people who are depressed may spend to improve their mood, while shopping addiction can cause guilt and other negative feelings that progress into chronic depression. The cycle of addiction can become a downward spiral as people chase the temporary mood boost they feel when they make a purchase and suffer prolonged negative mood states afterward.

Substance use can become a complicating factor in a person’s effort to alleviate depressed moods that follow shopping binges. The neurochemical effects of substance use can worsen depression and intensify compulsive shopping by lowering inhibitions that might otherwise prevent a shopping binge. This pattern frequently leads to co-occurring shopping disorder and substance abuse.

People with co-occurring substance use and compulsive shopping disorders can sometimes experience substance-induced dissociation and amnesia, or blackouts, during which they make purchases they are not aware of making. They may only remember when they see the item they bought on a dresser or in a closet or when an online purchase is delivered to their door.

Hoarding and shopping addiction are common co-occurring disorders. One of the defining symptoms of hoarding disorder is that a person is unable to relinquish items they do not use, even when holding on to them means that they have to use more and more space at home to store these items. People with compulsive buying disorder frequently purchase items they do not use. While the emotional reasons for hoarding often vary, people with shopping addiction may develop hoarding disorder because they feel too guilty about the money they spent to relinquish the items they purchased.

In the DSM, hoarding disorder is classified as a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Disorders in this class were once identified as anxiety disorders. The close relationship among these different disorders can explain why for people with OCD, shopping addiction can become part of a larger pattern of compulsive behavior. For people with anxiety, shopping addiction can also develop from attempts to alleviate general anxiety by going on shopping trips.

Treatment for Shopping Addiction

Those bewildered by the chaos compulsive shopping can cause may find relief through one of the many forms of shopping addiction help. People wanting to know how to overcome shopping addiction might start by attending a shopping addiction support group like Debtors Anonymous or Spenders Anonymous. In these groups, peers who have struggled with the same things can empathize, offer guidance and share information about local resources for shopping addiction treatment.

While several therapeutic methods are available to treat shopping addiction, cognitive behavioral group therapy may be the most effective intervention for compulsive spending disorders. This success may be due to the effects of social learning or the power of the group process to illuminate the dynamics of addiction. Some individual therapists run group sessions, but the best place to find them is usually a local outpatient or inpatient behavioral health program.

For people who are struggling with substance use disorders and co-occurring shopping addiction, The Recovery Village can help. The substance abuse treatment facilities run by The Recovery Village offer integrated treatment for substance addictions and other behavioral disorders including process addictions. Contact The Recovery Village to learn more about treatment programs that can help you heal.

 

Faber, Ronald J. “Impulsive and Compulsive Buying.” Wiley Online Library, December 15, 2010. Accessed January 19, 2019.

Alavi, Seyyed Salman, et al. “Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views.” International Journal of Preventative Medicine, 3(4); 290-294, April 2012. Accessed January 19, 2019.

Andreassen, Cecile S., et al. “The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and Validity of a Brief Screening Test.” Frontiers in Psychology, September 17, 2015. Accessed January 19, 2019.

Hartston, Heidi. “The Case for Compulsive Shopping as an Addiction.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44(1): 64-67, March 7, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2019.

Clark, Marilyn, and Calleja, Kirsten. “Shopping Addiction: A Preliminary Investigation Among Maltese University Students.” Addiction Research and Theory, 16(6): 633-649. July 11, 2009, Accessed January 19, 2019.

Susan, Rose, and Arun, Dhandayudham. “Towards an Understanding of Internet-Based Problem Shopping Behavior: The Concept of Online Shopping Addiction and Its Proposed Predictors.” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(2), February 3, 2014. Accessed January 19, 2019.

Koran, Lorrin, Faber, Ronald, et al. “Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior in the United States.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, October 1, 2006. Accessed January 19, 2019.

Shopping Addiction
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