Shopping addiction is a type of behavioral addiction, also known as a process addiction. Some people may view shopping addiction as something trivial, but for many people, it is a compulsive behavior that controls and ruins their lives.

Compulsive shopping is also called shopping addiction, oniomania (the official medical term), pathological buying, compulsive buying disorder or shopaholism. By any name, compulsive shopping is ultimately problematic shopping and spending behavior that is:

  • Uncontrollable
  • Highly distressing
  • Time-consuming
  • Causing family, vocational, financial, social or legal problems

Shopping addiction is much more than “retail therapy” or a nice treat after a bad day. Rather, it is a symptom of serious underlying psychological pathology that can lead to other dysfunctional coping mechanisms, such as substance addiction. Treatment of this serious behavioral addiction is important to stop the downward spiral of adverse consequences and to return the individual to good health.

Six common myths about shopping addiction exist, and to properly understand compulsive shopping, it is important to replace these myths with the facts about shopping addiction.

Myth 1: Only Women Are Compulsive Shoppers

Fact: Studies have shown that about 8% of compulsive shoppers are men.

Although women make up the majority of compulsive shoppers, men are certainly not immune to this issue. While women who are compulsive shoppers will say that they shop, men are more likely to report that they “collect.” 

It is probable that as online shopping becomes more popular, the proportion of male compulsive shoppers will increase. Although men are often more interested than women in electronics, automotive and hardware items, compulsive male shoppers share the same top three purchases as females with shopping issues:

  • Clothing
  • Shoes
  • Music (e.g., compact discs)

Myth 2: Shopping Addiction Only Impacts People Financially

Fact: Shopping addiction has consequences that go well beyond the financial problems of overspending.

One of the characteristics of compulsive shopping that makes it an addiction is that the spending continues despite obvious negative consequences. For people with shopping addiction, their obsession with shopping and spending consumes considerable time and effort, even when they are not physically shopping. This strain robs them of time to focus on necessary activities of daily living, such as family responsibilities, social engagements, and work.

There are a number of adverse effects of shopping addiction, including:

  • Overspending, debt, and bankruptcy 
  • Emotional distress, including embarrassment about their behavior, guilt and shame and overspending regret
  • Loss of normal recreational, household and family activities as the preoccupation with shopping takes over
  • Relationship problems, including marital conflict, criticism, and conflict with family and friends over the behavior
  • Job problems due to online shopping and preoccupation with shopping at work, and missing work due to shopping
  • Legal problems, both criminal as well as financial

In addition, people with a shopping addiction are much more likely to have other mental health disorders compared to the general population:

Myth 3: Shopaholics Only Buy Expensive Items

Fact: Compulsive shoppers seek the psychological reward of buying, regardless of what the item is, where it comes from or its price tag.

Although shopping addiction occurs more commonly in affluent countries, such as America and the UK, it is also observed in less wealthy countries. It is not limited to people of wealth and people who shop in expensive boutiques. People of lower income might do their compulsive shopping at garage sales and consignment shops.

The desired high that the person seeks comes from the purchase, not from owning the item, so the value or quality of the item assumes little importance. Once the purchase is made, the compulsive shopper usually cares very little about the item. Many compulsive shoppers have closets full of unopened packages, as the rush comes from the purchase, not from owning the item. Some people even develop hoarding tendencies as their purchases accumulate.

Compulsive shoppers’ purchases tend not to be particularly expensive, especially as debt and credit problems mount, but it is their number of purchases that cause increased spending. Studies have shown that the average cost per item of a typical compulsive shopping spree is around $92 to $110.

Myth 4: Compulsive Shoppers Never Regret Their Purchases

Fact: Psychological distress, in the form of guilt, shame and remorse following a shopping episode is a core symptom of shopping addiction.

Compulsive shopping is characterized by a euphoric rush (a high) from acquiring the item, but that rush is soon followed by overwhelming regret and self-criticism, often within minutes after making the purchase. These feelings often result in the shopper later returning the item, leaving the item in its original packaging, selling the item or even giving it away.

It is the guilt and regret that cause people to leave purchased items in the original packaging, to avoid the sight of it, which would increase their feelings of guilt, or to reduce their feelings of guilt by keeping the option of returning the unopened item.

Whereas most regular shoppers make purchases for the value and usefulness of the item, people who struggle with shopping addiction do so to improve their mood, especially in response to stress. Since compulsive shopping is a coping mechanism for smothering negative feelings and emotions, the guilt and remorse that follow purchases usually lead to further purchases as a way of coping with these renewed feelings of guilt. 

Myth 5: Shopping Addiction Isn’t That Serious

Fact: Shopping addiction is a serious behavioral addiction that is associated with severe underlying issues and causes significant adverse effects.

Shopping addiction is a progressive disorder that belies serious underlying issues robbing the individual of happiness and normal functioning. Shopping addiction is associated with poor emotional regulation, impaired impulse control, and low self-esteem. In particular, compulsive shopping is usually a way of improving mood when stress causes negative feelings. It may also be an effort to boost low self-esteem by gaining social approval through purchases.

Shopping addiction is highly associated with other mental health disorders and addictions to drugs and alcohol. Therefore, leaving shopping addiction untreated can lead to serious co-morbid mental health problems.

As with other addictions, compulsive shoppers develop tolerances, where they require increasing amounts of shopping behavior to satisfy their obsession and chase the high. The longer that shopping addiction progresses untreated, the more problems with debt, relationships, and neglect of daily obligations grow. Untreated shopping addiction can cripple people’s lives.

Myth 6: Compulsive Shoppers Can Stop on Their Own

Fact: Compulsive shoppers cannot stop or control their shopping, despite progressive negative consequences.

People who are able to stop their shopping and buying behaviors when financial or other problems arise from their retail activities are not compulsive shoppers. People who have shopping addictions experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms and have an inability to control addictive behavior. Therefore, they can’t just stop without help.

Because shopping addiction is an obsessive-compulsive and impulse-control disorder, and the person’s way of coping with stressors, sheer willpower won’t work for long. Nearly all compulsive shoppers report trying to resist their urges to shop but are seldom successful.

Like other addictions, compulsive shopping must be treated by addressing the underlying psychological and emotional issues. Treatment requires professional involvement, including a comprehensive assessment to identify the core issues and any co-occurring mental health or addiction disorders. Based on that assessment, a plan of action to empower the individual to overcome shopping addiction can be formulated.

If you have concerns about substance abuse and co-occurring compulsive shopping in yourself or someone else, please contact The Recovery Village for a free, confidential discussion with one of our admission counselors.