Shopping addiction no reason to smile

Chicago Tribune

We’ve all made impulsive purchases — grabbed a pack of gum at the supermarket checkout line or succumbed to a desire for that third pair of black shoes we’ve been lusting after.

But problems quickly arise when impulsive turns compulsive, when your shopping binges become chronic, when your purchases feel more like an adrenaline rush than a business transaction.

It’s estimated that 6 percent to 9 percent of Americans suffer from compulsive shopping, said April Lane Benson, author of “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop” and “I Shop, Therefore I Am.”

And though that translates to some 19 million to 28 million compulsive shoppers in America, the ailment often is not taken seriously. Bumper stickers cheer, “Shop till you drop” and “Born to shop.” And “shopaholic” is given very different weight than “alcoholic” or “drug addict.”

“It’s the smiled-upon addiction,” Benson said. “People with a problem are seen as silly, vacuous and superficial.”

Yet compulsive shopping can be destructive, too — to finances, relationships and careers, experts say. In fact, if shopping is damaging one of those three aspects of your life, it’s likely you have a problem, Benson said.

Here are tips to overcome compulsive shopping, from Benson and Olivia Mellan, author of “Overcoming Overshopping.”

Identify triggers: Compulsive shopping has little to do with being a consumer and everything to do with filling emotional voids, such as loneliness, lack of self-confidence or lack of control among others.

The high comes not from owning something but the act of purchasing it.

It sounds touchy-feely, but pay attention to how you’re feeling when you compulsively shop. Mellan, a recovering-overspender-turned-money-coach-psychotherapist, remembers her compulsions.

“The desire to buy clothes, or whatever, took me over like a tidal wave that felt like it was coming up from behind my head. I didn’t feel like I had any control over it,” she said. “Whether I was buying 10 things at a thrift shop for $30 or buying something more expensive, I didn’t feel good. Afterward, it felt like I had been on a binge.”

Remove temptation. Stay out of the mall, block shopping Web sites, get rid of credit cards — anything that makes compulsive shopping easier. Unsubscribe to retailers’ e-mails. Cancel catalogs and limit junk mail by visiting dmachoice.org and catalogchoice.org.

Use money tools. Use simple tools, such as a household budget and shopping lists, to maintain focus, said Jo Bittof, co-founder of money management Web site actfinancially.com. “Anyone who doesn’t have a budget is rudderless financially,” she said.

Have financial goals, whether saving for retirement, buying a home or purchasing a boat. Specific goals give you a reason not to spend now.

Find shopping substitutes. “Pick activities that jam the trigger of the spending impulse,” Mellan said. “If you’re an overspender, you’re indulging yourself on the surface. You have to find out how to nourish your soul.”

Substitute activities might be exercise, a walk in nature, volunteering or spending time with friends and family. “If you’re meeting your deeper needs, then the spending urge loses its stranglehold on you,” Mellan said.

Get help: Self-help books can be an aid, but experts say true shopaholics will probably also need professional help. That might be in the form of therapy or joining a support group such as Debtors Anonymous, debtorsanonymous.org or 800-421-2383.