(MoneyWatch) Alcohol, crack and heroin are known to be highly addictive, but can something as innocuous as shopping be addictive?
Having worked with more than one so-called "shopaholic" in my Orange County financial planning firm, I have no doubt shopping can become addictive and destructive. I've worked with people from vastly different backgrounds who have become shopaholics -- from "sudden wealth" recipients who've come into millions of dollars, to the unemployed and destitute who cannot control their shopping addiction. Dr. Drew and I recently taped an episode on the Ricki Lake Show where we spoke to a young woman who was a self-diagnosed shopaholic. Her shopping addiction can provide valuable lessons for the rest of us.
First, it's important to understand what doesn't work. A shopping addiction is not a disease of intellect; it's a disease of emotion. Unfortunately, most family members, along with mental health and financial "experts," make things worse by focusing on the two areas that usually lead to even more shopping: shame and logic. What's wrong with you?! Don't you know better? How can you be so self-centered and selfish? Trying to use logic -- if you spend too much, you won't have money to make the car payment -- tends to be just as ineffective.
Such "cures" don't work. Shopaholics already feel badly about themselves, and they already know they can't afford it. Criticism often leads to people feeling even more socially isolated, which they "treat" by shopping. So what does work?
1. Identify the shopping trigger. What activates a person's urge to shop -- boredom, guilt, shame, anger? Keep a written journal or electronic record and document what leads to the shopping.
2. Discover the need shopping fills. Excessive shopping doesn't serve a functional purpose -- you probably don't need 15 purses -- it serves a psychological purpose bu meeting an unfilled or under-filled need. For the non-shopaholic, it may look like "crazy" or irrational behavior. It's not. The shopaholic is often entirely rational. They shop for a reason -- it fulfills a need, so they keep doing it.
No matter what you do, if you don't find an alternative and healthier way to fill this need, the shopping urge won't fade. So the first step in halting compulsive shopping is to identify the psychological need driving it. Does the shopping provide pleasure, or does it help you avoid pain? In other words, do you shop to feel something you don't feel anywhere else throughout the day (a rush, excitement, variety, stimulation, being in control, feeling naughty), or do you shop to avoid feeling something negative, such as anxiety loneliness or fear? Determine what part of the shopping provides the reward. Is it going with friends (social)? Is it being around others (community)? Is it searching for things? Is it feeling significant? Does the shopping create relationship conflicts so you get attention or a sense of connection, albeit negative? It takes an open mind and guts to analyze yourself like this, but it often provides the answer.
3. Replace shopping with something healthier. The shopaholic needs to find a healthier alternative to filling the need. Brainstorm how you could fill this need in other ways. Often you'll find that someone with one addiction will trade it for another addiction. This is not a positive long-term solution. The goal is to trade in a negative and destructive addiction for one that is positive and healthy, or at least neutral. Sometimes it's just not enough to replace shopping with a healthier habit. In this case, figure out what's more important than shopping. What do you value more in life? Your children, spouse, security, prestige? Whatever it is, you must link how continuing to shop will destroy what you value most. If you value the love from your family and friends, it's easy to see how that you will ruin these relationships if you keep borrowing and spending.
4. Change your environment. Our environment plays a huge role in our behavior. If you keep a bowl of jellybeans on your desk, it's clear what you will snack on throughout the day. Use the environment to your advantage. It makes no sense for the alcoholic to "test" their willpower by having a snack at their local bar, and it makes no sense for the shopaholic to be in shopping malls. Create "no-fly zones" -- places you can't go, such as malls, stores and other shopping areas. You want to remove any ambiguity in your rules. If you don't, then in the heat of the moment the shopaholic will rationalize a way to shop. Make a list of the places you can and cannot go. Eliminate any TV watching (at least in the beginning), and stay from magazines and newspapers. You basically want to remove any cues from the environment to shop.
5. Get support. Kicking an addiction is hard to do alone. Get some help from friends, family or others. Debtors Anonymous is a great resource, and they have groups in cities across the country.