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Image: A woman carries shopping bags
Wolfgang Rattay  /  Reuters file
Do certain emotional triggers frequently prompt you or someone you love to shop?
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 5/19/2010 9:18:49 PM ET 2010-05-20T01:18:49

Shopping and spending addictions probably evaporated in this lousy economy — right?

Nope. Much like other addictions, spending addictions can rear their heads at the most inopportune times. They also know no socioeconomic boundaries. This is a problem that can affect wealthy people, low-income people and pretty much anyone living between those two extremes.

If you or someone you care about might have a problem with compulsive shopping and spending, the following tips can help.

1. Understand the phenomenon. The most extreme compulsive spenders tend to hide or lie about their purchases, max out more than one credit card and worry obsessively about money. It’s not uncommon for them to accumulate items that never get used or worn — items that often still have the price tags attached — and to live in a constant state of crisis over their finances.

2. Know thyself. If you love-love-love to shop, ask yourself: Why? Is it the thrill of the hunt? The appeal of beating the system by finding great sales? A penchant for a certain kind of item, such as shoes, clothing or electronics? Answering yes to any of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem — but if you suspect your spending might be out of control, it’s important to examine what’s happening.

3. Reflect on how you feel when you shop. Do certain emotional triggers frequently prompt you to shop? For instance, do you buy stuff when you’re depressed, anxiety-ridden, angry or lonely, with an eye toward cheering yourself up? By understanding the feelings involved, you can focus on different ways to cope with them.

4. Think about the time involved. A wakeup call can be had by thinking about the total amount of time spent visiting certain kinds of stores, cruising for deals online and studying the catalogs that arrive in the mail. Are there other things you’d rather be doing and accomplishing?

5. Take control of the situation. If you’re worried about how your spending habit is affecting your life — and your credit rating — start spending only what you have by paying for everything with cash, checks and your debit card. Cut up all credit cards with the exception of one that you sock away only for emergencies, and don’t carry that card with you. Refuse to take on any more unsecured debt — that is, debt that isn’t tied to a piece of property, such as a home.

6. Start writing things down. Another eye-opening way to get a grip is to keep a daily log of what you spend along with the feelings associated with the purchases. It’s also wise to write down your financial goals so you stay focused on what’s important.

7. Steer clear of unnecessary temptations. If you know you have a problem, try to avoid discount warehouses, malls and shopping districts. If you can’t avoid them entirely, make lists and stick to them, and only let yourself window shop when stores are closed. Throw all catalogs away, don’t watch shopping channels on TV, and be especially careful about splurging when you visit different parts of the country or world. If you must go shopping at a place that’s especially tempting for you, bring along a trusted friend who knows how much you’re struggling, and ask your friend to help you stick to your shopping list.

8. Find healthy alternatives. When you feel overwhelmed by the urge to shop, go for a walk or do some other form of exercise. This can take your mind off the urge until it passes.

9. Expand your possibilities. Instead of using all that time to shop, you could volunteer in your community, spend more time with your family, go back to school, read lots of great books, get in shape or tackle any number of goals you have for your life. Finding ways to help others can be especially rewarding.

10. Know when to get help. If you feel your spending is so out of control that you can’t wrestle with the problem alone, seek out counseling or therapy or try attending a Debtors Anonymous meeting. To find meeting times and locations in your area, visit the Debtors Anonymous Web site and click on “Find a DA Meeting.” If you or a loved one needs an even more serious intervention, the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital offers an in-patient treatment program for compulsive spenders and debtors. You also could find assistance through the Stopping Overshopping Program.

Sources and resources:

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Shopaholic masked grief with spending

  1. Transcript of: Shopaholic masked grief with spending

    NATALIE MORALES reporting: Many women love to shop when they're happy, when they're sad, even when they're bored. It's such a part of a -- our culture that movies like " Confessions of a Shopaholic " have hit the big screen, making light of the issue. But for Avis Cardella , shopping was no joke. It became an addiction that almost ruined her life.

    Ms. AVIS CARDELLA (Author, "Spent"): I remember Takashimaya in 1993 , and that was a time in the early '90s when luxury label fever was just starting in New York . All the precious items that were on display at Takashimaya always held me in a trance and I bought a lot here and really enjoyed it. When I was 19 years old I got a job on Macy's selling floor selling jewelry. And what came of that job is my own Macy's credit card. I remember distinctly the smell of that card. It smells like a petroleum product , it smells like plastic, and it was the color of a plum. Bloomingdale's, which is probably the most sentimental shopping location for me. This is where I used to shop with my mom when I was very young, who unfortunately died at an early age, and it was my mother's death that's precipitated my compulsive shopping problems. So there's a big sentimental factor in my relationship to shopping at Bloomingdale's . I was somewhat of a self-adjusting shopper. When I couldn't afford to shop at expensive stores anymore, I started buying less expensive items. And one of my sad stories at Zara was that I bought a pair of corduroy flares here with my last $20. Now we're at Barney 's, which is where I ended up with the Cosabella incident, which is me buying 20 pairs of underwear and various other lingerie items. I had a moment of recognition that I did have a shopping problem.

    MORALES: Avis Cardella 's the author of "Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict ." Good morning, Avis .

    Ms. CARDELLA: Good morning.

    MORALES: Do people laugh when you say you were a shopping addict? Or, I mean, was it really -- was it really a problem that just devoured your life?

    Ms. CARDELLA: I -- it was a problem that devoured my life, but for a very long time I didn't speak about it because I was afraid it wouldn't be taken seriously.

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: Throughout the '90s, of course, it was irrational exuberance and " Sex and the City " and shopping...

    MORALES: Yeah.

    Ms. CARDELLA: ...till you dropped. And for me it was -- it was a time when I was shopping in a way that didn't feel healthy, it felt distorted. And yet I saw the rest of the world shopping and I thought, `Well, what am I doing wrong?' So I didn't speak about it because I just didn't understand what was going on with me.

    MORALES: What was your earliest memory of shopping and the feelings you had as you were shopping?

    Ms. CARDELLA: Oh, well going way back to when I was a child. I remember, you know, being entranced by clothing and shopping from very early on. But a memory of shopping excessively was after my mom died.

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: I started going to stores because they felt comforting. They felt like a place where I could be cocooned and safe.

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: So that is, I think, where my shopping excessively started after my mom died.

    MORALES: And what was the emotion that you were going through as you were shopping during this period of real grief in your life, and yet you were masking it with the shopping?

    Ms. CARDELLA: Yeah, the shopping really did help me avoid the grief, because you know, in the act of spending when you buy something, you do have that happy moment. So those little happy morsels that I had when I bought something seemed to really take the place of all the negative feelings I was having.

    MORALES: And you actually had some physical symptoms, you say, when you were shopping.

    Ms. CARDELLA: Yes.

    MORALES: Describe what you would go through.

    Ms. CARDELLA: Yeah, that's a very important point to talk about...

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: ...because I did have sometimes giddiness, light-headed, anxiety feeling, sweaty palms.

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: And it turns out that there is neuroscience that's looking into this that says this shopper's high might, in fact, be real. There's neuroscience that looks at the brain with MRIs and says maybe there are actual physical chemical reactions that you have when you shop.

    MORALES: And when you shopped you didn't return the items. You would just keep it and throw it in the back of your closet, right, a lot of times?

    Ms. CARDELLA: Sometimes, yeah, and that's the unfortunate part with a shopping addict, you end up buying things and you don't even enjoying using them.

    MORALES: Right.

    Ms. CARDELLA: So a lot of times I didn't enjoy the products I purchased.

    MORALES: So what was your aha moment then? Was it your mother's death that sort of led you to that point where you realized, `I got to get this under control'?

    Ms. CARDELLA: No. My shopping started after my mom's death and it went on for about 15 years...

    MORALES: Right.

    Ms. CARDELLA: ...which is a really long time to be shopping. But the aha moment, I'd say, one was when I was in Barney 's buying 20 pairs of underwear and I said, `this just isn't normal.' I knew I was going to throw it in the back of the closet And I knew that I wasn't going to enjoy the product. So that was an aha...

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: ...where I said, `you're in trouble.' The real aha was buying a $20 pair of pants with my last $20, so.

    MORALES: Yeah. And real quickly, the message to women out there when they read your story, what do you want them to take away?

    Ms. CARDELLA: If you do feel out of control, if you're having problems, whether it's with debt or with relationships, you can take control, you can get power over your purchases...

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CARDELLA: ...and the luxury is enormous. It's better than any luxury product you can buy. Really.

    MORALES: Avis Cardella , thank you so much .

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