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Don't let a shopping obsession get the best of you

Whether you've racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, or turn to retail therapy for the occasional pick-me-up, you may have a bad habit that's costing you more than you realize. Judith Wright, author of "The Soft Addiction Solution," addresses the dangers of shopping addition and explains how to curb the obsession.Are you a shopaholic? If so, you’re not alone. According to recent studies, as many as one out of twelve people (almost as many men as women) are compulsive shoppers. Whether you’ve racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt or you only turn to retail therapy as an occasional pick me up, you may have a bad habit that’s costing you more than you realize. For many people, shopping has become a soft addiction — an everyday activity that when overdone, can rob us of time, money, energy, and happiness.

So what’s the problem? Well, if you’re like most people, you leap into action only when your credit card creeps up enough to scare you. Or, you might wait for a spouse, roommate, or partner to get angry at you.

Even then, you'll probably make short-term, surface changes to your spending habits — tearing up cards, holding back on binge spending, or foregoing a sale item or two. Sure, you may do better for a while, but without looking at the full costs of an occasional habit, you’ll never address the real reason for your desire to shop ‘till you drop. You'll never make the changes you need to have a great life.

Think of the typical smoker who stops smoking but turns to eating instead. Without addressing the costs and causes of our soft addictions, we simply substitute one for another or make changes that don’t last.

Don’t kid yourself. A shopping habit hits you in more places than your pocketbook — it can rob energy, steal time, numb your feelings, cause tension and bickering in relationships, distract you from your true dreams, and keep you from being fulfilled and satisfied in life. So how do you know if it’s a soft addiction or a fulfilling hobby? Ask yourself these key questions:

How much time do you spend?
If you spend hours roaming the mall, surfing online, or glazing over catalogues, you’re most likely dealing with a soft addiction. Wasting hours that could be spent moving you towards your dreams is never a good choice.

What's your motivation?
Do you shop to feel better about yourself, fill up unscheduled time, escape your emotions, or because you can’t resist a sale? Or are you simply shopping for some well-needed clothing that expresses your personal image? Escaping, avoiding boredom, or feeling pulled toward a sale is a signal that it’s a soft addiction.

What are you feeling?
Do you shop when you’re bored, angry, sad — or even happy? If so, you may be using shopping as retail therapy — a way to avoid your feelings and the challenges you are facing. Think about how you feel before, during, and after your spending spree. Before shopping, are you anxious, jittery, bored, angry or afraid? Are you zoned out, numb, or even on a false high while shopping? Afterward, do you feel shameful, high, agitated, embarrassed, foggy, or even forgetful of what you just purchased? Any of these check points can let you know that you’re entering into bad territory.

Keep in mind, this isn’t an either-or inventory. Sometimes we shop because we need to make a purchase, and other times we use it as an escape. Here's the bottom line: Shopping — or any soft addiction — is not a sin. While these habits do have real costs and implications in our lives, we are much more likely to change our ways when see them as indicators of something we must address.

What are you hoping your shopping will do for you?
If you think a new dress will make you irresistible, make him ask you out. If that new gadget will make you the envy of your friends, forget it. You are imagining some magical result that you believe shopping will bring you. Whether you shop as a boost for your self-esteem, to bring a sense of newness in your life, or avoid uncomfortable emotions, there are far more satisfying ways to meet those needs. Once you know what they are, they will bring you lasting results.

What can you do about it?

  • Tell the truth:You need to recognize that there is no quick fix to the habits you’ve formed over the years. Recognizing your shopaholic habit means waking up and raising your awareness to its costs. Sure, you may be the shopaholic who is literally “paying the price” through outrageous credit card percentages or soaring debt, but you may be paying the price in other ways. If you’re using shopping to escape a relationship issue or tension at work, then you’re not getting the real support you need. If you shop out of loneliness, you’re not likely to find the friends you need at the mall.

  • Add activities to meet your deeper needs: Use what I call the “math of more.” Rather than just cutting back on your shopping habit, look at what your deeper need is and instead, add activities that fulfil that void. For example, if you shop because you are lonely, start shopping for friends to build a stronger network of support. If you have a deeper need to feel excitement and adventure, sign up for a class you enjoy, or take on a new project. The key is exploring what you want in your relationships. If you shop to feel better about yourself, shop for real genuine affirmation — ask friends to tell you what they like about you, make a list of your attributes, or start a gratitude list. Remember, the smallest changes can make a big difference over time.

  • Ask for support: Think about someone who can help you make the changes you desire. Do you have a friend or family member who can encourage and support while simultaneously holding you accountable? Tell them the extent of your habit, including what you intend to, and don’t intend to do. Begin by telling your friend that you shop too much when you are feeling scared (or anxious or angry or lonely) and that you want to do something to change it, but you’re not yet willing to make any major changes. Next, you should fess up to how much time or money you spend, and what the costs are in your life. Later, raise their awareness by calling them on the phone before making any purchase over $25. Eventually, you can look at cutting back, but in the beginning, use your support person (or team) raise your awareness and tell the truth.

We can defend our shopping addiction all we want, but who of us really wants our tombstone to read: “Here lies Susie, she bought a lot of shoes!” What is it we really want instead? What do we want our lives to be about?

What we need to shop for are the elements of a great life — friends, adventures, new horizons, things that enhance our body, mind, spirit, and life. It’s not as hard or boring as it sounds. Your shopaholic habit can actually become the turning point you need to launch the lifestyle you've always dreamed of. Your bad habit is trying desperately to let you know that you have deeper needs you are ignoring. Pay attention to these indicators and follow them towards a life of more satisfaction, support, intimacy, meaning, time, energy, and even money!

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