TODAY   |  May 19, 2010

Shopaholic masked grief with spending

For Avis Cardella, shopping became an addiction that helped her avoid emotions and left her in financial ruins. She speaks with TODAY’s Natalie Morales and reveals how she came to terms with her compulsive and destructive habit.

Share This:

This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

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 .