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Debt addiction: What to do when you can't stop shopping

It's hard to avoid ads that urge us to buy things.
It's hard to avoid ads that urge us to buy things.FREDERIC J. BROWN / Today

"It's on sale." "I can't resist." "We can pay it off little by little on credit." It's the American way, right?

For some the urge to buy is an occasional impulse; for others, this chatter might very well support a diagnosis of compulsive buying disorder.

Hidden among the throngs of shoppers are people who can't stop themselves — even if they want to. You hear the term shopaholic used all the time on sitcoms or on reality shows where men and women drop thousands of dollars on one item to keep up with what's trending. While this behavior may be funny or entertaining to watch, it's no joke: Shopaholics suffer from a compulsive disorder that results in major debt.

It's hard to avoid ads that urge us to buy things.FREDERIC J. BROWN / Today

Nearly 7 percent of Americans are categorized as compulsive buyers, according to an article cited in the "American Journal on Addictions." That's roughly 20 million people.

Count Andrea Gresser among them. The 45-year-old stay-at-home mom said she has hit rock bottom. "Things are just coming to light," she said. "I was busted for shoplifting twice, and I'm working with a counselor."

Gresser also explained how difficult it is to stop. "I have been fighting this my whole adult life," she said. "It's like a death sentence — keeping secret [my] online shopping and trying to pay off thousands on credit cards."

Gresser described her plight as a desperate cycle of euphoric buying followed by deep remorse. "I am constantly trying to fill a hole that I just can't fill," she said. "I literally have so much at home that I've forgotten what I've purchased, and there's jewelry that I've bought, then returned." 

Gresser said she knows she's causing pain for her spouse but can't stop herself. "When your husband says he's worried about money and you know you're the cause of the problem but still go back out and shop again, well, it just stinks," she admitted.

Terrence Shulman, founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding and author of "Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending," counsels people like Gresser, who struggle with impulse control, compulsive spending and debt addiction.

He attributes the increase in compulsive shopping to the ease of purchasing items via mobile and WiFi, and through TV shopping channels, where you can make a purchase with the click of your remote control. Gresser agreed: "Shopping is just in your face, with all of the advertising in stores, at the supermarket, even at garage sales."

Take a debt quiz

So how do you know when loving to shop and treating yourself to a new pair of shoes has crossed the line to become a full-blown addiction that is wreaking havoc on your finances? Take a debt quiz, for starters. Debtors Anonymous (DA), a peer-based recovery program, outlines these key warning signs:

  • You have a "live for today, don't worry about tomorrow" attitude. 
  • You frequently don't return borrowed items. 
  • It is hard for you to meet basic financial obligations.
  • You love buying things on credit vs. cash. 
  • Your closet is full of new clothing with tags attached. 

Why do people overspend?

So are some people more susceptible to compulsive spending than others? Research suggests that compulsive spending overlaps with other compulsive disorders, like hoarding, gambling and drinking. Shulman counsels people of all backgrounds on the topic, claiming that the issues driving compulsive behavior are complex.

"Some overshopping and overspending is connected to the need to compensate for some loss or lack in the life of the shopaholic." In other cases, he said, compulsive spenders have been overindulged or spoiled materially. Often, they had poor role models and this dynamic continued into their adulthood.

"The United States is a bad role model, carrying a national debt of 17 trillion dollars," Shulman observed. "What are we to think? Well, maybe it's not that bad — everyone's doing it, everyone's taking on debt. Even defaulting on loans and mortgages doesn't seem that bad — even smart!"

Dr. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind," said that people who overspend get a boost in mood and are using the compulsive behavior to feel less stressed. "It's served a purpose," she said. "But in the end, those boosts can push dependency, so people must find healthy ways to boost their moods — like exercise, good relationships and fun experiences — and they have to frequently remind themselves of the rewards."

How to battle the buying

So what should consumers do?

"Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery," said Shulman, adding that compulsive spending is "not unlike any other psychological disorder, [and] people can't just will themselves to stop." Once you've conquered that, he suggests the following:

  • Seek out and read books on the topic of shopping addiction.
  • Seek out professional help with a counselor or therapist who specializes in treating shopping addiction. Join and attend a support group (local, phone or online) such as Debtors Anonymous.
  • Avoid stores, TV shopping and/or Internet shopping for the time being, and have others help you by holding your credit cards, blocking TV shopping channels and websites. Also avoid people who encourage you to shop.
  • Fill time with healthy people and activities.