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Is compulsive shopping eating up your wallet?

Psychotherapist and author Olivia Mellan offers tips on how to stop overspending and what you can do to help a loved one.

You've seen the bumper sticker that reads "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." It's funny — though not for the estimated 60 million Americans addicted to shopping, a habit as hard to break as cigarettes or alcohol. Olivia Mellan is a psychotherapist specializing in money issues. She's also the author of the book "Overcoming Overspending: Winning Plans for Spenders and Their Partners." She was invited to appear on “Today” to share advice on how to stop overspending, and what you can do to help a loved one. Here are her tips:

One of the most tragic things about money is what a taboo subject it is. One of the best things a compulsive shopper can do is expose the problem to the light. In 2002, there were an estimated 60 million Americans addicted to shopping, according to a Stanford University study.  Since that year, my clinical experience as a money coach and psychotherapist tells me that the situation hasn’t improved across the nation.

Since I started specializing in money conflict resolution in 1982, I’ve come to believe that we are a nation of (somewhat adolescent) overspenders. Think about the national deficit! We live in a culture in which families are fragmented, jobs are insecure and many people are searching for meaning in their lives. To fill the emptiness, we buy things. Years ago, I heard Sam Keen say, “We live in a culture where the main form of entertainment is to go to the mall, and wait for the urge to shop to hit us. If we come home empty-handed, that trip to the mall was a failure!”  This is a strange, instant-gratification-addicted culture, where nothing is worse than feeling, empty, bored, or lonely.

We also spend to make up for childhood deprivation or feelings of low self-worth, to celebrate when we’re feeling great or to cheer ourselves up when we’re depressed or listless.

How do you know if you’re a compulsive spender?  Here are some questions that can help you decide:

(Quiz from "Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and Their Partners," by Olivia Mellan with Sherry Christie, revised and updated 2004)

Respond with O for often, S for sometimes, R for rarely, or N for never. Try to be honest with yourself. You don’t have to share the results with anyone else.

1. Do you buy things you want, whether or not you can afford them at the moment?O  S  R  N

2. Do you have trouble saving money? If you have a little extra available to put in the bank (or to invest), do you tend to think of something you’d rather spend it on?O  S  R  N

3. Do you buy things to cheer yourself up or to reward yourself?O  S  R  N

4. Does more than a third of your income go to pay bills (not including rent or mortgage payments?O  S  R  N

5. Do you juggle bill-paying because you always seem to be living on the edge financially? For example, do you tend to pay only the minimum balance on your credit card(s)?O  S  R  N

6. Do you tend to keep buying more of your favorite things — clothes, CDs, books, computer software, electronic gadgets — even if you don’t have a specific need for them?O  S  R  N

7. If you have to say "No"to yourself, or put off buying something you really want, do you feel intensely deprived, angry, or upset?O  S  R  N

If you have four or more O's or S’s, you have overspending tendencies. If you answered O or S to question seven, you are most probably a compulsive spender. That question now seems to me to be the most powerful indicator of a serious problem.

As a therapist who specializes in money conflicts — and a “recovering overspender” myself — I know that overspending can jeopardize personal relationships and careers. It can put you deeply in debt while never fulfilling your emotional needs beyond the moment. You are indulging yourself on the surface (on the skin level), and starving yourself on the deepest level, where self-love and self-respect reside. You can’t spoil yourself and treat yourself well (nourish your essence) at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

The solution isn’t to earn more money. It will just make you spend more wildly, adding fuel to the fire. The only viable solution is to confront the problem and make changes. I believe that all good things in life come from doing something new and unfamiliar. I call this “practicing the nonhabitual." It’s like developing new muscles you never had before, and it makes you feel truly good about yourself and your own personal evolution.

How to control your spending:

1. Admit you have a problem, and “expose it to the light” by reaching out to others (friends, family, a money mentor/friend who isn’t a spender, or a therapist who is comfortable dealing with money problems). Consider joining Debtors Anonymous, a free, 12-step program for spenders with a  spending addiction.

2. Avoid “slippery places” — stores where you overspend, Web sites, catalogs where you indulge your compulsive shopping behavior.  If you have to shop for something, bring a friend along who isn’t a spender. Tell him or her in advance about your difficulty and set a spending limit that he or she will help you keep.

3. “Jam the trigger” of the spending impulse by substituting a healthier behavior. Go on a personal search for what works best for you: exercising, calling a friend (another overspender in recovery) or a money mentor in your life, singing, practicing a creative hobby, volunteering, taking a walk in a place you love — whatever works for you.

4. Reward yourself for controlling your spending, but don’t make it an expensive reward that will undermine your progress.

5. Finally, put your financial goals in writing. Do it 2 to 3 times (short, medium and long-term goals.)  Then you’ll know why you are choosing to spend less money, what you value saving for.

The spouse of a compulsive shopping or overspender has a hard time staying supportive, since the spender’s actions can be throwing the family into financial stress. Here are some helpful hints for a spouse:

1. Separate some or all of the money, so part of your assets are safe from the overspender’s spending binges. Then you will have more space to be truly supportive.

2. Talk about your own imperfections in other areas, so the spender doesn’t feel like the only one with a problem, the “identified patient.”  What addictions or compulsions do you struggle with? Workaholic behavior? Overeating? Drinking? A temper that gets out of control? Depression? Whatever it is, being equally vulnerable will help your partner hear you when you talk about how his or her behavior is affecting you.

3. Use “I” messages (“I feel scared that we will never be able to retire when you come home with these packages from….,” or “I’m having trouble sleeping when I think about the debt we’ve accrued and how to solve our financial problems.”

4. Have weekly check-in times to talk about how money and spending is going. Both can agree to keep track of all their spending and how each of you feels about what you are spending. That will eventually help you tweak your “spending and savings plan.” (Don’t use the word “budget” with a spender. They’ll hate that!)

5. If your spender partner has a relapse (or “recycle” to an earlier stage of recovery), don’t panic or overreact. Expect this, and try to calm down and take the space you need to return to him or her and ask what you can do to help them get back on track.

6. Offer to help them in their recovering  process: e.g. to help them attend Debtors Anonymous meetings or therapy sessions by handling child care or food shopping.

The more you both understand that the compulsive shopper or spender feels like the urge to spend “takes them over like a tidal wave they can’t control,” the more you will both develop the patience and perseverance you need to change this difficult behavior and stay on the path of true recovery.