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Maybe you have a lust for shoes or overdid itbuying for your newborn. Many of us have had the occasional shopaholic episode — and gnarly credit card hangover. But for some people, the impulse to whip out the plastic crosses the line from a moment of weakness to a full-fledged addiction.

Shopping addiction may sound a bit far-fetched, but researchers say it’s a legitimate issue. “It’s when someone spends so much time, energy, and money buying — or even thinking about buying — that it seriously impairs their life,” April Benson, PhD, author of To Buy or Not to Buy, says.

In addition to the obvious financial aftershocks, overbuying has emotional consequences: You experience guilt, shame, or anxiety after the shopping spree, Benson says. Plus it can damage your relationships, creating friction with friends and family. It can even hurt your professional life: You take two-hour lunch breaks to troll eBay or make a Target run, or eventually get fired for shopping online all day instead of working.

To wit: Benson worked with a woman in her mid-forties named Amanda. Amanda was a police detective in a large Midwestern city. As a compulsive buyer, she shopped three times a day on eBay and her house was overflowing with clothes, books, and magazines.

Amanda said that she couldn’t focus on her new husband and lied to him about shopping. He was concerned about how secretive she’d become and the number of packages piling up. She felt like she was “dumbing [herself] down” with her constant preoccupation with purchasing. Her former interests, like social and environmental causes, went by the wayside in favor of focusing on buying things.

But despite the havoc shopping addiction can wreak, the disease is rarely taken seriously. “It’s called the ‘smiled-upon addiction’ because it’s socially condoned,” Benson says. And because many people don’t realize how addicting shopping can be, Benson adds, it’s that much easier to fall into addiction.

That lack of awareness — plus the advent of online and mobile shopping — gives rise to addiction. “Data suggests that 5.8 percent of the population could be considered compulsive buyers,” Benson says, but in her experience, “it has become much more prevalent as online shopping has gotten increasingly easier.” Here’s why some people just can’t stop burning through their cash, and how to break the buy-buy-buy cycle.

Why We Turn to Retail Therapy
Like an addiction to alcohol, smoking, or gambling, shopping fiends get hooked on the quick-fix way to feel good: “Shopping actually stimulates feel-good chemicals in the brain,” Benson says. And, for shopping addicts, buying compulsively can be “an avoidance mechanism to put off taking certain steps in their life, like quitting their job or leaving their spouse.” Amanda, for example, started bidding on eBay as a way to procrastinate writing a novel — it had long been a goal of hers, and her slow progress was frustrating. Shopping was also an outlet to escape the stress and boredom of her job, and to mask her yearning for a closer relationship with her husband.

Other addicts use shopping as a way to feel more like their ideal self. “It closes the gap between who they are and who they want to be seen as,” Benson says. “They view the acquisition of material goods as a central life goal: an indicator of success and a pathway to happiness.” In reality, of course, shopping can pull you farther away from your goals.

All of this comes down to insecurity, John A. Roberts, PhD, marketing professor at Baylor University and author of Too Much of a Good Thing, says: “People are trying to fill a hole that other aspects in their life, like their relationship or job, are not satisfying.” If your spouse doesn’t make you feel loved or if your career doesn’t give you the sense of importance that you crave, you might turn to something else — such as the lure of Amazon — to quiet the rumbling.

Signs Your Spending Is Off the Rails
You can quiz yourself if you think you might be in the danger zone: Researchers in Norway recently developed a seven-point questionnaire called The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale to measure compulsive buying tendencies. Essentially, the red flags for compulsive buying are similar to those of any other addiction.

First, look at whether shopping is causing conflict in your life: Are creditors hounding you? Is it a source of arguments with your significant other? Have you borrowed money from friends? Are you falling behind at work because shopping sucks up so much of your time?

Next, ask yourself whether you feel powerless over your buying. Do you feel in control, or like your buying habits have control over you?

You should also consider to what degree shopping has consumed your life. “Many of us have episodic bouts of overshopping,” Roberts says, “but if it has become highly salient in your life and you think and talk about it all the time, you have a problem.” Case in point: Amanda spent several hours a day either making or contemplating purchases.

Your emotional response to spending is another factor. “If finding a good bargain, whether online or at a flea market, brings you intense pleasure, that’s a warning sign,” Roberts says. “And on the flip side, investigate whether you suffer from withdrawal, feeling antsy and irritable if you don’t have a chance to check your bids on eBay.”

How to Rein In the Urge to Splurge
The most effective first step for treatment is to identify why and how your shopping initially became a problem. You can do this on your own or with the help of a therapist. “In order to find a permanent fix, you need to uncover the reason behind your spending,” Roberts says. He suggests starting a journal to keep track of your triggers. Maybe it happens on nights when your partner works late, to stave off loneliness, or perhaps you get the itch after arguments with your teen kids, as a way to blow off steam.

Once you’ve pinpointed the root of it, there are strategies to help you overcome overbuying. Benson advises carrying a “Stopping Overshopping Reminder Card,” which lists the following six questions:

  • Why am I here?
  • How do I feel?
  • Do I need this?
  • What if I wait?
  • How will I pay for it?
  • Where will I put it?

Ask yourself these questions before making a purchase, creating a buffer of time between the impulse to buy and making the purchase, she says.

It’s also effective to take a close look at your spending and what it’s costing you. Benson advises writing down everything you buy and scoring each item by necessity. Then give yourself a powerful reality check by tallying up how much money you would have saved if you’d bought only the items you truly needed. Finally, write a description of your vision for the future and whether the way you’re living now is likely to get you there.

Amanda, for instance, penned a sample eulogy illustrating herself as she’d like to be remembered at the end of her life. She recognized how far away she was from her ideal, a person she described as caring “far more for things of the heart and spirit than material things.” This can put your behavior in a long-term perspective.

Support groups are another helpful route. Although there isn’t an extensive network of “Shoppers Anonymous” groups (Benson does offer some here), you might try Debtors Anonymous. Otherwise, enlist a trusted, responsible friend or family member as an advocate. Benson also has a text message program to keep people on track.

“When you have someone else to answer to, you’re more likely to follow through,” Roberts says. He suggests writing a social contract in which you specify a budget for frivolous spending, as well as a penalty if you go beyond the limit — such as doing chores around the house or cutting your budget in half the following month.

It won’t be easy, but the temporary pain is worth it. In her six-month follow-up, Amanda said that taking control has lifted a weight from her shoulders. She’s communicating better with her husband and she’s nearly finished her novel. Now that’s a life well lived.

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