Shopping is a necessary part of adult life. Whether it's grabbing groceries for the weekly shop or searching the high street for a friend's perfect birthday present, there are offers and opportunities for a spending spree everywhere. A little retail therapy when you're feeling low can seem like the ideal way to blow off some steam but, for some people, a love of shopping can soon spiral into an uncontrolled addiction.
A shopping addiction works in a similar way to gambling or sex addictions. Finding the perfect purchase on a shopping spree causes the brain to release endorphins, boosting the shopper's mood and helping them feel temporarily fulfilled. Shopping addiction – which can also be known as compulsive buying disorder or oniomania – occurs when an individual becomes reliant on this feeling, meaning that they may spend an excessive amount of time and money to fuel their habit.
While an addiction to shopping can occur around the world, it's generally only found in countries where high incomes are common. The UK holds shopping as one of its favourite pastimes, with our average online spending exceeding that of shoppers in the US by almost £1000 every year, and compulsive shopping is thought to affect up to 10% of the population.
Women are far more likely than men to have a problem shopping addiction, with research suggesting that around 20% of UK women show signs of compulsive shopping. It's thought that women place more importance on shopping's emotional and symbolic role than men, increasing the likelihood of maladaptive shopping behaviours forming. There is some argument, however, that this could actually be down to men under-reporting their issues with compulsive shopping and their unwillingness to seek treatment. While women are thought to be more “continual” shoppers, spending average amounts regularly, shopping addicted men are more likely to make bigger, more expensive purchases like luxury cars or holidays.
Most shopping addictions are thought to form between the ages of 18 and 30, particularly as the shopper becomes independent from their families and takes control over their own finances. The addiction also doesn't appear to lessen over time, continuing across decades if there is no form of intervention, and research suggests that it runs in families.
For some, the nickname “retail therapy” is a fairly accurate description, using shopping as a way to escape depressive feelings or to build up confidence but, for a small proportion of shoppers, this can be the beginnings of their addiction. The boost of endorphins that comes with rummaging through the sale rail or making a purchase gives the shopper a temporary reprieve from low emotions, leading the shopper to associate spending money with feeling good, and they can then become reliant on shopping to improve their mood. It becomes a coping mechanism to deal with another issue.
Most shopping addicts are thought to have some underlying cause leading to their dependency, including mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder. Loneliness or boredom are other possible sources of the initial behaviour, but a predisposition to addictive behaviour or a family history of compulsive spending increase the likelihood that this will grow into a shopping addiction. The guilt caused by their shopping addiction can then make the addict feel worse after a spree can compound these underlying issues, forcing the shopper into a cycle of low feelings, temporary shopping highs, and guilt.
Debt can be a big problem for compulsive shoppers as their addiction causes them to spend above their means. This can go on to affect sleep quality, with a study by Scottish Widows showing almost half of Scottish adults find that their sleep is impacted by money worries, which may then have a further impact on their overall health. Long-term sleep deprivation can compound the anxiety money worries cause whilst also raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of heart disease.
While shopping is seen to be a social activity, a shopping addiction can be an isolating experience. Like other addictions, secretive behaviours to conceal the severity of the problem can impact the shopping addict's relationships as they may find themselves lying about how much they have bought or trying to conceal the extent of their spending. Additionally, they may find themselves lying to evade the judgement of others which, if caught out, will put a strain on the trust within that relationship. They may feel embarrassed by their compulsive spending and this can mean that it becomes very much a solo experience, rather than a time to spend with friends.
A need to buy things can lead the shopping addict to spend more than they should, with many using credit or store cards to facilitate a spree. This can lead to big financial concerns as the shopper builds up debt which, along with the secretive behaviours associated with an addiction, can easily put a strain on the shopper's relationships. Arguments over money and feelings of betrayal due to broken budgeting promises or lies about spending can break up families and friendships, further isolating the shopping addict and risks pushing them further into their negative behaviour.
Many of things associated with independence – like purchasing a car or getting a mortgage – can be impacted by a shopping addiction, particularly as the period of time in which most compulsive spending behaviours form is also the time when these personal developments are most important. An excessive spending habit and debt build-up can affect credit ratings, making securing a loan more difficult and limiting their ability to make bigger purchases such as a new car. If a shopping addict with bad credit does manage to secure a loan, it is likely to have a much higher interest rate than those given to individuals with good credit, meaning that shopping addicts may end up having to pay more for the same item than someone with good credit. They may also find themselves unable to make these large purchases because of their low credit score, limiting their movement towards a more independent life.
As with gambling addictions, the expenses of compulsive shopping can put a strain on the shopper's finances and this concern can lead to desperate behaviours. While there is not extensive research on the subject of shopping addiction and crime, instances of problem shoppers stealing or embezzling money to facilitate their spending hit the headlines with an unfortunate regularity.
Shopping addictions have also been linked to kleptomaniac tendencies, meaning that the individual feels the compulsion to shoplift from stores to feel a high or sense of achievement. Most often, this is not about the monetary value of the stolen items but is instead purely about getting away without getting caught. Both shopping addiction and kleptomania relate to emotional problems and low self-esteem, acquiring material things to try to improve a low mood.
Devastating Financial Consequences
British spending habits have changed over the past few years, with consumers focusing on experiences like nights out and holidays rather than material goods like groceries. Even with this shift, however, Ariel's Great British Wardrobe Report still found that the average Brit spends around £1042 each year on clothes. In addition to this, Britain out-spends other countries by a significant margin when it comes to online purchases. In 2015, UK households were found to spend around £4611 online, compared to Norway's £4238 and the USA's £3532, showing that we are a nation of spenders.
The amount a compulsive shopper may spend depends on the money available to them, their taste in purchases, and the form their shopping addiction takes. Many shoppers have particular preferences when it comes to what they are willing to splurge on and the spending of someone who's obsession revolves around jewellery can differ greatly from the spending of a clothing and make-up lover. Someone who feels the compulsion to buy “sets” of purchases, such as collecting each different colour variation of a handbag or pair of shoes, will also have different expenses to a shopping addict who thrives on raiding through the sale floor for a bargain. These differing spending patterns, along with the under-reported nature of the addiction, can make it very difficult to track the average cost of a shopping addiction to an individual. Differing levels of wealth also impedes the ability to find an average spend as those with larger funds at their disposal may be able to spend more before their addiction begins to impede their life. Sir Elton John famously spent £40 million in a little under two years, with £293, 000 just on flowers – a level of money that would financially cripple most other people. However, the charity Consumer Credit Counselling Service has said that they receive around 50,000 calls every year about out of control spending. They found that the first calls of most shopping addicts usually occur once they have reached between £18,000 and £20,000 worth of debt on store and credit cards.
Do Men Have Shopping Addictions?
Contrary to popular stereotypes it's not just women that are addicted to shopping. Men are also just as vulnerable to purchasing as part of an emotional cycle. Are there male shopaholics? Yes! The top things that men buy:
Entertainment - although men have a higher propensity to gamble as part of an emotional cycle.
Large ticket items: Cars, Holidays etc.
Shopping Addiction Treatment Options
Someone who has realised that their shopping habit has become an addiction may want to find some form of distraction to replace that activity. Free activities – to lessen the risk of it becoming just another form of purchase – can offer the shopper a new outlet for the feelings behind the addiction. Running, writing, or even just learning a new skill can help the compulsive shopper adjust their focus and give them something new to turn to when things get stressful, without the strain on their bank account.
Identifying the underlying cause for the shopping addiction is necessary to fully overcome the problem and learning new coping mechanisms can help them fully overcome the problem. Keeping a diary to work out what triggers the spending binges can help initially but accessing counselling or therapy may be necessary. Counselling services may also recommend debt assistance programs for those whose spending has seriously impacted their financial stability, while treating underlying mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, may also improve compulsive spending.
Hypnosis for Shopping Addictions
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