‘Shop ‘Til YouDrop’: A holiday Tradition For Some, An Ongoing Problem For Others
GAINESVILLE — With the arrival of November, tradition demands that Americans head to the stores for the annual frenzy of gift buying. While some shoppers may dread the experience and others delight in it, a small percentage of those loading up with consumer goods actually suffer from a year-round problem of compulsive shopping.
For them, the thought of shopping induces euphoria, resulting in buying binges that can max out their credit cards and destroy their personal finances. The holidays, with their nonstop “buy now, pay later” messages, can be an especially difficult time for many people dealing with compulsive buying.
“People in treatment and those who realize they have a spending problem often dread the holidays because they know that it’s easy to lose control if they are not careful,” said Dr. Toby Goldsmith, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida who has treated dozens of compulsive buyers over the past four years.
For some, compulsive shopping is a disorder in itself, but for others, it may be one symptom of a larger problem, such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder. It also may be one of a number of impulse- control disorders they have, including gambling, binge eating or compulsive stealing.
Like the other impulse control disorders, people with compulsive buying regularly have a feeling of emptiness, agitation or anxiety that only shopping can relieve. These individuals can become so preoccupied with shopping that it disrupts their daily routine, said Goldsmith, who has written a chapter in the forthcoming book “I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self.”
“These are people who think about shopping all day long. It occupies their day just as much as the shopping itself,” said Goldsmith, who also is director of the women’s program at the Shands at UF Psychiatry Specialty Clinic. “Many of these people start thinking about shopping in response to emotional difficulties, for example a fight with their spouse or work problems.”
An estimated 2 to 8 percent of Americans are compulsive buyers, the numbers varying depending on how researchers define the condition. Symptoms include frequent preoccupation with buying, frequent buying of unneeded items, spending more than can be afforded and shopping for longer periods than initially intended. A University of Cincinnati study found that compulsive shoppers’ average debt, excluding mortgage, was $23,000, with a range from $3,000 to $60,000.
While shopping, compulsive buyers feel a rush of excitement, which typically leads to exhaustion and the onset of depression once the episode has ended. Shopping also can bring on distress and guilt, and some individuals return the items they purchased. Compulsive buyers usually are disturbed by their shopping binges, but the magnitude varies by person.
“To an individual making $20,000 a year, spending $100 in an afternoon can be distressing, but for a person who makes $1 million a year, that same episode will mean significantly less,” Goldsmith said.
The condition has been found in men and women at all income levels. Men and women tend to differ in what they purchase, with women often selecting clothing, makeup and smaller items for the home, and men going after “big ticket” items, including electronics, sporting equipment and car accessories.
Compulsive buying causes a tremendous strain on friends and family, both economically and emotionally, as individuals with the condition stop socializing, develop difficulties at work and develop enormous debt.
Technology has expanded purchasing opportunities, increasing the temptations for the compulsive shopper, first with cable networks devoted to shopping and more recently with Internet commerce. Growing availability of credit also is blamed for the condition’s prevalence, as are economic trends in the nation’s youth.
“Younger people are being exposed to shopping and consumption more and more as a form of recreation and release,” Goldsmith said. “In addition, mood disorders appear to be starting at younger ages, so I believe that we’re seeing compulsive shopping develop at younger ages.”
Goldsmith said there are three major steps family and friends of compulsive buyers can take in assisting someone. First, confront the person and make them aware of the problem.
Next, ask the individual to seek professional help. Treatment for compulsive shopping typically involves anti-depressants or mood stabilizers paired with psychotherapy. Goldsmith said she also frequently refers patients to Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program and support group.
Finally, limit their purchasing power by contacting credit card companies and halting all credit access. “Blocking credit might get them angry, but you just can’t let them access a line of credit the same way you can’t take a recovering alcoholic into a bar and just tell him or her not to drink.”
- Eric Lowe