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6 Things You Should Know About Compulsive Spenders

How to recognize the signs and find help for shopaholics

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We all handle money differently, based on our personalities and life experiences. For some, saving can lend a sense of security; for others, spending can give pleasure. Sadly, for shopaholics — people who spend compulsively despite the consequences — money can be a source of pain, distress and insecurity.

“If money was tight as a child, you may have a scarcity mindset,” says Patrick Durst, a certified financial planner (CFP) at LifeMark Securities Corp. in Centennial, Colorado. “You save every penny and never spend.” Perhaps you could learn to enjoy yourself more if you’re over 50 or already retired and have worked hard all your life.

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Your partner, on the other hand, may be spender or a spendthrift, or someone who enjoys the occasional extravagance. Tess Zigo, a CFP at Emerge Wealth Strategies in Palm Harbor, Florida, says that she and her husband strike a good balance. She’s a saver, and her husband encourages her to spend to enjoy life now—proof that couples can compromise and work through their money issues. 

The results of a study published in March in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions indicate that compulsive shopping increased in 2020, during the first six months of the COVID-19 outbreak. The researchers also point out that compulsive shoppers often “have unmanageable amounts of debt, which create economic and emotional problems for themselves and for their families.”

Like alcoholism or drug addiction, compulsive shopping can be a very serious condition, says Lamar Brabham, CEO and founder of the Noel Taylor Agency, a financial services firm in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “If you or your spouse find yourself in debt without the fortitude to control your spending, ask for help. You can recover.” Read the following to learn more.

1. A long-recognized issue

For the record, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not officially classify as a disorder shopping addiction, also known as compulsive buying disorder (CBD) or “oniomania.” However, the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin first identified it as a problem long ago—in the early 1900s.

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Many experts acknowledge it. A 2007 review of compulsive buying disorder published in World Psychiatry points out that the problem is associated with mood, anxiety, substance use, eating or other disorders of impulse control. It tends to run in families with these disorders.

2. Why some shoppers can’t stop

According to an article published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2016, compulsive buyers make purchases to improve their mood, cope with stress, gain social approval or recognition, and improve their self-image. Instead, they often feel regret, remorse, shame or guilt, and find themselves in financial trouble and in conflict with loved ones. Despite these issues, they shop more.

In 2006, the British researcher Helga Dittmar, a professor of social and applied psychology at the University of Sussex, said that two factors may put people at risk: “highly materialistic values and poor self-image.” Some people view accumulating things as a path to self-improvement.​

3. Both men and women are susceptible

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The World Psychiatry review also indicates that the problem can be found across the globe and affects nearly 6 percent of Americans. It’s especially prevalent during the holidays, which many people find emotionally difficult and when there’s a tremendous push to buy online and in stores.

While most of the research has been centered on women, men are at risk, too. Often referred to as “collectors,” they can get hooked on auctions for tools, gadgets, tech equipment and cameras. Women tend to go for clothes, jewelry, makeup, and home and craft goods.

4. Look for these telltale signs

Is your spouse a serious shopaholic? The following may indicate a major issue that requires attention.

  • Whenever your partner feels down, they browse e-commerce sites for hours, even in the middle of the night.
  • They go to the grocery store “for a few things” but come home with bags of stuff you don’t need.
  • There’s a closet full of unworn clothes with the tags still on them. Or, you find that your partner has lied to you and hidden stashes of clothes or cameras.
  • The bills come due, and they can’t pay the minimums on their maxed-out credit cards.

Zigo had a client who found out that his wife was addicted to buying supplies for arts and crafts projects. “She racked up about 40K in credit card debt. They underwent debt consolidation, cut up the credit cards and spent only their cash allowances,” she says.

5. Your responsibility—and where it ends

As a spouse, are you on the hook for those bills? The answer depends on whether you live in a community property or equitable distribution state.

In the District of Columbia and the 41 states that adhere to common law property rules, debts are owed by both spouses — but only if the money was spent for joint purchases, or for food, clothing, shelter or other necessities that benefited the marriage. Still, you and your spouse may be liable if both of you signed a contract requiring you to make the payments. In these states, your spouse’s creditors could go after your income, property or joint property, if the debt was incurred for joint purchases or necessities.

What’s more, in some common law states, a creditor could also go after your joint property to pay the debts incurred separately by your spouse, even if the funds were not spent for necessities. In most states, however, the creditor could take just half of the money in your joint account.

Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin are community property states. Debts undertaken while you’re married — no matter who incurs them — are considered community property. If you’re concerned, consult a lawyer about the specific laws in your state.

6. Remedies to explore

Where can you find help? Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program, offers in-person meetings around the country, though you’ll want to inquire how COVID-19 is affecting them. In addition, people share their experiences via social media. Private Facebook groups include Shopping Addiction Recovery & Support, Shopping Addiction Support, and Shopaholics Anonymous.

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With your partner’s consent, invite an objective third party to hear both sides and get to the root of the problem, perhaps a marital therapist, a financial planner or a financial therapist. A financial planner or adviser can help you set realistic financial goals. A financial therapist will combine these skills with therapeutic expertise. The Financial Planning Association and the Financial Therapy Association offer tools for finding qualified practitioners in your area.

When Ron Tallou, a financial advisor at Tallou Financial Services in Troy, Michigan, sees compulsive spending among his clients, he suggests these steps: Make a list before shopping and stick to it; get rid of credit cards and their high spending limits; delete online shopping and social media accounts that trigger spending; and get rid of enablers.

What’s an enabler? A friend who encourages your partner to spend at an expensive restaurant, store or online. “When certain people or things cause problems, they need to be eliminated. It’s in your best interest,” he says.

Patricia Amend has been a lifestyle writer and editor for 30 years. She was a staff writer at Inc. magazine; a reporter at the Fidelity Publishing Group; and a senior editor at Published Image, a financial education company that was acquired by Standard & Poor’s.

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