It's no secret to longtime readers that back in college I had a shopping addiction so large, that I ended up with $10,000 in credit card debt by age 21. Even though I was young, how did I decide I had a compulsive shopping disorder and how did I get over it? How was I able to distinguish a bad behavior from a simple tendency to overspend or a mild shopping habit?
It was a one-two punch of working with a licensed therapist to discover the root of my issue and identifying my spending triggers. Once my work with her was complete, I had the tough task of actually sticking to my training and what I learned. Below are anecdotes from my own battle with a shopping addiction and how I'm able to live my life now, some 10 years later.
What is a shopping addiction?
A shopping disorder description from the Cleveland Clinic includes preoccupation with and difficulty resisting buying unneeded items; spending a lot of time doing research on items that may or may not be needed; financial difficulties because of uncontrolled shopping; and problems at work, school or home because of spending that's gotten out of hand.
How my own shopping addiction began
I know that for me my little “habit” started out with shopping before and after my shifts at my mall job and spending close to $200 a week on clothes. That was an average. I took some breaks, but I remember a large part of the leisure time of my youth spent shopping at the mall.
Depending on your income, you may not blink an eye at that number. But if you add the numbers up, when I was 19 years old I spent close to $800 a MONTH on clothes, or $9,600 a year. Ridiculous. I don't spend that now as a working adult; all told, I spend about $2k annually on clothes for me and my son (plus dry cleaning and tailoring expenses in there, too) which is about 2% of my six figure salary.
When I knew I had a problem
During the first two years of college, I worked in a retail clothing store (remember those?), so it didn't seem too out of the ordinary that I was shopping a lot. Working at the mall, I was constantly surrounded by beautiful clothes.
After I transferred to another school in 2007 and started working in a doctor's office, I spent considerably less time at the mall. But by 2007, online shopping had become “the thing,” and I spent countless hours of my downtime scouring websites for the next great deal. Hello, online shopping addiction!
I remember one week I had $30 left to last until my next payday, and instead of buying groceries (which I desperately needed), I bought the UGLIEST purse while out shopping with a friend because I felt like I absolutely had to buy something before I left the store. Said ugly purse came home with me because I convinced myself I loved it, and it never left the back of my closet after that day.
But I think the shift from fun, happy-go-lucky shopping trips to the “this behavior may be a problem” thoughts occurred when I was out shopping same-as-always, but I realized I was returning a large portion of my items often days or weeks later.
I call this buy-and-return behavior shopping bulimia.
And maybe that's crass, but it's what this behavioral addiction reminds me of. Indulging, then purging. Feeling the high, then bringing it back in line.
What is Shopping Bulimia?
Shopping bulimia is the term I coined for the behavior of buying/shopping and then returning. And this is a bit different than the run-of-the-mill returns that happen when you order something in multiple sizes online and return what no longer suits.
Shopping bulimia happens when you buy things (typically with money you don't have or shouldn't be spending) and then return them because you can't afford them. You can tell it is happening when you're shopping out of habit. For me, back then, purchases weren't bringing the same joy as they used to, and I knew this…but I just couldn't stop shopping. It felt too good.
In the coming weeks, I'd look at that purse and think, “Why did I do that?” and feel a bit of shame. This is when I knew I had a problem with compulsive shopping and that I needed to do something to stop.
What's so wrong with shopping and then returning?
Some people argue that shopping bulimia isn't really all that bad. After all, you're getting your money back, right? (That is IF you end up returning the items and they give you the cash back instead of store credit or something.)
But the fact of the matter is that even if you return the items, the desire to purchase impulsively and overspend is still alive and well in your heart.
And one day, that urge will meet its favorite kissing cousin, low willpower.
You'll be out shopping after a bad day, or you'll be tired or bored (or both) or mulling over something someone said that upset you, and suddenly you're taking home a bunch of stuff you don't need and USING IT, even though you never wanted it in the first place.
And even if you return the bulk of the items and keep only the ones you love… those little purchases add up over time, and suddenly you are swimming in a sea of credit card debt.
Other signs of a shopping addiction
Consistently spending more than you can afford
If you can't pay your bills and still continue to make purchases, this symptom is probably the biggest clue that (a) you have a shopping problem, (b) you can't afford your lifestyle, and (c) you aren't living your best life.
I'm no expert, but for me, shopping addiction = buying and then returning items more than once a week.
I could give two flying squirrels if you bought it on sale or “got a really good deal.”
We all love a good deal. But shopping isn't truly satisfying unless you're bringing items home, using them and mindfully enjoying how you spend the money.
Sure, maybe you bought something and then at home didn't like the way it looked or realized you didn't have anything in your closet to wear it with. That's OK.
It's a consistent pattern of behavior we're on the lookout for!
A closet full of clothes (or closet full of tech gadgets…pick your poison), still unused with the tags on
This sign indicates that you're not even using what you buy and that you'll end up giving away a lot of stuff you don't need.
A tendency to “shop your feelings”
This is a biggie for me. I still have to make sure I'm not shopping too much when stressed out. Online shopping makes it too easy to comfort yourself with a purchase.
But my point here is that if you find yourself exclusively shopping or making significant purchases when you've had a bad day, are upset about something or have other negative emotions, it's probably worth it to pay attention to that behavior and figure out other ways to heal yourself emotionally.
This is why knowing your spending triggers is key: through my work with a therapist, I realized I spent the most when I was feeling sad or a little blue because having something shiny and new was a great way to dispel those feelings. Nowadays, I avoid computers, stores, etc. like the plague when I'm feeling sad.
When I've had a bad day, I try to spend more time offline so I avoid “shopping my emotions” in order to comfort myself.
I remember when I was younger feeling that I didn't have much to be proud of, which is why I started shopping- to make myself feel better.
Lots of credit card debt, and you don't know how you got there
There's a difference between having a real emergency, not having an emergency fund and having to put those expenses on a credit card. But if you wake up one morning and find yourself in thousands of dollars of debt and genuinely can't recall how/the moment you got there…it's probably time to acknowledge that you may have a shopping addiction.
You can take a look in your closet at all your beautiful things, but I promise that once you're in a big debt hole, it will not feel like you got your money's worth.
How to stop a shopping addiction
All hope is not lost, and you can learn how to stop shopping addiction. Here's what I did.
Shopping addiction therapy
- I sought out the help of a therapist for my compulsive shopping, and together we began to explore my range of feelings, from everything that was really bothering me to passing annoyances.
- One of my assignments was to keep a journal of those feelings and what I did in the moments after those feelings came over me.
- Armed with this knowledge, we then began to craft a certain set of spending triggers and behaviors that I live by even still and find very useful for others with spending/shopping issues.
Figure out what kind of shopper you are.
Gretchen Rubin covers this theory in her book, The Happiness Project. In the chapter on money, she writes that people usually fall into one of two camps: the under-buyers and the over-buyers. People either buy so much so they never run out, or they don't buy enough.
For example: I'll splurge in cash on a last-minute vacation somewhere, but I barely have enough socks. And my bras…well, let's just say they're past the expiration date.
- Me: No bras and socks (under-buyer)
- My husband, Rich: Always with five backup tubes of toothpaste (textbook over-buyer)
While over-buyers can run the risk of overspending on unnecessary items, under-buying items that you technically “need” is actually pretty unhealthy, too. No matter how much it saves you.
In the book, Rubin posits that if I have all of my basic needs met (read: bras and socks), I'll feel less likely to splurge on something impulsive.
And let's face it: Only owning five pairs of socks can make you feel poor no matter how much money you make. Especially if they all have holes.
But having 15 brand-new pairs of socks (purchased for a scant $7.99 for the pack at Walmart, thank-you-very-much) is a way to feel incredibly wealthy because you're providing for yourself. Self-care! It feels good!
I've had great success in flipping my shopping addiction on its head using this theory.
Instead of buying what I want, I go in search of making sure I have all my needs met first. So before I buy an exquisite new summer dress, I make sure I have replacement yoga pants first.
And you know what, I feel like a freaking adult when I do this, so hopefully it can work for you, too.
Don't hang out in stores – periodt
Alcoholics don't hang out in bars. Shopaholics shouldn't hang out in shopping centers. If you want to know how to stop shopping addiction, you have to realize that people with shopping problems shouldn't hang out in stores or malls “just to kill time” or “to pass an afternoon.” I may indulge in a little “mindless” shopping every now and again, mostly on vacation, but I rarely go to any store without thinking about what I need to buy first.
I go in, I get out, and I get on with my life. Otherwise, there could be negative consequences for a former compulsive shopper.
Avoid flash sale ads.
These are my kryptonite. I use a great service called Unroll.me to roll up all of the emails in my inbox. They go into a digest that I do skim once a day. But without the flashy subject lines nagging me from the top of my Gmail folder, I haven't indulged in a flash sale in years.
Here's a great article from Psychology Today on the “why” behind flash sales that may help you make sense of the urge, if you find this is something you struggle with.
Actually…just avoid sales in general.
I realize this may be anathema to others in the personal finance community who pride themselves on getting good bargains, and for some who are in control of their spending urges, this can be a great way to save a dollar or two. I'm not knocking it.
But the psychology behind sales is to get customers in the door to spend more money than they would in the first place. For this purpose, I practice mindful spending, look for a deal when I'm going to buy, and I ONLY buy that item.
Also, between Christmas in July, Prime Day, Nordstrom Anniversary Sale, Black Friday, etc. etc. There's always a fucking sale these days. Come on, be smarter.
Channel any negative feelings into something besides your shopping addiction.
At my therapist's suggestion, I decided to give theater another go, and I ended up getting cast in a show that spring. Suddenly, between class, work and rehearsal, I had very little free time to shop. Funny how that works! Now I do yoga, run this blog and tackle DIY projects around the house in my spare time.
When you're learning how to stop shopping addiction and you feel like the urge to splurge is going to kill you, here are five other ways to spend your time that will actually nurture your finances rather than hurt them:
- Check your credit.
- Categorize your expenses in an online budgeting app (I like Trim)
- Do a purge of your closet and get rid of the things you don't need.
- Look into starting a side hustle, so you can earn money to treat yourself instead of putting the treat on a credit card.
- Got credit card debt? Research ways to lower interest.
Make a list
Every season when I am in the process of replenishing my closet, I go through and make a list of the things I am missing and truly need (tights this season and a new pair of black pumps because I wore out my old ones, etc.). Keeping this list on hand (I use the Trello app) ensures I only go to the store when I have to (as opposed to one Saturday afternoon when I am looking to kill time) and that I only spend my money where I need it most.
It also helps ensure I don't leave the store with my the fifteenth rain jacket or nineteenth pair of yoga pants. (YOU HAVE ENOUGH YOGA PANTS, LAUREN!)
I keep a “one in, one out” rule for my home. I did a purge over the summer and got rid of a TON of stuff (226 items, in fact) that had crept into the corners and crevices of my home. You don't need a lot of “stuff.” I've never met anyone who tried living with less and was like, “You know what? This just isn't for me.”
Remember: “If you must go in the store, wear out the floor.”
This worked better in clothing stores, you know, back when people went to stores. But when I am “in store,” I do several, and I do mean SEVERAL, laps around a store with my items in tow before I make it to the register.
Eventually, I get tired and/or hungry and leave the store without waiting in the checkout line. Or if I do make it to the register, it means I really, really wanted the item.
24 hours in the cart rule
Here's the best tip for how to stop shopping addiction: When it comes to online purchases, I usually put them in my cart and then walk away without buying. Then I'll sleep on it. If the item is just so perfect I can't stop thinking about it after a day or two, I know it will be a good use of my money in the long run.
If I quickly forget the item, then I know it isn't worth the time or the money.
But the good news is that you CAN learn how to stop shopping addiction. It just takes some dedicated effort.
I won't lie to you: At least for me, the urge never really goes away, particularly during times of change or extreme stress. Instead, I've had to learn my “triggers” and how to manage them in order to stay out of debt. I did this through work with a licensed therapist. If you suspect you really, truly have a deep-rooted problem, you should seek help from a professional.
This post was written in 2015, and over the years (I'm updating this right now in 2022), I have received hundreds of emails from others struggling with an addiction to shopping. I hope my account and tips are helpful.
Honestly, I had low self-esteem as a young woman, and shopping (for better and for worse) feels really good. I'm not denying that. But I'm in a much better place now, both emotionally and financially because I took the time to learn more about myself and get a handle on my spending.
Also, the “how to stop shopping addiction” tips above can help, but nothing beats talking with a mental health professional to diagnose your shopping addiction. But is the cost keeping you away? Investigate therapy resources with Talkspace. FBL readers can take $100 off with code SPACE. Click here to learn more.
Lauren Bowling is the creator of Financial Best Life. Writing about money since 2012 (formerly as L Bee and the Money Tree), Bowling is an award-winning blogger and money and real estate expert whose advice has been featured on CNBC, Forbes, CNNMoney, Elite Daily, Business Insider, Redbook, and Woman’s Day Magazine and more. After selling the site to a division of The Motley Fool in 2019, Bowling is now back as the owner and primary voice behind FBL and is excited to continue educating elder millennials everywhere about how to afford their best life.