In the opening scene of Touchstone Pictures Confessions of a Shopaholic, financial journalist Rebecca Bloomwood has a flashback to an event in her childhood in which she is shopping for shoes with her mother. Her extremely frugal mom buys her what could only be described as a horrific-looking pair of shoes because they were on sale.

Some of Rebecca’s friends are also in the shoe store. They laugh and poke fun at her as they eye hip and expensive kicks. Fast forward to Rebecca the young adult. She has developed a full-fledged shopping addiction. She buys the latest fashions and designer duds at the expense of her financial well-being.

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The temporary high she gets from shopping makes it all worth it—the hiding from creditors, the credit card dance. The devil (no doubt wearing Prada) may care! That insecure little child who was picked on by her friends is long forgotten. She feels good when she shops. She feels free.

As a real-life financial journalist, I was happy to see that the creators of this movie got it right in its portrayal of spending addictions. There is a lot more to shopaholics than “silly female behavior” or the everyday pressures to fit in and survive.

In addition, a trip to the local mall these days is akin to dropping a chocoholic into a chocolate factory. Everything is on sale as struggling retailers pull out all of the stops to tempt shoppers into making purchases. This is often too much temptation for the most well-meaning shopaholic to pass up—a potential financial disaster as credit card companies charge the highest fees in history for late payments and lenders scrutinize spending habits more than ever before they approve loans.

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Still, logic is not always within a shopaholic’s grasp. When I saw Confessions of a Shopaholic, I couldn’t help but recall a couple I once wrote about who were on the edge of divorce because of the wife’s spending. She had racked up tens of thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt. She had taken away the family’s financial security, and her husband found this unforgivable.

They went to a counselor who was wise enough to look past the numbers to find the real cause of the problem. Like Rebecca, this woman was teased by her classmates when she was growing up because she often wore secondhand or homemade clothes. She had no idea how much her vow to “One day have nice things like the special people” held true in her adult behavior. She had no idea that she was subconsciously making the link between having “nice” things and being a worthwhile human being.

Once she saw what was really going on, she had a new tool to fight that urge to splurge. The desire was not going to go away, but now she could call it what it really was—a little girl acting out, trying too hard to feel like she mattered.

Addictive spending is a complicated issue that has very little to do with money. It is estimated that as many as 17 million Americans can't control the urge to shop, despite the damage it does to marriages, families and finances.

If your credit cards are constantly at their limits and you are hiding from creditors, you are living beyond your means. If you don’t get a handle on what’s really going on and get the help you need, this pattern will be the norm for the rest of your life. Here are some tips to get you moving in the right direction.

Overspenders vs. Shopaholics

Overspending is the result of influences that we are not always aware of: You may not realize that you, too, are trying to “Keep up with the Joneses” or “Buy your kids what Company X says makes you a good parent.” When you make an overspender aware of some of these issues, however, they tend to have an “aha” moment and can make different choices. Shopaholics are more driven by the rush of shopping. They are aware that they don’t need a V-neck sweater in every color, but they buy it anyway because of how it makes them feel.

If You’re Not Sure if You Have a Problem…

Pay attention to the feelings that come up when you are thinking about spending. If you get anxious or need to justify the expense, feel that. It’s a sign. The key is to not act when you’re in that space. If you still have trouble controlling those urges, there are places you can go to for help.

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In addition, imagine your ideal life. What’s really important to you? Does your spending reflect who you really are and what really matters to you? Always ask yourself these three questions before you spend: Can I afford this? Is this in line with my goals? If not, why am I doing it?

You have to create the financial, emotional and even physical environment to make those goals a reality. If you want to save money to help your child go to college, for example, put a picture of him in your wallet where your credit card is. Have money automatically taken out of your paycheck and put into a college fund. Goals provide the motivation to stick to a spending plan. If they don’t, you need to take a harder look at what’s going on.

If You Think You Need Help…

Debtors Anonymous is a great resource. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling can also help you get on the path to financial well-being.

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There are also a growing number of life planners who take client’s beliefs and attitudes about money into consideration when they create their financial plans. You can research them on the Web.

In addition, ask a friend for help. Tell someone you trust that you want to change your spending habits. Call them when that urge to splurge comes up.

Most important, remember that we all have complex issues at work in our finances that have nothing to do with money. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Find out what’s really going on, and you will make the changes you desire.

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In Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rebecca Bloomwood had to lose her job and her man before she got the help she really needed. The woman I mentioned who almost lost her husband also had to hit rock bottom. Be honest with yourself and get the help you need before things go that far.

Stacey Tisdale is a veteran on-air financial journalist. She's the author of "The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money." She is also a board member of nonprofit financial literacy organization, Operation HOPE.