A Lousy Time to be a Shopaholic

What does a shopping addict do in a recession? Well, shop. Some tips to get your addiction under control.

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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.

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.

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.