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Are You a Compulsive Shopper? Here’s How to Spot it and Stop it

Do you get a “high” from shopping? Or are you in debt up to your eyeballs? Shopping addiction is no joke — but it’s possible to quit compulsive shopping. Get the resources you need.


Black Friday can result in overdoing it a bit.Like a 500-foot inflatable Santa chucking gadget-filled, diamond-trimmed stockings to all good little iBoys and iGirls, Black Friday is nearly here.

So, should I be psyched? I’m not.

Actually I’m worried, though this has nothing to do with landing ideal Christmas gifts for my wife and kids. Here’s why.

Some people reading this will fight a losing battle to keep spending in check this season. Look around: That compulsive shopper could sit as close as the next office cubicle. Maybe it’s your neighbor. Or your sweetie. Or you … and if so, you’re probably either overridden with guilt, or too busy shopping to notice.

Make no mistake: We live in a nation and time that celebrates compulsive shopping as a happy sort of addiction-pastime, with phrases like “retail therapy.” Yet compulsive shopping, so easy to spot, remains hard to stop — as it takes all your great financial potential and shoves it off a cliff. Before you whip out a single credit card this holiday, it pays to know the critical warning signs and ways to get help to quit compulsive shopping.

Warning signs: The Valence test, Debtors Anonymous quiz  

This downloadable questionnaire developed by psychologist Gilles Valence takes about 10 minutes to complete. It consists of 13 statements such as “There are times when I have a strong urge to buy,” and “For me, shopping is a way of facing the stress of my daily life and relaxing.” For each, you select a score from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Then you add the numbers to tally a cumulative score; if it totals 42 or higher, then you fit the category of compulsive buyer.

Debtors Anonymous, based on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous model, also has a compulsive shopping quiz you can take. It contains 15 questions, though many are financial in nature. These include, “Do you usually expect a negative response when you are subject to a credit investigation?” and “Have you ever given false information in order to obtain credit?” Answering yes to eight or more of these questions means you have a problem with compulsive debt, or are well on your way to one.

Although a shopping addiction and compulsive debt are indeed two separate things, they also represent two sides of the same coin. Compulsive shopping inevitably leads to debt, and debt not treated as a red flag only grows with a glut of binge purchases.

How to get help

You don’t have to necessarily take a test to tell you the obvious. Look for signs like these: You get a “high” from shopping or use it or kill time, or have a closet full of new items that all still have the price tags on them.

Maybe you, as I once did, buy to collect every variant of a particular fashion item, such as Chuck Taylor Converse shoes. Or if you’re using one credit balance to pay off another, and your dog paddling has nothing to do with losing a job or an unanticipated financial hit, you may want to look over the last six months of statements for a shopaholic reality check.

If any of this points to spending run amok, here’s the first thing not to do: beat yourself up. For starters, it might just lead to another shopping binge to make yourself feel better. What’s more, your behavior could have genetic and biological roots that manifest as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Debtors Anonymous has resources to find a DA meeting in your area, and Dr. April Benson has emerged as leader in the field of treatment with her Shopaholic No More website and blog. She’s based in Manhattan, so if you live or near there, you can take advantage of her resources in person.

And as brain science moves forward, more compulsive shoppers will help themselves, thanks to breakthroughs in the study of neuroplasticity. As Dr. Norman Doige writes on his bestselling book “The Brain That Changes Itself,” “neurons that fire together wire together; neurons that fire apart wire apart.” So when a shopaholic learns to spot a trigger — feelings of stress, euphoria or boredom — they can unwire the shopping behavior that would normally follow by substituting something else pleasurable, from a pickup game of hoops to strumming a guitar. This creates new neural pathways and erodes the stubborn ones that link obsessive thoughts to compulsive actions.

If you see signs of compulsive shopping in your friends or loved ones, gather your courage and speak up, or share this piece. If you see it in yourself, here’s to taking that first bold step off the crazy consumption merry-go-round.

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About Lou Carlozo

Based in Chicago, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters Money, a columnist with DealNews.com, and a former managing editor at AOL's WalletPop.com. Contact him with story ideas for Money Under 30 at feedbacker@aol.com, or follow him via LinkedIn and Twitter (@LouCarlozo63).